Intangible technology

There were a number of technologies that enabled the industrial revolution.  While the cotton gin and steam engine were technologies in the sense that we usually think about them: as tangible machines – there were other technologies that played significant roles in the industrial revolution. Rather than being things we could touch and hold they were ideas that were used as windows for improving specific aspects of work performance.

Two examples of these intangible technologies are Fordism and Taylorism. Grossly simplified, Fordism is the standardization of product and the arrangement of work along assembly lines. Taylorism is the breaking down of jobs into individual parts, analysing and optimising these and, importantly, timing outputs (literally through the use of a stopwatch).

For working in a knowledge economy, for dealing with the intangibles of knowledge work, we need a new technology of this second kind. An idea and a window; a frame for seeing and, ultimately, acting.

Key: The Technology of Talk is a frame with which to see the world, to read the patterns of work well and make with our minds collectively.

How to See

When we made things in the factories of the industrial revolution, we could see the work as it progressed across the shop floor.

But we now live in a knowledge economy, where we create new meaning, new knowledge and new value with our heads rather than our hands, and don’t have the same ability to “see” our work.

But what is knowledge work?

Knowledge work is not done inside our heads, in isolation. It is done via interactions: through verbal, non-verbal, symbolic and written material. And all of these interactions are grounded in our language: in conversation.

Conversations are the basis for all business: nothing gets made without being made in conversation first. In fact, organisations are made entirely of conversations.

It follows then that being good at conversation is the most valuable thing a business can invest in and being bad at conversation is the most expensive thing a business can do.

But if knowledge work is conversation, then why do we fail or succeed? And how do we get to be good at conversation? And how do we avoid bad ones? How can we “see” like we did in the factories of the industrial era?

That’s what we’re specialists in. Helping people to see and navigate large and complex conversations in the knowledge economy.

Conceptual Furniture

For many decades (through to the 1960’s) rigid upright seating, often fixed to the desk itself, was part of the accepted environment of a good, disciplined education. “Sitting still” and “sitting up straight” were foundational to the mental models shared by teachers, parents and educational authorities when recognising a “good” classroom.

Many of the systems that “support” our modern ways of working and thinking are just as stilted. We are dis-abled by our own self-imposed models of what is good. If we could see the conceptual “furniture” that we use, we might well be horrified.

We have optimised for, rewarded, trained in and been attuned to certain (limited) ways of working.

We need free ourselves from the limited conceptual models that we have inherited. We need a new frame for working.

Installing in teams the ability to recognise, diagnose and design these ways of working is our unique expertise.

Conversations: Which, when and how.

Ultimately, an organization is made up of conversations: who talks to whom, about what. And those conversations get amplified (or ignored) and codified in documents, processes, systems and culture.

Current and future decisions, actions, and sense purpose are grounded in these conversations …”so much so that the conversation is the organization.” (Alan Webber)

The problem is that we have optimised for, rewarded, trained in and been attuned to certain (limited) types of conversations.

A simple example: the cognition and leadership required to be creative (or to extract, allow for and maximise creativity) is very different to the ways of thinking, acting and managing required in a conversation for optimisation.

To succeed in our collaborative enterprises, we need to get better at knowing which conversations we need to have, when to have them and how.

(Hat tip to Fernando Flores, Juanita Brown, David Isaacs, Paul Pangaro and Michael Geoghegan)

Waste in knowledge work

When we make with our hands we can see the waste, inefficiencies and breakdown in our production systems. Similarly, we can see the injustices we do to people in damaging their limbs or robbing them of their physical health. But when we make with our minds collectively – knowledge work at scale – we fail to see the cause of the waste, inefficiencies and breakdown in our work. And worse, we do injustices to the people in our teams – not with broken hands or poisoned lungs – we go home frustrated, disillusioned, dispirited, distressed, and damaged: broken in our heads, hearts and being.

How can navigate the full spectrum of conversations required for productive endeavours in knowledge work contexts and to minimise the damage done when our conversations break down?

Or, in other words: how do we talk to get stuff done?