Who Knows?

CLO magazine June 2004 - Jay Cross

What would you think of an assembly line where workers didn’t know where to find the parts they were supposed to attach? Absurd, you say. Heads would roll. Yet for knowledge workers, this is routine. Consider a knowledge worker stymied by a lack of information—hardly an uncommon situation. In fact, in many professions, knowledge workers spend a third of their time looking for answers and helping their colleagues do the same.

How does our knowledge worker respond? She’s five times more likely to turn to another person than to an impersonal source, such as a database or a file cabinet. Often she asks whoever happens to be close by, the denizen of the next cube or someone getting a cup of coffee. Half the time, this person doesn’t have a clue.

Only one in five knowledge workers consistently finds the information needed to do their jobs. This happens to “knowledge customers,” too, half of whom bail before completing online orders. Other studies have found that knowledge workers spend more time re-creating existing information they were unaware of than creating original material.

All this slows the pace of the enterprise, burns out the workforce with scut work, reduces responsiveness to customers and increases job dissatisfaction. Reinventing the wheel, looking for information in the wrong places and answering questions from peers consumes two-thirds of the average knowledge worker’s time. Slashing this waste time provides a lot more time to devote to improving the business, reducing payroll or, more likely, a bit of both.

This knowledge productivity problem is destined to get worse before it gets better. The haystack is getting bigger exponentially. Corporate information doubles in volume every 18 months. Half of the recorded information in the entire world has been created in the past five years!

Specialists used to keep their heads above the floodtide of incoming knowledge by knowing “more and more about less and less.” In today’s interconnected world, boundaries between disciplines are becoming porous. Everything’s multidisciplinary. We have to know more and more about more and more.

Successful organizations will connect people. Learning is social. We learn from, by and with other people. Conversation, storytelling and observation are great ways to learn, but they aren’t things you do by yourself.

Job one is to help knowledge workers find the answers they need. Rob Cross and others describe many ways to go about this in a marvelous new book, “Creating Value With Knowledge,” edited by IBM’s Eric Lesser and Laurence Prusak (Oxford University Press, 2003).

If people are going to go to other people for answers, make it easy for them to get to people in the know. (Get them to look for their keys where they’re likely to find them, not where the light’s better.) Set up help desks to support new product rollouts and organizational initiatives. Have the help desk apply the 80/20 rule and document the common queries in a mercifully short FAQ. Then, tier responses by triage. First query the FAQ, then ask the help desk, and if those don’t work, contact the prime subject-matter expert.

Learning a new software release is a special case. Since a release generally builds on an existing foundation, workers more often need answers to specific questions than the sort of overview that workshops and courses provide. Trial-and-error is a great way to learn—as long as there’s a way to deal with roadblocks. Since the release is new, learners won’t find answers in-house. In this case, outsource mentoring to a firm that does have the answers.

Web standards and smart software can monitor workflow to provide lessons or contacts precisely when they are needed.

Now that business organizations have been de-layered, downsized and re-engineered to the bone, how will they transfer their special ways of doing things to new employees?

The answer lies in exploiting the savvy of seniors, the wise elders who have “been there, done that” and can offer counsel and know-how to the newcomers. Old hands often make outstanding sales and service coaches, too.

Posted by Jay Cross at June 13, 2004 08:39 AM | TrackBack

30 Poppy Lane
Berkeley, California 94708

1.510.528.3105 (office & cell)

Subscribe to this Blog

Enter your email address to subscribe. We vow never to share your information with anyone. No Spam.

Subscribe Unsubscribe

Reference Pages

Building Community
CSS, Semantic Mark-Up, and codes
First Principles
How People Learn
Knowledge Management
Learning Links
Learning Standards
Making It Work (Implementing)
Metrics & ROI
Social Software
String theory
The eLearning Museum
Visual Learning


Our Infrequent Newsletter
Sign up for our sporadic newsletter.

Entries by category...

Customer care
Emergent Learning
Just Jay
Recycled from Blogger
The Industry
Workflow-based eLearning


Internet Time Group

© 2004 Internet Time Group

Click for Berkeley, California Forecast
Berkeley, California

Recent entries

New Blog
Blogger Experience, Housekeeping, Something New
Loosely Coupled
Above all
Demographics is destiny
Are you setting the bar high enough?
Virtual Apps
Aerobic Learning
Work as Video Game
Oracle and Macromedia, Sitting in a Tree
The Blogosphere
ASTD Silicon Valley
Performance Support
Kingsbridge Conference Center
First Post by Email
Inactive Blog
RSS Feed for New Site
Comment Spam
Testing ... testing ... 1...2..3
IT Doesn't Matter - Learning Does.
All blogging is political
Mutlimedia Learning
Damn, damn, double damn
Nonverbal impact?
The New Religion
Wolf! Wolf! Wolf! Wolf! Wolf! Wolf!
Business Process Management (2)
Really Big
Business Process Management Conference
Don't Lose a Common Sense: LISTEN
It's only natural
Go with the flow
Time Out for the Fair
Informal get-together in SF this Wednesday
Repetition, reverb, and echoes
Who Knows?
Cognitive Mapping
Push vs pull
The Big Picture on ROI
Art Break
TDF Finale
New Community of Practice Forming
More TDF04
Training Directors Forum 2004
A Rare One-Liner
PlaNetwork LIVE 2
PlaNetwork LIVE
ASTD 2004 Leftovers
Worker Effectiveness Improvement, not KM
Upcoming Events
eLearning Effectiveness?
Jay's Talk at ASTD
Mintzberg & Cooperider
Lest ye forget
ASTD International Conference & Exposition 2004
Knowledge Tips
What is Workflow Learning?
ASTD msg 1 of n
Look out, it's Outlook
Collaboration at ASTD Next Week
Tell me a story
User indifference
The shortest presentation on metrics you will ever hear
Back to Blogger
Windows fixes
The Alchemy of Growth
Grab bag
Very loosely coupled
E-Learning from Practice to Profit
Robin Good kicks off Competitive Edge
China Bloggers
Sonoma Dreaming
Upcoming Events
Emergent Learning Forum: Simulations
The Best Things in Life Are Free
Metrics and Web Services
OpEd: ROI vs. Metrics
e-Merging e-Learning
Loosely Coupled
Search me