Thoughts on work, productivity and change

Everybody seems to “know” that the only way a worker can produce more and be more productive is by working longer hours or by working harder.

This has led to the view that the key management responsibility is for the performance of the people. This, however, is too narrow a definition. The way we should think today is that the key responsibility is for the application and performance of knowledge.

The industrial firm is a conservative institution. It tries to maintain stability and often tries to maintain the problems that it was originally the solution to. But the organization of post-industrial society is a disruptor and reformer because its function is to put new knowledge to work – which means to learn. It must be organized for constant change because to learn means to change. It must be prepared for the systematic abandonment of the established and the familiar.

The task today is asking: “If we did not do this already, would we go into it knowing what we know now and knowing what technologies and new tools have become available?” If the answer is “No”, the next question to ask is: “How could we plan abandonment rather than try to prolong the life of outdated practices?”

Workers in industrial-age firms were used to and comfortable with the rules that limited the scope for their initiative. The burden of decision making, with the need to communicate and gather costly information, was minimized. Furthermore, by narrowing the scope of decision making and action, the learning requirements for workers and consumers were limited, reducing the transaction costs and related expenditures. In part, the efficiency-enhancing contribution of mass-production was derived from these lower learning costs.

In contrast to consumers being content with limited choice, today more and more offerings are made specifically according to the unique requirements of the individual customers. For workers and customers the burden of gaining the information needed for such tasks is creating an entirely different environment from that of the industrial era.

The knowledge economy could more appropriately be called a learning economy because creative learning becomes the fundamental entrepreneurial activity. Learning that is not industrial in today’s sense of acquiring pre-set information, earning credentials or passing tests, but from the perspective that learning is the foundation for creative action and innovation. Learning to meet the situational needs of value creation better cannot take place outside that context. Learning cannot be a separate domain outside the practice of work. Neither can it be something with beginnings and ends.

Our present formal training systems are neither designed for networked, life-long progression nor designed for situation-specific just-in-time problem solving. Perhaps the worst thing is that they are not accessible to all learners at all times.

The competitive edge of learning comes from the ability to connect with new information and people as and when they are needed. As such, it is not what is already known that gives the creative edge so much as the ability to co-solve problems that require learning on the spot. In increasingly complex environments the curricula for the new just-in-time learning cannot be known and designed beforehand. Needs and solutions emerge situationally in interaction. Learning is more and more about connecting and interacting in wide area networks. This is why the post-capitalistic society and the post-industrial firm have to be decentralized. The nodes of the network organization must be close to customers, close to new technologies, close to changes in society, close to things that matter.

Learning is emerging shifts in the patterns of human networking, interaction and action. Learning is the emerging transformation of inseparable individual and collective identities. Learning, then, does not mean the cumulative growth of knowledge but occurs as shifts in meaning and is simultaneously individual and social.

Productivity is not about doing more but about learning more.