The Knowledge Economy


“What do you do?” I asked someone I’d just met.

“We’re in the knowledge business,” she said. “My company adds knowledge to knowledge.”

We’ve all asked the ‘what do you do’ question a thousand times. And we’ve heard every reply imaginable. But I’d never heard one as intriguing as ‘adding knowledge to knowledge.’ I couldn’t help but ask her to explain.

…And I couldn’t help thinking about it afterwards either. Because we’re all in the knowledge business now.

When I started in business – not that many years ago despite what my sons think – people had stock: they had inventories. The auditors would turn up and spend a week stocktaking. Now, I look round the offices of so many of the TAB York members and all I see are the serried ranks of Apple Macs. Yes, there are honourable exceptions, but they’re becoming increasingly rare: those of us writing blogs may soon need to find a replacement for the apocryphal widget maker.

So everything’s fine: we’re all knowledge workers and whether we vote to Remain or to Leave (see next week…) then the future for our businesses is rosy.

Perhaps. I came across this article in the Harvard Business Review recently: it certainly bears out what I see – and what various TAB York members tell me. A bank of Macs is not necessarily the answer to all your problems: in fact the modern office throws up almost as many challenges as its Rolodex and Kalamazoo counterpart…

Interruptions

There’s a great line in the HBR article: I think it’s safe to say that at least some of the work of your company requires sustained focus of longer than two minutes.

prod-interruption-uctivity-300x186

Absolutely: and yet we seem to go out of our way to encourage interruptions to our work. An e-mail flashes up: there’s an alert on your phone: your computer starts cheering – someone’s scored a goal in the Euros. (Yes, yes, I plead guilty to the last one.)

But if the knowledge economy demands anything, it demands concentration. All the studies show that your work takes longer if you’re constantly interrupted, and that you produce lower quality work. There are plenty of techniques for keeping you focused – from the Pomodoro upwards – but they all depend on you turning off interruptions. (And recognising that it really doesn’t matter if Croatia take the lead against the Czech Republic…)

The Design of the Office

Hand in hand with the banks of Macs have come open plan offices. As Maura Thomas describes in the HBR, they’re a double-edged sword. Yes, open plan offices bring increased collaboration, sharing of ideas and a more social working environment. But they also bring distractions, noise and a loss of privacy.

I’m in two minds on this one: I can see the economic argument in favour of open plan offices – but sometimes adding knowledge to knowledge needs silence, focus and being unsocial. In my experience those offices that work best are the ones combining the best of both: where there’s a shared purpose, where you can collaborate – but where can also disappear when that report simply has to be finished by 5pm.

Absent Friends

As I wrote last week, my eldest son has just turned 14. With 8 or 9 years to go until Dan enters the workplace, I wonder if he’ll ever work in a traditional office? It’s much more likely that he’ll spend a large amount of his time working remotely – keeping in touch with colleagues via whatever’s replaced e-mail, WhatsApp and Basecamp by 2025.

But we don’t have to wait until 2025: remote working is a trend that’s already well established. I do wonder, though, if the vast majority of businesses are getting the most out of the team members that aren’t in the office. If it’s not ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ all too often it’s ‘out of sight, out of the loop.’ Success comes from keeping everyone involved and taking all your team on the journey – wherever they are.

…And with that, my thoughts turn back to the Brexit debate. By the time you read next week’s post we’ll have voted. The polls will be closed and if we don’t know the result, we’ll have a very good idea. But next week I’m going to ask a simple question. Leave or Remain: will it make any difference to your business?

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