Most situations at work can be considered from the perspective of — is this a known problem or not? If it’s known, then the answer can be looked up or the best person can be found to deal with it. The answer may even have been automated or outsourced. Known problems require access to the right information to solve them. This information can be mapped, and frameworks such as knowledge management help us to map it. We can also create tools, especially performance support systems to do the work and not have to learn all the background knowledge in order to accomplish the task. This is how complicated knowledge continuously gets automated.
But if it’s a new problem or an exception, then the worker has to deal with it in a unique way. The main job of most knowledge workers is to solve problems and deal with exceptions. Exception-handling is becoming more important in the networked workplace. While software can handle the routine stuff, people — usually working together — are needed to deal with the exceptions. Exceptions require cooperation and collaboration 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.
- Narration of Work
- 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 tools — increasing speed of access to knowledge. Social tools, like enterprise social networks, enable us to be transparent in our work. But transparency is not enough. Each knowledge worker must also narrate their 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 can help organizational learning. We can see the the narration of work in small bits that over time become a flow and later patterns emerge. Humans are very good at pattern recognition.
Exception handling is complex work, which requires sensemaking, curiosity, and initiative. These soft skills 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 may become tomorrow’s merely complicated or even simple work. In addition, with complex work, failure has to be tolerated, as there are no best practices for exceptions. Narrating work also means taking ownership of mistakes. Transparency helps the whole organization learn from mistakes.
Finally, power in the organization must be distributed. Distributed power enables faster reaction times as those closest to the situation can take action. In complex situations there is no time to commission a detailed analysis. Those best able to address the situation have often marinated in the complex system for some time. They couldn’t sufficiently explain it to someone removed from the problem if they wanted to. This shared power is enabled by trust. Power in knowledge-based organizations must be distributed in order to nurture trust.
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. Most complicated work has been or will be 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 where more workers are knowledge artisans.