exception handling is complex work

How is work different in a networked economy? We know that a lot of traditional work is constantly getting automated, from bank tellers, to lawyers to stock brokers. We also know that any work that can be outsourced will go to the place of cheapest labour, wherever that may be. The main reason behind this is the inter-connectivity of the Internet. I can easily find freelancers or software as a service to take care of my more routine tasks. Organizations do this all the time.

Known Problems

Let’s look at a knowledge worker and how things can get done in such an interconnected environment. Any situation can first be looked at from the perspective of, is this a known problem or not? If it’s known, then the answer can be looked up or the correct person found to deal with it. That answer may have been automated or even outsourced.

Known problems require access to the right information to solve them. This information can be mapped, and frameworks such as knowledge management (KM) help us to map it. We can also create tools, especially electronic performance support systems (EPSS) to do work and not have to learn all the background knowledge in order to accomplish the task. This is how simple and complicated knowledge continuously gets automated.


But if it’s a new problem or an exception, then the knowledge worker has to deal with it in a unique way. This is why we hire knowledge workers, to deal with exceptions. Complex, new problems need tacit knowledge to solve them. Exception-handling is becoming more important in the networked workplace. While the system handles the routine stuff, people, usually working together, deal with the exceptions. Exceptions require collaborative approaches to solve.

Once an exception is dealt with, it is no longer new. It is now known. As exceptions get addressed, some or all of the solution can get automated, and so the process evolves.

The challenge for organizational design is to make it easy to move new problems into the knowable space. This is where three principles of net work come into play:

  1. Transparency
  2. Narration of Work [AKA working out loud]
  3. Distribution of power

We cannot know what is known unless the organization, and the entire business ecosystem are transparent. We need to be able find things fast, which is the main benefit of using social media: increasing speed of access to knowledge. Social media enable us to be transparent in our work but transparency is not enough. Each knowledge worker must also narrate his or her own work. For example, just adding finished reports to a knowledge base does not help others understand how that report was developed. This is where activity streams and micro-blogging have helped organizational learning. We see the flow of sense-making in small bits that over time become a flow and later patterns emerge. We humans are very good at pattern recognition.

Exception handling is complex work, which requires passion, creativity and initiative. These cannot be commoditized. This is where the main value of the networked business is created. It’s a constantly moving sweet spot. Today’s complex work is tomorrow’s merely complicated or even simple work. But with complex work, failure has to be tolerated, as there are no best practices for exceptions (that’s why they’re called exceptions). Narrating work also means taking ownership of mistakes. Transparency helps the organization learn from mistakes.

Finally, power in the organization must be distributed. Distributed power enables faster reaction time so those closest to the situation can take action. In complex situations there is no time to write a detailed assessment. Those best able to address the situation have marinated in it for some time. They couldn’t sufficiently explain it to someone removed from the problem if they wanted to anyway. This shared power is enabled by trust. Power in knowledge-based organizations must be distributed in order to nurture trust. “One of the big challenges for companies is that unlike information or data flows, knowledge does not flow easily – as it relies on long-term trust-based relationships.”John Hagel

Power-sharing and transparency enable work to move out to the edges and away from the comfortable, complicated work that has been the corporate mainstay for decades.  There’s nothing left in the safe inner rings anyway, as it’s being automated and outsourced.

The high-value work today is in facing complexity, not in addressing problems that have already been solved and for which a formulaic or standardized response has been developed. One challenge for organizations is getting people to realize that what they already know has increasingly diminishing value. How to solve problems together is becoming the real business advantage.
new known

13 thoughts on “exception handling is complex work”

  1. Hi Harold,

    This is a very good essay and I would like to share it with my friends in Facebook. However, I don’t know exactly what to do in order not to violate your CC license. Could you kindly advise?

    Raymond Ng

    • I like #19, Peter, “NOT the wise application of these rules but the finding of the specific exceptions to these, is the real high art of problem solving.” Thanks!

  2. Harold: You quietly made an outstanding observation that needs to ge amplified: Most organizations are designed to effectively and efficiently do routine work. Bolstering organizational capabilities to successfully deal with process and policy exceptions is the big opportunity for Enterprise 2.0, IMO.

  3. Harold: You quietly made an outstanding observation that needs to ge amplified: Most organizations are designed to effectively and efficiently do routine work. Bolstering organizational capabilities to successfully deal with process and policy exceptions is the big opportunity for Enterprise 2.0, IMO.

    That’s the brass ring !

    Process & policy exceptions are also ( I believe) a great place for seemingly-serendiptous innovation in a product or service.

  4. Hi Harold,
    Clear / fun / good massages. I think you need to reference Snowdens’ Cynefin framework using the same categories addressing problems.
    Best, Jaap

    • I have often cited Dave’s work. It was not cited on this specific post because this categorization is now common on my blog and I did not refer to Cynefin explicitly. I use the basic categorization of simple/complicated/complex regularly. If I cited the source of every idea, on every post, it would be extremely boring to read. Welcome to my blog, Jaap.

  5. One could compare business to a minefield where each mine could go off an infinite amount of times. There’s nothing stopping a business to make the same mistakes one project after another, i.e. stepping on the same mine over and over.

    However, it doesn’t make sense to do that since the business should just put up a warning flag where a mine have blown. “Don’t step HERE! It will cost you…” Too many business are staring at the horizon on a goal/target and carries on not really documenting where they have stepped because it’s the result that counts and not how you got there.

    This far I’m all with you Harold! But there’s one problem with your argument. Even if something IS known, like a location of a mine, i.e. a known problem simple or complex, the problem might still be that people don’t UNDERSTAND it. If you only have step-by-step guides for trouble-shooting, let’s say your car, and something doesn’t really fits the description – the guys doing the fixing wouldn’t be able to pull through since they have been taught/told “Search the database! If it has been solved before – it is described there!”

    I wouldn’t want to take my car for repair to someone I knew only followed step-by-step guides and I’d REALLY not want to have them fix my multi-million hospital machine, pharmaceutical device or sterilizer.

    When someone’s life is at stake – you can’t leave it to knowledge management and/or databases. You must have a multileveled documentation – from pdf:s to videos and “trial/error on a real machine”.

    Vänliga hälsningar / Best regards,

    Henrik Svensson

  6. Pingback: Getting to Social

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