Simon Terry

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Assembly Line of Knowledge Revisited: More Human & More Social

The future is here.

We are at a time of innovation in the future of work. We have choices as to the criteria by which we judge success. Let’s make the future of work more human and more social.

Some time ago, I suggested that we were approaching innovation in the way we work with knowledge (‘knowledge work’) that was of equivalent significance to the introduction of the innovation of the assembly line for industrial work. Roger Martin in HBR recently described changes at Proctor and Gamble that begin to treat knowledge work as a ‘decision factory’: focusing on project management of knowledge workers and leveraging algorithms to guide decisions.  To paraphrase William Gibson, the future of knowledge work is here, it is just not widely distributed yet.

Many knowledge workers recoil when you suggest the future of their work may resemble that of industrial work, even by analogy. Often they dispute that the work can be the subject of these kinds of innovation. However, we know dedicated entrepreneurs will find a way and that this disruptive innovation has begun already.  

At the heart of many of these objections is a concern that a focus on innovation will shift the focus of knowledge work from effectiveness into a focus on efficiency. In that change, people perceive real risks to the financial and social rewards of knowledge work, to the skills that will be demanded in future and the potential for change to wider society.  Many knowledge workers have benefited from traditional characteristics of human motivation, like autonomy, mastery and purpose. Losing those roles solely for efficiency may well be a great loss.

Assembly lines – more human and more social

Curiously enough, when Henry Ford introduced the assembly line innovations to his plants the changes were not solely about manufacturing process. Henry Ford realised that for the assembly line process to succeed he needed wider social change.  At the same time as Ford introduced the assembly line, he introduced a suite of social changes that were an attempt to build more complex social system around his organisation. There are arguments today as to what Ford’s purpose was in these changes, whether they were truly implemented or effective and the extent to which they may have just been clever marketing. Still, Ford introduced to its workers:

  • a $5 day a day wage that was a huge lift in income potential for workers and shared a small part of the profits of the new processes
  • a sociological department that explicitly sought to assess employee fitness across a range of social characteristics including family, thrift & home life and address social ills, like gambling and drinking.
  • a newspaper, education & language classes, medical treatment, parks and playgrounds and even a band
  • new workspaces that were models of light and open space at the time
  • a vision of buying the product that they made as Ford disrupted the luxury car market by making cheaper cars at scale

Today, we struggle to understand the Victorian values of these social changes. We would not want Ford’s near feudal power over his team. Also, we can lack context and understanding of the diverse nature of industrial workplaces before the birth of the modern factory system. However, Ford was seeking to make social changes an explicit part of the system of changes in his production system. Those changes were as radical then as many of the working models proposed by start-ups and other innovative companies are today. Ford’s wider social innovations, whether successful or not, suggested that he understood and saw the need to engage with the wider social role of work.  

Work plays a larger social role than a source of income and a source of profit.  Work sustains communities and families. Work provides personal satisfaction, gives rewards for our time and underpins our complex webs of relationships.  Lack of satisfying work correlates with all kinds of social ills. Each of these effects flows back to the workplace and influences outcomes.

The future of knowledge work – more human and more social

Knowledge work is going to get more efficient. Even today there is still too much drudgery that can be innovated, automated or analysed away. Some organisations will focus solely on the efficiency opportunity of innovation in knowledge work. They will reduce their knowledge worker populations and streamline processes to realise profit.  

These same organisations will likely find that they will struggle to recruit and retain talented people. Designing and maintaining their new systems will require even more expensive knowledge workers.  The lack of engagement and innovation in their businesses will require expensive external consultants. More importantly, the broader society outside of the organisation will continue to question the relentless focus on efficiency and profit, query the negative externalities on society and demand a social dividend. Solving this issue transactionally will mean even more expensive marketing and corporate social responsibility activity.

We get to choose the success criteria for our innovations in the future of knowledge work. Profit does not have to be the sole motive.  

We have the opportunity to ask of our innovators in work that they design for social changes and consider the broader social aspects of work. We can ask that work is more social.  We can ask that it take account of criteria like sustainability, natural value, social value and ability to deliver benefits for a wider community of stakeholders. We can ask that work is more human and that better delivers autonomy, mastery and purpose for all workers. My experience is that innovations improve when we take this broader systemic frame and when we are more demanding in our measures of success.  Great innovations involve constraints and stretch.  We will only deliver significant social benefits from this innovation if we leverage design thinking and adaptive innovation to deliver changes in work.

An assembly line or decision factory for knowledge work does not have to be a race to the bottom. Employees in workplaces across the globe will get to shape and debate the changes being made inside and outside their organisations. As community members, they are a part of a public debate on the standards that organisations should meet.  We all can leave organisations that do not respond well and entrepreneurs will start organisations to leverage the best innovations and new opportunities to realise value.  

Potentially, it could be the birth of a new golden age of human and social growth.  

We get to choose.  

PS: Obviously, innovation and consideration of a broader social frame is something that will benefit industrial work too.  However, because industrial organisations are much more competitive and more directly impacted by social pressures around environment, many leading industrial employers have already begun to look into new models that leverage wider social value and engage and empowering their employees to add new value.  Toyota’s work on waste and the Toyota Management System are examples.

Notes:  my limited understanding of Henry Ford comes largely from Steven Watt’s ‘The People’s Tycoon’, wikipedia and The Henry Ford Museum.


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