Here’s an interesting paper by Allison Kidd on knowledge workers that studied how they worked and came up with some interesting conclusions that have ramifications for supporting them. It was published in 1994, pre-dating most of the tools we now use. What’s particularly interesting is that it argues for many of the technology-enabled ideas that we now take for granted in social media.
First, Kidd notes three defining characteristics of knowledge workers:
1. Diversity of Output
Knowledge workers solve problems and generate outputs largely by resort to structures internal to themselves rather than by resort to external rules or procedures. In other words, each knowledge worker develops a different internal “configuration” based on changes wrought in their thinking and outlook by the situations they have encountered, the information they have absorbed and the particular way they have made sense of these. . .
Unfortunately, many corporate software programs aim to level or standardise the differences between individual workers. In supporting knowledge workers, we should be careful to provide tools which enable diversification of individuals’ outputs (my emphasis)
2. Low Dependence on Filed Information
Knowledge workers also rarely consult their filed information when in their oftlces. They do make a lot of notes, both in meetings and when trying to sort out their thinking on their own but many of these notes are discarded once the ideas have been worked out or translated into a proper report. . .
We may have been fooled into thinking that knowledge workers write things down because they need an external memory store, whereas in many cases, it may be the graphological act itself which is important [4, 14]. (my emphasis)
3. Importance of Spatial Layout and Materials
Many knowledge workers have cluttered work spaces (you should see my desk right now), but are extremely concerned if someone messes with that space. According to this research, that’s because this “muddle” actually serves several roles for them:
- As a holding pattern–“It seems that knowledge workers use physical space, such as desks or floors, as a temporary holding pattern for inputs and ideas which they cannot yet categorise or even decide how they might use . Filing is uncomfortable for them because they cannot reliably say when they will want to use a particular piece of information or to which of their future outputs it will relate.”
- As a form of language–The physical act of seeing things, moving them around, etc. helps them make sense of the items.
- As contextual cues–”Many of the workers reported that first thing in the morning, or after any interruption in their thought (like a ‘phone call), they have the “where was 1?” problem in a complex and ill-defined space of ideas. The layout of physical materials on their desk gives them powerful and immediate contextual cues to recover a complex set of threads without difficulty and delay.”
- As demonstrable output–“Piles of papers on desks are also important as tangible objects to which workers can point to show others how much progress they have made. One of the problems for a knowledge worker is that their productivity is difficult to measure and often their end-effect on the company is intangible, so they seem to use paper as a tangible record of their contributions.”
Based on these three characteristics, Kidd identifies several strategies we should employ in thinking about how to use technology with knowledge workers:
- Avoid trying to help knowledge workers in ways which involve the tool in “understanding” the
information it is holding or predicting what the user wants to do with it.
- Concentrate on capturing and reproducing the appearance of marks made by knowledge workers rather than interpreting them. . . Changing these marks or their arrangements may not do the knowledge worker a service when it comes to cueing the re-call of their current understanding of an issue or their intent to inform another.
- Don’t encourage organisations to think that storing information is an alternative to being
informed by it.
- Beware of the assumption that forgetting is a bad thing for humans and that we should design computers to cover for this “weakness” in our make-up. Forgetting is at the heart of new
- Use electronics to mimic and extend the ability of the physical environment to inform an individual worker or an organisation of such workers.
- Remember that knowledge workers cannot predict what will inform them or how it will inform them, The dream of providing such workers with an “electronic encyclopedia in the sky” only satisfies those cases where someone can predict what they need to know.
- Knowledge workers are in the business of labelling things in new ways. They cannot do this until they have been informed. It is hard today to keep information electronically without labelling it. (Side note–this may be why things like tagging have such utility–they allow you to label in multiple ways.)
I think one of the core things I get from this article is the sense of “artistry” that knowledge workers bring to what they do. Writers and artists often talk about needing to have certain conditions in place to support their creativity. These are often very tactile–a writer needs to use a certain pen and a certain type of paper, sit in a certain place, have certain things on her desk–and inextricably entwined with the very process of creation. Without these things in place, they literally cannot function.
When we think about helping knowledge workers adapt tasks that they’ve done in certain ways to incorporate new technologies or strategies, we may be asking them to make changes on a level so fundamental as to be completely unexamined and outside of real consciousness. Finding ways to bridge the gap and help technology-enabled activities replace old ways of doing things is more than just a challenge of training. It’s also a re-do of the creative and knowledge-making process.