The Essence of Knowledge Work, Part 3

Knowledge workers take in information, process it by applying their knowledge to it, and output information (possibly) in a different format than they received it. You, like many other knowledge workers, produce your output artifacts by applying knowledge to the input you receive. Your knowledge includes everything you know and the input you receive from all possible sources, too. There are three dimensions to the information needs that each knowledge worker has:

  1. Dependencies (who needs your output and who provides you input)
  2. Information artifacts and their format
  3. Timeline for artifact delivery (time frame)

This is the last part of a three part series. Part 1 tackled dependencies. Part 2 looked at information artifacts. The focus of this article is the timeline for artifact delivery.

Life and business runs on commitments. A commitment includes the artifact that you deliver, a timeline on which you will deliver it, reporting on the progress of creating the artifact, and reporting on the final delivery. Businesses small and large run on commitments. Teams run on mini and micro commitments that team members make to each other. You must go to great lengths to meet a commitment you made to a teammate. When you realize that you cannot meet the commitment you made, then you must go immediately to the teammate and renegotiate the commitment.

Sometime this timeline is constrained by needs, contracts, or events beyond your or your colleagues’ control. This agreement is often derived from external commitments that the team made. While many times people would prefer to plan forward, most often you must plan backwards from the commitment date. See: Brief Introduction to Personal Planning for details.

For example, if the code needs to be tested before it can be shipped, and the testing team needs a day to test, and the deadline is COB Friday, then the developers must deliver the code no later than Thursday so that testing has enough time to test. If you factor in the possibility that testing might find a few defects, then maybe the code should be delivered on Wednesday, so that the team has a day to find and fix those defects.

It helps if you think of yourself as “Me, Inc.” and imagine that your colleagues that need to receive your output are your clients. The colleagues that deliver to you their output are your suppliers. You want to treat both your clients and suppliers well. (If you’d run your own business, you’d not make your clients wait or give something that they can’t use, because you’d not be in business for long.)

At times you might be upset that a “supplier” promised something that you need that has not arrived when you needed it. Give them the benefit of the doubt and go talk to them. If they have always delivered before then you should ask “What might be going on with them? What might hold them up?” Maybe they are trying their best, but something is not working, or maybe you just asked for something outside of their areas of competence. Ultimately, you will be more successful if you work with them and help them be successful so that they in turn can help you be successful.

Your value-add. The difference between what you get and what you provide is your value add. This is what your business (Me, Inc.) is providing to its clients. This has to be big enough for you to stay in business. Once or twice a year examine the value-add that you provide and validate that you are still providing a market competitive value in the domain that you are working.

At least once a year audit and measure your productivity. Think of ways to improve it, so that you can provide the same value in less time, or more value in the same time. A productivity improvement of about 2-5% is expected of you in most jobs. Consider that after a while, the only way that you can improve your productivity if you radically rethink not only your work, but possibly the entire work process in which you participate.

Allow time for learning. When you first start defining the artifacts and committing to timelines, make sure that your commitment timelines include time for learning. Keep in mind that nothing that you do for the first time works as you want it to work (true for all of us). Don’t be too hard on yourself. Give yourself a few months to get better at identifying your clients, identifying their needs, and negotiating the format and timeline of the artifacts. With diligent observation of your performance you will get better and better at delivering your work in a way that others will be able to use and appreciate. In turn, your suppliers will also get you what you need.

In Summary

The essence of knowledge work is the realization that knowledge workers must produce an output by applying their knowledge to the input they receive. The output must be in form of an artifact that some other knowledge workers can consume as their input. Understanding this is both empowering and practical. It will help you get better at what you do.

Start by asking who is relying on you and your output to get their work done. Are they getting what they need? Then figure out what do you need and from whom? You are processing information by applying the knowledge and experience you have to the input you receive. Your output must be in a format that your consumers can effectively consume. You must deliver on a timeframe that they expect so they can deliver on their commitments.

The work processes that tie the members of your team together into a sequence of people who deliver their output to one of their peers creates an information supply chain in your organization. A well thought out and executed information supply chain is a key ingredient of successful teamwork, and in turn key to successful organizations.

Enjoy the journey!