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Business - Written by on Monday, November 17, 2008 2:54 - 1 Comment

Naumi Haque
The problem with knowledge work part III: Trust (or lack thereof)

In the absence of sound metrics around collaboration, I’m going to argue that the alternative is trust: Hire talented, motivated people and trust that they’ll do a good job. Trust that they’re working hard, trust that employees have the company’s best interests in mind, and trust that when they’re collaborating with co-workers they’re actually creating value. If you don’t have metrics in place and you don’t have trust, you have dissatisfaction, you have over-worked employees, and you have poor quality. This is especially true in tough economic times when companies are fixated on getting more productivity out of fewer resources. Trust me, I’ve seen it.

If the traditional metrics are counting widgets and widgets aren’t falling off the assembly line, managers get irate. They wonder why their widget numbers are low, or why their shipments are late – it is, after all, their ass on the line. Knowledge workers, on the other hand, are no slackers. They know widgets are important, and they’re working hard to make the shipment. But they are also engaging in collaborative activities, like maybe working with Chinese widget-makers to figure out how to lower costs, or working with German widget-makers to figure out how to improve quality. Moreover, thanks to collaborative efforts, the widget itself seems to have somehow evolved into a gadget which is far more complex a thing.

So what’s my point? This is where old-school management techniques collide with new-school ways of working. Under the old-school way of thinking, the manager will wonder why the widget order is late and will blame the worker for slacking on the job. He may trust the worker as a person, but as an employee, he doesn’t trust that the employee is working as hard as he could – a quick slap with the stick should get the work mule back on track. The employee will be frustrated and feel underappreciated because, from his point of view, he’s just put an inordinate amount of time and effort into company projects with no thanks. Worse, he got the stick.

Now let’s apply a trust model. The alternative manager trusts that the employee is a hard worker. He recognizes that the gadget may actually be a better product than the widget and that future returns on quality and cost initiatives might pay off (or might not – that’s the gamble with collaboration). In fact, the new-school manager could even take an interest in the additional value the worker is trying to create and collaborate with them on their initiatives, offer feedback, or give praise and recognition. Now this type of model tends to get old-school managers up-in-arms. They may not say it, but the underlying belief is that serious business can’t be managed by trust any more than companies can be run by a bunch of Kumbaya-crooning, no-work-ethic, granola-crunching slackers (or if it’s Net Gen employees; coddled, self-entitled, no-work-ethic video game junkies).

However, I would argue that until the value of collaboration is truly measurable, trust is the only reliable model we have. Plus, it’s not like checks and balances don’t exist. In collaborative environments, if someone’s not pulling their weight, it becomes quickly apparent by others’ unwillingness to work with that individual. The future vision is one where we can apply metrics to a worker’s collaborative activities and buttress the trust model with some hard numbers—but until then, trust, respect, and recognition will be better motivators in collaborative environments than traditional ‘carrot-and-stick’ methods that are based on metrics that are either false or misrepresentative of value. I’ll also say that the trust model is especially important in the current economic climate where carrots may be in limited supply – just sayin’, you know, from the perspective of the donkey ; )

Part I, Part II, Part III

1 Comment

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Nov 17, 2008 14:22

Great post! Now…how do we get management to see this? Forward them this post? Buy them the Wikinomics book? heh…

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