The knowledge revolution needs an assembly line

The industrial revolution was transformed by technologies like that of the assembly line which dramatically changed productivity and redefined the industrial model for a century. What will be the assembly line of the knowledge revolution?

From an era of mass manufacturing

Mass manufacturing arose when innovative manufacturing processes, such as the assembly line, arose to take advantage of the required capabilities like consistent & efficient power sources, better transportation, better communications and other technological advances. A number of large social changes came with the arrival of the era of mass production in the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries:

  • A shift from artisan manufacturing to factories & loss of power in the guilds (an end to skill as power) 
  • The management of work inputs in the right context and at the right time with less waste by bringing work to the worker, reducing work-in-progress & reduction of the manual effort through assembly lines and other manufacturing changes 
  • Specialisation and reduction in the task of the worker 

These changes also had a wider impact as the productivity and value created further social change, particularly as it drove a culture of mass consumption and the rise of the knowledge and service economy. Importantly, the development of this industrial revolution was largely guided by a purpose of shareholder return. With a few rare exceptions, employee engagement and fulfilment, environment or social purpose and other purposes often played a deeply secondary role.

Further phases of the mass manufacturing model whether robotics, lean/kaizen, logistics or outsourcing have been evolution on the basic revolution that began when production shifted from task oriented workshops to process driven factories. To a lesser extent, these efforts have sought to address broader social purposes.

To an era of mass collaboration

We are likely facing into a transformation of knowledge work on the scale of the industrial manufacturing. We are beginning to see new models of knowledge work and collaboration coming to life in our increasing social and digital information capabilities.

We now have the information storage and processing power, the mobility solutions and the social context that can drive insights and low-cost sharing. The coming together of these technologies offers us the opportunity to deliver information to knowledge workers when they need it (leveraging mobile and the cloud) with insight & context (from data analysis and social).

From entrepreneurs to large corporations the focus of innovation in the future of knowledge work is on how to develop new ways to leverage this technology. However for all the innovation we may not yet have seen a defining innovation on the scale of the assembly line. It cannot be far away.

By analogy, knowledge work will change dramatically in an era of mass collaboration:

  • Shifting the work from a knowledgeable expert to an digital algorithm, social network or most likely both (an end to knowledge as power) 
  • Reducing the search for information, the cost of sharing information and bringing knowledge to the worker as and when required for the task 
  • Provision of information in a richer more relevant context and with greater insight enabling new methods of the discovery, use and dissemination of knowledge, which is likely to mean new knowledge itself. 

Shaping purpose and outcomes

Managed with a focus only on shareholder value creation, this transformation could be massively disengaging and alienating for the knowledge workers of the global service economy. Managed with a focus on purpose (taking account of social value and economic value), this transformation could deliver massive productivity improvements, increased discretionary effort and an era of increased engagement and meaning in work.

Component parts of this transformation are being created now with innovation in enterprise social & cloud solutions, new mobile capabilities, big data and other innovations. The time to influence the direction and breadth of purpose of this innovation is now. The challenge that surrounds us is to develop the management innovations that will leverage these new capabilities to great social benefit.

The new era of knowledge work calls for its entrepreneurs and the simplicity & power of an assembly line for knowledge.

Do you agree? What would the assembly line for knowledge work look like? Can a broader and more balanced purpose guide this innovation in knowledge work? Which paths will we take as the knowledge revolution develops?

Concepts in this post borrowed from:

  • Richard Sennett, The Craftsman and Together
  • Clay Shirky, Cognitive Surplus 
  • Gary Hamel, The future of management 
  • Umair Haque’s HBR blog

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