On Knowledge Work and Widgets

Last week I was a part of a very inspiring session with some clients in Cupertino. Inspiring because the executive sponsors of the event did what is very hard for executives to do: they trusted the group to not only have input into the answers, but to help define the problem.

The timing of this was interesting for me. On the flight down to California I had been writing furiously about the difference between knowledge work and “widget work”, that is, work that is mechanically devoted to the production of physical artifacts.

Widget work requires tasks to be divided between people or roles. Sure, the widget can be broken down to its smallest individual component parts which can be produced in parallel, but to avoid “too many cooks in the kitchen”, you generally cannot have multiple people doing the same thing at the same time…nor would it add any value to do so.

Knowledge work, on the other hand, is based on the creation of non-physical artifacts, be it content, concepts, software or, well, knowledge. By removing work from a strictly physical set of constraints, a new set of models arises which is not bound by the same physics or rules.

Enter collaboration.

What I loved last week was seeing a small group of people saying “I don’t know the answer; let’s put it to the group.” Sure, they had some ideas, but not answers. Where to go from there? What to do next? The group not only came up with great ideas of what to do…they then went and did all the work that resulted.

That hooks in beautifully with the first rule of knowledge work:

If you don’t ask any questions, you are limited to the experience of your own lifetime. For each question you ask of another person, you add the experience of a whole lifetime to your own.

And how much more so with a group?

But what interests me, and what I have begun working out, is the models which enable knowledge work and collaboration to actually work. Widget work requires an end product, a plan, schematics, a way of dividing the work, a space and a work flow (not an exhaustive list). What are the requisites of knowledge work?

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