I’d like to propose the following loose organizational history for businesses in the USA (and elsewhere) as they affect some elements of Knowledge Management (KM)
|1960-1973||Experts and expertise||Expert|
|1973-1987||Rise of middle management||Manager|
|1987-2001||Middle management massacre; rise of “teamwork”||Team leader /Specialists|
|2001-2008||Age of outsourcing||The Trainer|
|2008-?||(Collaboration?)||(Knowledge worker /manager?)|
The dates are somewhat arbitrary, but reflect major social/economic events. 1960 saw the beginning of true desegregation and the trappings of the JFK era. 1973 was marked by the OPEC oil crisis. 1987 saw stock markets deflate drastically. 2001 marks both the final collapse of the internet stock bubble, and the events of September 11. 2008 marks the complete collapse of US investment banking.
At each marker the economic “game” changed drastically, and resources were reallocated by business to increase profits in some new way.
One way of viewing this “progress” would be to see it as the gradual commodification of expertise. Individuals are gradually replaced by broader and broader groups. There is a net gain in efficiency at every step, but equally there is a loss of creativity, adaptability, and curiosity.
So, around 1973 experts who were interested in understanding were replaced by managers who had learned certain rigid analytic metrics from the work of the experts.
With the rise of teams responsibility devolved from the management level to the specialist level. The team leader essentially worked to apportion that responsibility, but did not take on specific responsibilities that related to expertise, other than being able to run a team.
The logical progression was to build more diffuse, and less expensive teams by outsourcing work. The trainer came into being, yet another step back from management responsibility.
Where does this leave us now, as we face the aftermath of yet another economic crisis?
The startling fact that seems to have emerged over the past four or five years is that things aren’t working quite the way they are supposed to work. Companies that should be doing very well are not, and those that should not be doing too well are prospering. Apple which once was considered the epitome of potential gone bad, has risen to be such a formidable opponent that it has shaken up the mighty mobile phone market. Meanwhile companies such as Dell and Starbucks have plunged in profitability — and both have adopted the Apple solution of bringing the founder back into the company. Microsoft continues in the doldrums, even as its founder has left.
Is the need for creativity, for imagination, for adaptability actually on the rise?
Is it possible that after over forty years of the gradual “disenfranchisement” of American knowledge workers, they may now be about to be “re-enfranchised”? Is it possible we are going to see the rise, finally, of a drive to create collaborative situations to enhance the productivity of knowledge workers?
Well, don’t count on it. But there are some hopeful signs around. Which will be the subject of another posting.