Allow Generalists to Emerge

The hierarchical organization is built on a concept of mass replication. Taylorite in its origins, the idea is to create replicable jobs.

The actual qualities of the incumbent are far less important than that they simply do what the position demands. These, in turn, are collected under managers.

The organization represents the elements of the design: the sub-assemblies of a machine.

Grafted onto this base are the knowledge worker functions.

At first these were highly isolated: a few people in human resources, in finance, and in legal. Marketing and IT were added. Other functions — sales, manufacturing, etc. — were simply to “do”.

But knowledge work does not work well based on position.

It depends far more on the qualities of the person doing the work, the background they bring to the task.

Consider, for a moment, something simple. Some people think historically: their first questions when facing a question are things like “how did this happen”, “what happened like this in the past”, “what connects to this in terms of causes and events”. Other people think functionally; still others, with an eye to creation of something new. All of these have value.

Knowledge work has now spread.

Even in the old line, or “doing” roles, knowledge work has increased. What is the expediter in the plant but a knowledge worker? Add IT systems to the mix and many more roles are now split: part machine-like element in a process, part thinker and analyser.

Enter the 21st century, and the collaborative workplace.

Now the qualities that make a person unique come to the fore.

For some, their prior experience is again relevant; for others, their outside interests apply to thinking through an issue on the job. They will tend to coalesce around interesting discussions and problems where their co-workers share their outlook — the functionalists seeking each other out, and, in another group, those who think with history as a guide — and the knowledge work flows as a result.

What this means is that we can turn the specialists we hired into people who are a little more generalist in nature, capable of working outside their normal domain.

This is a key element in the revitalization of an old, tired workplace. It is also a key to innovation and another leap in productivity.

Some managers are better at relating to some of these types than others.

This, too, is nothing new: we have had our “Theory X” (task-oriented) and “Theory Y” (relationship-oriented) approaches for a long time now.

We saw these as fitting into different parts of the company, the “doers” and the knowledge workers. But we now need managers to be more people focused (more “Theory Y”) everywhere, and we need a resolute eye on getting things done (more “Theory X”) everywhere.

So perhaps it makes more sense to look at a group like this. Suppose there are 100 people in a department. Create 10 first-level managers. Their roles are not defined as subsets of the work, but by the nature of their reporting employees: the historians here, the functionalists there, etc. (There may well be multiples of each.)

Work is assigned across the group of 100, with an eye to pre-existing specialities and experience — but collaboration broadens these horizons.

The manager, in turn, is well-equipped (sharing a style) with his or her group to understand the people in it more acutely, and to help them develop further. “Theory X” and “Theory Y” become a both/and, not an either/or.

This, in point of fact, is how work is in the kind of organization Jon Husband calls a “wirearchy”.

Best to get used to the whole notion of both/and. Either/or is so last century! — after all, both/and is an outcome from quantum mechanics, while either/or is Newtonian to the core.

The world has moved beyond Newton. Now it is the turn of the office you work in.

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About passionateobserver

I am a passionate observer of our society, the economy, and politics. Mostly I don't like much of what I see, so I write as a concerned citizen. To the fray, I bring a background in the philosophy of history, a lifetime's reading, a work history in information technology management, consulting and education.
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