Seven reviews, every one of them 5 stars

24 02 2011

For a relatively unknown book there is one distinguishing features, and that is that while there are only 7 reviews of the book on Amazon, every one of them has rated the book at 5 stars.  This may not be a statistically significant result, but it does tell you that the book can’t be very bad.  There has got to be a lot of good stuff there.

Here is a copy of one review:

First and foremost, the book is about knowledge work. Peter Drucker defined this term to mean not just people who have a lot of knowledge (e.g. professors) or manage a lot of knowledge (e.g. librarians) but actually anyone who has a complex job to do that that is hard to define and that requires “experience” to do it. This includes police detectives, investigative reporters, judges, marketing managers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, rescue workers, financial advisers, entrepreneurs, and (most notably) managers and executives. Knowledge workers make up about 40% of the workforce, and growing.

The opposite of knowledge work is routine work. Routine work can be defined and predicted in a standard Scientific Management sense. The job is repeatable enough, that one can define a fairly fixed way to perform the job. For example, from the time a book is ordered on Amazon, to the time that the book is delivered to the customer, all of the work required is routine. You can write a fairly detailed plan of what exactly must be done, how to handle low stock situations, how to get it shipped, etc. in advance without having to know much at all about the specific book that will be ordered. There are exceptional cases, but 99.99% of all book can be handled with a standard process.

Most of the practice of management has focused on optimizing routine work: defining well designed work descriptions or process diagrams. Training people to do the job in a very repeatable way. Continually assessing the performance, and looking for ways to improve it.

In the past two decades we have seen a whole host of technologies (called workflow, business process management, etc.) to help support the automation or facilitation of routine work.

However, such techniques are not applicable for the unpredictable nature of knowledge work. The exact work that needs to be done for knowledge work depends very strongly on the situation. For example, the merger between United Airlines and Continental Airlines with have some things that need to be done that are unique to this particular merger, and that no other merger between companies will need. While there are patterns and similarities between mergers, you can’t make a process diagram that represent (to any level of detail) exactly what has to be done for a merger, because every merger is different.

Knowledge workers are people who come to work without a well defined script for what they will be doing that day. Paramedics can not tell you how many emergencies they will handle in the coming day. Lawyers and judges can not tell you what the state of a case will be tomorrow. Product designers can not accurately estimate the number of design breakthroughs they will have in a period of time. Detectives can not tell you in advance everyplace they will need to visit in order to follow the trail of clues. All of these people “figure out” what they need to do, as they do it.

The book “Mastering the Unpredictable” is a collection of writings from 12 different experts in the field to discuss how knowledge work must be handled, and proposes capabilities that a technology would need to effectively support knowledge workers. Since you can’t predict in advance exactly what will be done, you need to give people the ability to plan the work as they go along. This means that the planning can not be relegated to a highly specialized skill, but instead needs to be something that anyone and everyone can do.

“Mastering the Unpredictable” lays out a vision for how knowledge workers can use social networks, communications technology, document sharing, in order to be more effective at coordinating work using a collection of capabilities labeled “Adaptive Case Management” (ACM). ACM starts by giving workers a place to express their goals, and subgoals, and then manage those goals to completion. Goal orientation is one aspect of ACM, but you also need strong communications, records keeping, and document management. The purpose of ACM is not to constrain what a person can do at any time, but instead to put all possible actions within easy reach, so that the knowledge worker can execute quickly, responding to any situation as it comes up.

I hope that gives you an idea. Each of the contributors is passionate about the subject, and really try to give you a “glimpse over the hill” for this coming trend in both technology and management practice.

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