working smarter

For the past several centuries we have used human labour to do what machines cannot. First the machines caught up with us and surpassed humans with their brute force. Now they are surpassing us with their brute intelligence. There is not much more need for machine-like human work which is routine, standardized, or brute. But certain long-term skills can help us connect with our fellow humans in order to learn and innovate — curiosity, sense-making, cooperation, and novel thinking.

Automation of routine and standardized work is forcing people to do more non-routine manual and cognitive work. If any piece of work can be mapped and analyzed, it will be automated. As non-routine work becomes the norm, work environments will have to become open, transparent, and diverse because trust is essential to ensure that knowledge flows. Finding the right information is only part of the challenge of non-standardized work. Sharing complex knowledge requires trusted relationships. People have to trust each other before sharing and only then can they work effectively on difficult problems and take informed action.

“strong interpersonal relationships that allowed discussion, questions, and feedback were an essential aspect of the transfer of complex knowledge” —Hinds & Pfeffer (2003)

working smarter fieldbookStandardized industrial work was focused on reducing errors to ensure quality of similar products and services. This is still important in manufacturing, though production lines are often shorter and re-tooling happens more frequently today.  But error reduction is not enough. We also need to increase insights.

In 2010 Jay Cross published The Working Smarter Fieldbook produced with the rest of our colleagues at the Internet Time Alliance. Working smarter is not working faster or more efficiently. Working smarter is increasing insights.

“Visualize the workflow of a physical job: produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce, produce.

Now visualize the workflow of a creative knowledge worker: nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing, flash of brilliance, nothing, nothing, nothing.”
Jay Cross (1944-2015)

A focus on reducing errors assumes that a work environment is complicated — production. However, a focus on improving insights understands that most work environments involving people are complex — creativity & innovation. So what should knowledge workers do between flashes of brilliance? They should be engaged in learning socially and informally in order to see what others don’t.

working smarter by increasing insights

Learning informally and socially means connecting our individual work with our teams, communities, and networks. It requires honing our curiosity and seeking out different perspectives and ideas. It takes more than individual sensemaking to understand complex situations, so we have to find others to challenge our assumptions and learn at the edge of our professional abilities. But most importantly we need to use what we have learned in order to resolve challenges and co-create value. As we do this, we continuously share in order to make our communities and networks more resilient and able to make better informed decisions. This discipline is personal knowledge mastery.

How we can develop our own PKM processes, especially seeking and sharing, is detailed in — finding and sharing information.

PKM is directly related to innovation, as it is people making connections through work and learning — What is innovation?

8 Responses to “working smarter”

  1. Michael R Hale

    This statement does not make the connection between the factors and trust. Are they required; yes. But are they sufficient to generate trust?

    “As non-routine work becomes the norm, work environments will have to become open, transparent, and diverse because trust is essential to ensure that knowledge flows.”

  2. Gina Ann Richter

    Hi Harold,

    I love this graphic and concept. I am wondering, though if on the right should be collaboration vs. cooperation? It seems today that shared vision and working towards it is more important than ever. I am sure you have a viewpoint on this and I would love to hear it. Thanks!


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