More about conversations and processes

I’ve a hunch that the conceptual models discussed in  Jeremy Aarons’ new paper, (as I summarised here) could be a useful lever for unpicking the dilemma I found when I wrote that I prefer conversation, but you need process.

In that post I was drawing on conversations with (amongst others) Earl, Taka, Jon  and Ton about the apparent conflict between the desire we all feel as empowered, “wierarchical” knowledge-workers to have systems that support a collaborative and improvisational working style, compared with the rigid, dehumanised processes that many companies see as a necessary corollary of delivering consistent service.

The particular paradox is that some of us (ok, me!) have on many occasions required companies (typically suppliers of services) to demonstrate those sorts of processes in order to satisfy our demands for clarity and measurability, even though we recognise that we may at the same time be preventing them from delivering the sorts of innovation that would truly delight us.

I find that the Davenport model helps me understand what is going on here – the underlying assumption of companies that apply prescriptive processes seems likely to be that the work involved is on the left-hand side of Davenport’s diagram – the Transaction and Integration models.


The underlying assumption has to be that the nature of the problems that are faced in these areas do not require interpretation, rather the application of rules and standards, possibly requiring multiple areas to work together but always within a set of rules. This is almost exactly the model under-pinning frameworks such as ITIL.

The other thing that strikes me as I read the contents of the boxes in the model are that they match closely with some of the criteria that are used in job grading systems. The boxes at the left of the model contain descriptions which are usually associated with lower-graded roles. This would seem to support my assertion from experience that companies which base their core competency around deployment of such rigid processes are primarily concerned with containing costs and at the same time guaranteeing minimum levels of service from a transient workforce.

Work that can be described by the right-hand side of the model (e.g. Collaboration and Expert models) is typically well-rewarded by job-grading schemes, pragmatic evidence that such skills are in relatively short supply. Professional services firms typically focus on reserving the efforts of these people for critical projects of areas requiring significant interaction. Such firms often also have (or desperately need) a core competence in taking the intellectual products of the right-hand side and “operationalising” them, i.e. turning them into formal processes and standards that can be scaled up and applied by the more numerous group of people paid lower wages to work “in the left-hand side”.

So far, so good – perhaps not a comfortable conclusion, but it would seem that the model works at least acceptably in certain situations. There is a certain basic business logic in reserving your most highly-skilled people for problems that need their attributes, whilst at the same time finding ways to manage the routine at a lower cost.

So where does the paradigm break?

I think there are at least two areas worthy of further exploration:

  • There is an assumption that the market such firms supply will largely pose routine problems which are amenable to a rules-and-standards approach – where does this break down?
  • Secondly, underlying the concerns that were expressed in the earlier conversation is a belief or hope that by finding a more integrative approach to knowledge work then there is the potential of finding ways that are more rewarding in either a commercial or human sense.

 Ideas for later posts…

Proactive application of technology to business

My interests include technology, personal knowledge management, social change