Supporting Work in the Information Economy

August 14, 2010
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The nature of work has changed for a great portion of the workforce. In the so-called “information economy” what we do and how we do it is in a state of transition. Add to that the growing influence of the social web on work and businesses and the gap between the “normal” in the industrial age to now is quite wide and getting wider. I wonder though, are the underlying systems that support work changing as rapidly?

The nature of work has changed for a great portion of the workforce. In the so-called “information economy” what we do and how we do it is in a state of transition. Add to that the growing influence of the social web on work and businesses and the gap between the “normal” in the industrial age to now is quite wide and getting wider. I wonder though, are the underlying systems that support work changing as rapidly? The roots of our current enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, for example, are evolutions of the manufacturing resource planning systems (MRP) of the 1980’s. As a part of system evolution the ERP systems were developed to manage a wider set of business processes outside of manufacturing and to provide relevant business information. In fact ERP and most other enterprise software systems followed a fairly simple path from basic transaction system to aggregating data to analysis of the data, decision support and eventually to automated decision support. CRM followed the same basic path as well. The systems that we use to run our businesses today are fairly mature at this point but is that maturity itself a fundamental problem in a dynamic work environment?   

The way you do your work should have a profound impact on the way supporting systems are designed. That seems simple enough on the face of it. MRP was designed to support manufacturing processes and since it grew out of MRP, ERP mimics that approach. Manufacturing is by its nature very process centric and repeatability to a standard is very important, especially from an economic and quality standpoint. In fact we spent a great deal of time in the 1990’s doing business process reengineering to try and get all of business shoe horned into set processes. Companies spent a lot of time working out industry best practices and software tried to capture those best practices in their internal workflows.

Knowledge work is very different from making things in a traditional assembly line driven manufacturing process. Knowledge workers do research, analysis, and design / development. They take this analysis and apply it to problems, defining the problems, identifying solution alternatives and implementing their designs. Taking data, often unstructured in nature and through analysis they create information or as the pic above says, creating meaning. This information work is the crux of innovation in today’s businesses and innovation is absolutely essential from a competitive standpoint in a global, hyper-connected, highly competitive, social web integrated business environment. Information work then, by its inherent unstructured nature is not process driven and in reality mostly ad hoc.

This is where, in my opinion we have a growing conflict between the needs of knowledge workers and the underlying business systems in use today. The enterprise software is process driven and yet the nature of information work is ad hoc and predominately unstructured. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of job functions in side businesses that do require repeatable process, even outside of manufacturing. These process driven functions are well served by today’s business systems. Knowledge workers do:

  • Analyze data to establish relationships and cause and effect
  • Brainstorm solutions
  • Identify and understand trends
  • Networking and making connections (both people and data)
  • Creating and modifying strategies
  • Business critical convergent and divergent thinking
  • Evaluate and rationalize conflicting priorities
  • Designing new products, services and capabilities

In contrast knowledge workers are not involved in functions like:

  • Order entry
  • Financial transaction processing
  • Ledger entries
  • Shipping

But there are positions that seem to be transaction driven that require knowledge workers like:

  • Customer service (resolving customer issues, especially in today’s social customer environment)
  • Technical support
  • Handling inquiries

In addition to the individual knowledge function there is also a growing need for social knowledge work. I think that this could actually reflect the concept of co-innovation that is gaining momentum with the social customer. This internal co-innovation is the evolution of collaboration in the social business.

So back to systems. My point is that current systems fall short in dealing with ad hoc work and that knowledge work is inherently ad hoc and unstructured. Business analytics tools try to address some of these underlying shortfalls but do not really provide all of the capabilities needed. It’s an accepted fact validated through survey that knowledge workers spend on average ~70% of their time working around rigid systems. Add to that the growing need for implementing flexible business strategy in business systems to accommodate rapidly shifting competitive and market pressures that can change with alarming frequency and the problem is even greater. There must be a new generation of knowledge tools to facilitate the growing social nature of work and to allow a more ad hoc and unstructured approach for knowledge work.