Knowledge workers are individuals who are valued for their ability to interpret information within a specific subject area and advance the overall understanding of that subject through focused analysis, design and/or development. Fuelled by their expertise and insight, they solve problems, in an effort to influence company decisions, priorities and strategies. The term was first coined by Peter Drucker in 1959, as one who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace.
When working with knowledge workers, we seek to aggregate their value by enabling them to collaborate on behalf of the organisation, to innovate or solve problems better than they could each have managed individually. Increasingly emphasis is also being put on collaboration as a means of informal learning and knowledge exchange between people. So how do we encourage employees to make use of the tools available and enable collaboration across departments and borders?
Well, the first step is to identify where employees should be collaborating, why they should collaborate and make sure that collaboration does not become collaboration for collaboration’s-sake.
The need to collaborate should arise out of the organisation’s strategic intent. We need to ask ourselves the following questions: In order to attain its strategic goals, what does the organisation need to do – innovate, develop, or cost cut? Will collaboration enhance the ability to meet the objective? For example if an FMCG company has a pharmaceutical brand for which the patent is about to expire, it may choose to cost-cut in order to compete on a commodity basis with other generics that are coming into the market, or it could work on developing a new product, what about innovating a different method of ingestion?
Each of these strategic imperatives would require a different type of collaboration:
- For cost cutting the pharmaceutical factory manager might need to collaborate with one of the FMCG factories to reduce the cost of packaging by consolidating production runs.
- If a new product needs to be developed then the research scientists based around the globe may need to collaborate to bring new research into the mix.
- Should they decide to change the ingestion means, perhaps the scientists need to collaborate with a nano-technology company.
Only once we have identified why we are collaborating and with whom, can we address the challenge, which is finding the right mix of tools that spur collaboration as employees strive to meet the business requirements.
When organisations look at solutions to optimise collaboration, the best idea may be to take the approach of mixing something proven and familiar with something new. Successful approaches to collaboration have to embrace people’s current work processes, while also supporting a transition over time to additional strategies that further refine collaboration.
Many organisations are finding ways to give knowledge workers the web based tools they want to use for collaboration today, while providing the means to incorporate additional strategies for addressing future collaboration requirements.
The fundamentals or hygiene factors when it comes to expecting users to adopt any technology, including collaboration tools, include ensuring that the technology is useful, easy to use and makes the user look good.
- Usefulness – If the chain is broken between the organisational objectives, the individual’s key performance areas and collaborative behaviour, then there is no way that the knowledge worker is going to use any collaboration technology, no matter how sophisticated. He just won’t see the point.
- Ease of Use – If the collaboration technology is tricky to use, requiring complex user names and difficult to remember passwords, or keeps falling over, then your knowledge worker is going to find other ways of collaborating, for example by sending eMails or using the phone. This negates the benefits of collaboration technology because the data and evidence from the interaction are not captured and you will not be able to learn from the collaboration nor analyse why it was successful or not, in other words you will have lost the organisational memory.
- Make the user look good – The collaboration technology must make the user look good and enable him to build his personal brand and build recognition for his contribution. This is achieved through creating validating employee profiles with blogs or awards or participation in forums etc., whatever is appropriate to the individual and the organisation.
Getting Ready to Collaborate
In his book Collaboration (2009) Morten Hansen explains the necessary conditions for collaboration to take place effectively across organisations, or between organisations and their stakeholders. He suggests unifying people, cultivating what he calls T-shaped management and building nimble networks.
- Unifying People – When unifying people Hansen suggests crafting an explicit common goal for the collaborators.
- Cultivating T shaped management has to do with fostering a high-collaboration high-performance culture. He talks about low-collaboration high-performance employees as lone-stars and suggests that in the long term they may not be good for innovation because they don’t share knowledge and experience with other team members which could surface hidden opportunities.
- Building nimble networks has to do with the formation of the right kinds of cross unit personal relationships to help identify and capitalise on opportunities.
Using the Interactive Web for collaboration
Whether the collaboration is required between employees within an organisation on the corporate intranet, externally between a company and its stakeholders on an extranet or with clients and potential customers on web based applications and websites, the process of collaboration should follow that of the strategy.
First of all we need to make sure that the web application that we are using for collaboration is useful. Why are we collaborating, what do we want to achieve, how will we know when we have achieved it? What do we need to provide the users in order to ensure that our collaboration tool is fit-for-purpose? Do they need a content management tool, a document management system, a collective set of taxonomies to facilitate search? Maybe they require an integrated project management tool and a wiki.
Then we need to decide what we need to equip the collaborators with in order for the collaboration tool to be easy to use. What should the process for collaboration be? What is the most intuitive way to work together? What should the user experience and interface be? etc.
Finally and very importantly, what will make the collaborator look and feel good? Is he the type of the person who works for explicit awards? Is she very proud of her education? Who needs an audience to demonstrate that he is a thought leader? To whom is a title important?
Each individual requires a personal profile which they can populate to a greater or lesser degree. Some people may only want contact details and access to the project plan and documentation, others may feel that their past experiences have bearing on the project. Some people may have a more relaxed approach to the line between socialising and work, take for example a new mother who has been asked to assist a company in the design of a new kind of nappy for newborns. While she is telling the company that she feels the elastic should be broader around the legs, she may want to share baby photos with the other mums in the nappy design collaboration group.
Knowledge workers are human too
The important thing to remember is that collaboration is to do with sharing, developing and communicating to achieve a common goal. The tools we need to give people to facilitate collaboration should make their jobs easier and more intuitive and their efforts to reach the common goal more effective. This requires a lot of thought investment into getting it right so that we really get more out of people working together than we would have out of each working on his own.
About Digital Bridges
Digital Bridges creates high performance organisations by unlocking the business value of the web. We create digital strategies, user requirement and functional specifications for Intranets, websites and web applications. We also develop and implement social media strategies and create powerful digital brands using eMarketing and Communication.
Digital Bridges approaches the web from a management consulting position and relies heavily on rigorous academic thinking as well as business experience. It is headed up by Kate Elphick who has a Law degree and an MBA from GIBS. Kate has spent the last fifteen years of her career on the business side of the IT industry with companies such as Datatec, Didata, Business ConneXion and Primedia.
Digital Bridges has a broad range of experience working with significant, successful clients in the Financial, Gaming, Tourism, Pharmaceutical, ICT, Legal, Airline, Professional Services, Media and Public Sectors.
To find out more about Digital Bridges, please visit www.digitalbridges.co.za or contact Kate Elphick on firstname.lastname@example.org.