September 19, 2008

Putting Blinders on to Enhance Productivity

Do you remember the conversations we had within law firms when we began to consider permitting desktop access to the Internet? Everyone focused on the potential loss of productivity. To be fair, that can be a problem. You don't have to walk far in any office to find someone surfing the net. Equally, you don't have to walk far to find someone using e-mail or the telephone for personal business during business hours. Regardless of the type of technology tool (e.g., the web, e-mail or the phone), people can always find non-business ways of using that tool.

Nonetheless, withholding technology for fear of productivity losses is a little like trying to put blinders on your people to keep them focused on work. The problem is that while this strategy works with horses, it's considerably less successful with people. Never underestimate the creativity of a person determined not to work.

As various enterprises now consider bringing the benefits of social media tools within their firewalls, they can be overly-concerned with the negative aspects of social networking and fail to appreciate the potential productivity gains. As reported by Atul Rai in IBM and Social Networking, while IBM had some initial qualms about productivity losses resulting from new social media tools, the powers-that-be decided that the risk was no greater than the normal tendency to have conversations over the water cooler or in the hallway about nonwork-related topics. Now that IBM has deployed social media tools to wide acclaim, they've discovered that the tools don't interfere with an employee's ability to meet work goals. In fact, the tools have provided significant productivity benefits.

This seems like a good point to suggest that instead of withholding tools in an attempt to force employees to focus on work, we should take a closer look at what really allows people to work well.

In a recent series of posts, Daniel Pink reported on an interview he did with Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson, authors of the book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It. In their book they propose a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). According to Pink, key features of a ROWE are: "people show up to the office when they want, meetings are optional, and nobody’s watching the clock." (This is a far cry from most offices.) The bottom line is that "each person in an office environment is free to do whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as the work gets done. " [emphasis added]

One common worry raised by critics is that employees won't be able to handle a ROWE (i.e., they aren't grown up enough to be responsible for their own time and performance). Here's how the authors respond to that criticism:
... how do you know that some people can’t handle ROWE? Don’t assume what you don’t know. If you and your employees work on the clear expectations that are expected in order for them to keep their job, then set them free to reach their outcomes. Worrying that some people can’t handle ROWE is a waste of time. It’s paternalistic thinking that just doesn’t have a place in the 21st century. We’ve found that there is so much productivity being left on the table in companies because managers are orchestrating everything according to their liking. Unleash the untapped potential around you – it’s waiting to come out!
In a law firm that charges by the billable hour, there is a natural fixation on time and how that time is spent. Further, many law firms tend to be populated by inherently conservative people who have a hard time thinking about radical changes to their work style or work environment. However, if we could look past the billable hour for a moment, we'd realize that in a ROWE it doesn't matter if a wonderful tech tool also provides a handy distraction since it's ultimately up to the individual employee to meet their performance goals in a timely manner. Therefore, as long as the firm provides useful tools, it's the employee's responsibility to use those tools wisely -- or not. In this way, the employer gives up the nanny role and gets to spend more time setting strategy, hiring good people, and then letting those people loose to meet strategic goals.

This should be the new mantra for law firm knowledge management and information technology specialists: instead of micromanaging employees to make them work, just articulate clear expectations and performance goals, provide great tools, and then set them free to work as they see fit. Don't shy away from web 2.0 technology simply because you are concerned about the social aspects of the tools. When you try to put blinders on your people, you fail. Instead of hampering their ability to goof off, you hamper their ability to work. In effect, instead of blinders, you're putting handcuffs on them. Now how is that conducive to work?

2 comments:

sharingatwork.com said...

You've really been posting good stuff lately, Mary. How long have you been a knowledge manager? I've only really picked it up as an at-work hobby in the last year or two.

I'm noticing that librarians and lawyers are some of the best people for me to learn from in this area.

-Daniel

Mary Abraham said...

Daniel -

Thanks for your kind words. Some folks say that lawyers have been "doing knowledge management" since the beginning of the profession. Be that as it may, I've been formally involved in KM for nearly 10 years. And, like most of my generation of knowledge managers, we learned on the job. So keep at your at-work hobby. You'll find it very rewarding.

Best,
Mary