Fuse Knowledge to Power

Architects are concerned with flows. When designing a building, their paramount considerations are how occupants will move in it and how light and air will circulate around it. Equally important for organizational architects is how information, know-how, decisions, and careers will flow in the structure being shaped.

When the work of the corporation was primarily the organizing of manual labor, markets were local and slow to change, and the knowledge base upon which competitive success depended was stable, a unitary hierarchy of manager atop manager made a lot of sense. The information needed to run the business was limited and could be easily channeled in one upward or downward flow. Workers did the work, and managers did the thinking.

But this is a reality that has disappeared from most industries. Markets are dimensioned globally, rules change faster than some competitors can master them, and brainpower counts for much more than brawn. Most organizations, though, remain keyed to the old realities. Few hierarchies have even kept up with the need to build in change by linking each of their limited number of levels with the time horizons of greatest importance to the company.

A more serious problem, though, is the lack of rethinking about how a business needs to organize its intellectual capital, its knowledge workers. It is ironic, and wasteful, that while “knowledge workers” (technical professionals and other holders of graduate or postgraduate degrees) are making up an increasing proportion of the work force in many industries, the organization structures in which they work remain more the products of Industrial Revolution than of the information age.

Knowledge, especially which can affect the company’s future competitiveness, used to be confined to the research and development lab or to the strategic planning department. Now, as information systems-driven service industries assume a larger share of many economies, knowledge about the capabilities that provide competitive advantage is much more widely dispersed than was ever necessary in traditional manufacturing companies. No single information channel can contain it all. And even traditional product makers are changing. Fewer manufacturing jobs are directly involved in making something; more are concerned with planning what to make, how to make it, and how to keep customers happy after the product has been purchased. The intellectual demands on front-line workers have increased tremendously. The narrowly skilled assembly jobs have been replaced by the more knowledge-intensive positions of the factory automation technician.

Requirements for more intellectual value added have escalated up many organization hierarchies. Networked data bases, expert systems, and almost never-ending flow of new personal computer software have significantly expanded the scope and the nature of the contribution possible from many mid-level employees. This is not an unmitigated blessing, though. It has also seriously polluted the management role in many companies, making many into high-level doers instead of managers, increasing the role’s fragmentation, and making it brittle rather than strong and load-bearing.

This situation will only worsen as economic pressures lead to increased management delayering. Companies with eight to ten tiers of management will find it necessary to organize around four or five. The number of subordinates per manager will have to sharply increase. Middle managers will find themselves with less and less time to master these new white-collar productivity enhancers and to make the intellectual contribution their businesses increasingly need.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, Line of Sight

The Era of Fragmentation

Driven by a combination of capital-intensive new technologies, newly emerged mass markets, and global trade based on national competitive advantage, in industrial era production was organized around the idea of division of labor instead of craft specialization. The work formerly done by one artisan was broken down into its component parts, which in turn were mechanized where possible, and semi-skilled workers were hired to do part of the job or to tend the machines. New roles, those of supervisor, middle manager, and production planner, were created to provide the oversight and coordination that were formerly the responsibility of individual journeymen or masters. In brief, authority over the content of jobs was given to people who, themselves, were not actually doing this work. The newly created managerial authority took “from workers the right to define their own job, their own skill level, and their own standards of quality.”

The division of labor, originally intended to create a rapid growth economy based on a low-skill work force, did help assimilate nineteenth century agricultural workers into industry. But once there, it imprisoned them.

Division of labor is an addictive practice. Work breakdown—promoted by those whose authority and careers tend to benefit from it—tends to beget more work breakdown, taking the pressure off the employer or the educational system to continually upgrade employee skills. Once started, the practice tends to be self-reinforcing, producing a de-skilled work force.

By the mid-twentieth century, most corporate organizations were based on the concept of functional specialization. Work that was once whole had become fragmented. The focused skill of an individual was diffused into the skill of an entire factory. The common view was that mechanics check their brains at the gate when they come to work.

My Consultancy–Asif J. Mir – Management Consultant–transforms organizations where people have the freedom to be creative, a place that brings out the best in everybody–an open, fair place where people have a sense that what they do matters. For details please visit www.asifjmir.com, Line of Sight