The Information Age had its start in the early 1980s with the break-up of the Bell System and AT&T, a move that led to a competitive telecoms environment that was able to build the commercial Internet that is somewhat taken for granted today.
This communications revolution has brought with it myriad changes in how work is done. While as recently as five years ago, much knowledge work was relatively solitary, today knowledge workers expect to be able to tap into a variety of resources – be they people, information, tools, or the collective knowledge of an organization – when doing their work.
One thing that has changed is the recognition that knowledge workers (sometimes referred to as information workers) are the lynchpins of the Information Age. Ironically, many of the tools that support knowledge work, while having acquired significant functionality, haven’t changed to better support new ways of working. What has to happen is nothing less than revolutionary; software needs to adapt to the new way of working collaboratively and software development needs to support this paradigm from the ground up.
In part, little has changed within the enterprise because we have yet to develop a management science for the knowledge economy that managers can apply in crafting strategy, designing products, managing people, and leveraging technology. It took a good 150 years from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution until the beginnings of a management science began to take shape. Today, we are in the first quarter century of the knowledge economy and all we can do is borrow the management science from the previous epoch and try to adapt it, an action somewhat akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and one resulting in great inefficiencies.
Taylorism, the management science of the industrial age first enunciated by Frederick Winslow Taylor, included standardizing work or replacing humans with machines and finding the “one best way” to perform tasks. Indeed, a 1974 article in the New York Times discussed how companies were following this course and turning offices into factories by splitting the traditional secretary’s job into two parts and sending some secretaries off to word processing centers to type documents and others to administrative support stations to file papers and answer phones.
It is clear today that such “improvements” were not appropriate for knowledge work and such attempts exemplify the fact that we still have a long way to go.
David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.