ICT, declining role of CCO forcing redefinition of knowledge work

The maturation and proliferation of information and communications technology (ICT) is upending the concept of knowledge work. During the late Industrial Age, knowledge work meant working Monday through Friday 8-5 in a commute-in office. If a knowledge worker made the commute and showed up every workday, 8 hours a day, 40 hours a week — ipso facto they were performing knowledge work. As Dave Rolston wrote in his 2013 eBook Four Dead Kings at Work, these strictures of time and place are breaking down.

In the process, that collapse is forcing a redefinition of knowledge work to mean, well, work and specifically the work product — and not a daily trip to appear at a centralized commuter office (CCO). After all, that daily commute adds no intrinsic value and in fact extracts significant personal cost from knowledge workers that can reduce their morale and interest in what really counts – their work projects.

The current time is one of transition away from Rolston’s dying kings of the traditional workplace. Take, for example, the growing buzz on workplace flexibility and telework or virtual/remote work. It represents a shift away from the CCO and illustrates the tension between the traditional CCO and new, emerging ways of performing knowledge work beyond the CCO.

The CCO took many decades to be established and knowledge organizations have invested enormous sums in them. So even though ICT has effectively obsoleted them by distributing knowledge work outside the CCO, they won’t disappear overnight. But their role will fade as time goes on. In the meantime, a new definition of knowledge work will be formed that is independent of the CCO.

Plumbing the paradox of Silicon Valley: Where culture trumps ICT

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The late management master Peter Drucker’s perhaps most quoted aphorism is “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” In California’s Silicon Valley, culture makes a daily meal of a key benefit of its products and services: information and communication technologies (ICT) that decentralize and make knowledge work – now the essential activity of Silicon Valley with most if not all manufacturing done outside of the area – location independent.

As a geographical location, Silicon Valley has effectively obsoleted itself but doesn’t know it yet or simply cannot accept it. There are a couple of reasons why Silicon Valley remains defined by location even though for much of the world, Silicon Valley connotes ICT innovation rather than a spot on Google Earth.

First is its founding in the 1960s. Intel made microprocessors there. Hewlett Packard manufactured test instruments and minicomputers in Silicon Valley. Late in the following decade, Apple Computer got its start there. These companies all predated the information economy even though their products would later give rise to it as the 20th century drew to a close. As manufacturers, their cultures are heavily based on the Industrial Age paradigm of commuting in daily to a centralized work location: the plant and the office.

That cultural touchstone combines with a second powerful element that reinforces daily commute trips to Silicon Valley companies: Stanford University. Stanford and Silicon Valley’s proximity to it was the academic component of Silicon Valley’s synergy of the early years that brought together academics and cutting edge engineers. Stanford lent Silicon Valley an academic, campus culture that remains in place today. Silicon Valley companies honor that culture by regarding their headquarters as “campuses.” Apple and Google have built enormous mega campuses that offer the amenities of the most modern college campus such as gyms, food service, and laundry facilities (but without the dorms).

The raison d’etre of the campus is another c-word: collaboration. Silicon Valley’s campus culture is strongly tied to the belief that collaboration can only truly occur on the campus in real time, face to face — much like graduate fellows discussing the latest theories of quantum mechanics. That discussion might produce an important breakthrough.

In 2012, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer and Hewlett-Packard soon thereafter paid homage to the campus culture by ordering staff to report to the office daily and cease working from elsewhere. Enforcing the collaborative campus setting was the hoped for secret sauce to lift these companies fortunes during a challenging time in their histories. The campus culture combined with Silicon Valley’s Industrial Age roots also spawned the so-called “Google Bus” that transports staff back and forth daily between their homes in San Francisco and the corporate campus.

Even though the very ICT tools Silicon Valley brought to the world make collaboration possible anywhere and in real-time and non-real-time via voice, text and video, its Industrial Age roots and campus culture continue to define it today. But with it comes the huge and unnecessary cost of a time sucking commute and horrible traffic borne daily by Silicon Valley workers.

Decentralization of knowledge work supports wellness

One of the most obvious but overlooked strategies for knowledge organizations to improve and support the wellness of their staff members is dispersing knowledge work out of centralized, commute-in offices to the communities where they live — in home offices and shared satellite and co-working spaces. That eliminates the daily commute, shown to be adverse to wellness and frees up time that can be devoted to health promoting behaviors like more sleep, daily exercise, better diet (by avoiding daily take out meals) and social time with family and community.

For more on a community-based (versus centralized workplace) strategy for supporting wellness, click here.

Telecom critical infrastructure for 21st century as knowledge work is decentralized

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But the goal of the “Tri-Gig High Speed” initiative is to offer a broadband infrastructure that is as affordable as possible and will meet the technological needs of businesses, public and educational institutions, and local residents, said Jane Nickles, chief information officer for the city of Greensboro. The Triad is one of several regions across the country striving to offer high-speed gigabit Internet access as a way to attract and retain businesses.“This is really an economic development initiative,” Nickles said. “Businesses are going to want to locate where they can get the high-speed broadband access and where their employees can get it because it opens up those possibilities of things that can be done outside of the office and done from home.”

Source: Triad cities, universities seek contractors to provide high-speed Internet access – Greensboro – Triad Business Journal

Nickles’ comments illustrate the very important role of telecommunications infrastructure in the 21st century. It’s as critical to the 21st century economy as transportation infrastructure was to the previous one. Particularly as performing knowledge work — centralized in metro centers in the 20th century — becomes decentralized and often performed outside the centralized commuter office and at home as Nickles notes. An added benefit is reduced transportation demand at the same time much of the transportation infrastructure is aging and in need of major overhaul.