I seem to have set off quite the storm of discussion, and not a little dissent in my commentary on Anne Zelenka’s Busyness vs. Burst: Why Corporate Web Workers Look Unproductive.
My colleagues Matthew Hodgson and Andrew Boyd (here, here and here) have both posted on the same notion, although I feel that Matthew has let his organistional psychology background get the better of him and gone all Peter Drucker on us. He’s underwhelmed by Anne’s arguments. I wish Matthew had read Anne’s related post at her personal blog.
In doing so, he’d see Anne’s and his notions are actually a lot closer together than you think. She’s trying to encourage Kuhnian paradigm shift. Matthew’s OrgPsych, and organisational management, basis is a little different. Anne also links to Dr McAfee’s recent article on busyness. They’re both, to my mind, arguing the same point but from a different position of expertise — Matthew’s OrgPsych and Anne’s economics/problogger/fulltime web worker position. I guess my nearest match is to Anne, as unlike Matthew and Andrew, I wouldn’t know Drucker if I tripped on him. Perhaps I should be raiding Matthew’s book case?
While Matthew’s not wrong (never, in my experience), I think his approach takes the conversation, which started as a discussion on work styles, to a whole new level; one that’s significantly more intellectual and academically focussed than Anne’s original article.
That said, over the course of several readings and re-readings, I think that all of us are all talking about the same thing:
- knowledge workers do what they do in different ways, although burst working has a greater prevalence in the group than in other identifiable classes of worker;
- the shift to recognition in the workplace that burst working has value, both from the worldview of management and other workers, particularly those used to busy work, is yet to occur consistently, and;
- a shift needs to take place in workplaces everywhere to accommodate the new way of work that is embraced by knowledge workers.
I think the third point is the greatest battle, and Matthew’s post and Andrew’s second make some inroads into discussion of appropriate approaches to the battle that is getting management and coworker recognition of the value inherent in and approaches taken in doing knowledge work.
Presently, the push back from businesses used to busy work against the increasingly emergent burst worker (even my wife, Alli, acknowledges that a significant portion of her work in HR is knowledge-based burst work) is predicated on a lack of understanding of the nature of burst-produced knowledge work. Andrew argues for a softly-softly approach. Matthew argues for adoption in practice of much of Drucker’s theory. My position is less subtle — I live out Gilmore’s Law and route around the issue by using my own tools at work where needed.
Regardless of individual approach to advocating understanding and acceptance of knowledge workers and burst work, what is accepted by all of us is a need for change. In order to remain at the top of their game, businesses need to be adaptable, open to new thinking and far less risk averse than they have ever been. Trust rather than distrust of workers needs to become the norm as opposed to the exception — it’s a fact that people are happier and work better if they are treated like adults. As a part of that shif, businesses need to open up access to tools and approaches that not so long ago (and even now) would otherwise be blocked or restricted to a very few.
I think too, that many of the management types Matthew, Andrew and I deal with in our work in Canberra are unfamiliar with current thought on knowledge workers and the knowledge economy. Those managers need to be introduced to the way we work and the work we do in a justifiable, strongly argued and non-threatening way so that minds can be changed and the shift in acceptance and openness can be effected.