Sunday, October 14, 2007

Who is the worker that we manage?

Twenty years ago, while in the army. I managed a group of ten employees. I wasn’t trained, I hadn't learnt how to manage, yet I believe I did a fair job. Today I manage people and I feel as if it is an altogether different job; a different type of management. I especially identify with the saying that managing ten people is not 1 times managing 10 but 10 times managing 1 person. Every person has to be managed differently, every employee needs to be spoken to and heard in a unique way. It took me several years to understand that the way I manage my employees is no less important than developing the KM dogma (my profession). What has changed?

At first I thought it was me. Over years I have matured, some would say I grew older. This is true. I look today differently on life and what is important. But I don’t think that explains it all. Workers in the 21st century are not the workers we had 20 years ago. Industry is changing. These workers, that Druker called knowledge workers, act and develop differently from the manufacture workers that were so typical in the 20th century. In this post I shall try to define the profile of the knowledge workers. How did I learn who they are and how to work with them? Partly from experience, partly intuition, a lot of reading (especially in this context from Druker's books) and some things I still do not know. Like many others I also make mistakes. I err and try to improve myself; sometimes with success, sometimes with less.

The knowledge worker is an independent worker. He makes most of his decisions by himself and first of all he decides every day whether to continue to work in the same place. If in the past people came to earn their living and were dependent on the organization, today we stand in a totally different situation. Salary is not enough for the knowledge worker. Don't misunderstand me they indeed get a nice salary. But the knowledge worker is seeking for more: professional satisfaction, a nurturing environment and possibilities for the future (see Herzberg's theory on hygiene conditions for work). Druker states that we have to treat our knowledge workers as volunteers. We have to convince them, almost on a daily basis, to continue and work voluntary with us. This is definitely not an easy task and one that we would be happy to reject but probably that choice is not ours.

What else can be said about knowledge workers?
A knowledge worker needs a lot information and knowledge in order to perform his job. This of course is no surprise since he is named "knowledge worker". Yet it should be clarified that the information and knowledge are not static. What characterizes the knowledge worker is that his knowledge is developing constantly and not just from doing his job. We must leave time for the knowledge worker to read and learn: to learn from professional magazines, from reading books, from wandering in the internet and from conferences and inter-organizational meetings. A knowledge worker who does not develop his or her knowledge will eventually experience difficulties in achieving success. I must confess that even 5-6 years ago i tried to maximize the business working hours for all of my employees. LAter on, I learned to include professional training on a monthly basis. Today I know that this also is not enough. I encourage my people to write articles. Working on an article includes in addition to the writing itself also reading, analyzing, arranging thoughts and materials, and building a concept. I doubled the training hours; I include other types of learning in addition to lectures and probably all of this is still inadequate. Is this only because I deal with an innovative developing profession (Knowledge Management)? This is partly correct. Around me I see my customers all of whom are dealing with developing professions and innovative aspects: Hardware engineers are dealing more and more with software and integration; pharmaceutical researchers are constantly developing chemistry expertise knowledge and also knowledge from biology, genetics etc. Insurance agents, who used to offer me exactly what was told them from their Insurance companies, work today with many insurance companies. They offer different types of life insurances, loans, health insurances and other financial products; all, working with various companies and offering me the best suit (for me or for them). One of my customers, dealing with child fostering, spends important time learning the models of fostering that work best in other countries. I can continue and give many more examples from various content worlds. The picture is clear: Workers are knowledge workers and those that do not constantly develop, no matter how experienced they are, will find it hard to continue progressing. Without relying on existing wide knowledge future success is not guaranteed.

An interesting fact, deriving from the above, is that the knowledge worker knows, for his or her specific tasks, more than the manager in charge. Even if managers have grown in the same area, they cannot be experts on all of the sub-areas within their responsibility. Always there are some in which they have no experience, always the knowledge they have was correct at the time it was learnt, but is not necessary enough today. As is well known, the world is developing fast. This indeed is a challenging situation. Most of us managers, up till today, have our managing authority based on professional authority. For myself, I can say that I learn from experience and actually know knowledge management methodologies (my professional expertise). I have learned at university math and computers. I always lack the knowledge of my employees who learned industrial engineering or organizational behavior. I always lack the knowledge that my employees developed yesterday and the day before while I was busy managing the company.
The knowledge worker is autonomous. Even though surrounded by teams, each one has to specialize in specific tasks, collecting, filtering, analyzing and deciding according to the information and knowledge gathered. But the knowledge worker has to know how to share. Not only share decisions but to share information and knowledge that can help others perform their job better. Sharing, and even teaching, is part of the knowledge working job. It helps others and it also helps the knowledge worker who understands better his or her knowledge after discussing it with those who were taught.

Knowledge workers manage their own time; they make their own decisions; they multi task much more than in the past.
In more than one manner we, the managers, manage managers. This of course changes the way we ought to manage.

Is this good? I believe it is. Not because we don't have any other choice but to adjust. I believe that we, as managers, develop personally from this challenge of managing knowledge workers. I can say for myself that I do.
And I know that when I succeed the satisfaction is enormous. And so I also benefit.
Tired but satisfied (and now you know why).

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