Changing Services: Clients, Quality, and Collaboration
Michael G. Prais, Ph.D., Northern Illinois University, 1993

3. The Knowledge Worker

Building recognition of quality at every point of production requires worker involvement and empowerment. While there will be random variation in product, the worker must work to prevent systematic variations. The worker can only recognize and correct these variations when he or she knowledge and tools to do so. That knowledge includes knowledge about customer expectations, knowledge about ways to prevent systematic variations, and knowledge about other parts of the production process.

User services organizations, and universities as a whole, do knowledge work. The core of user services organizations are knowledge workers, that is, workers who take information from one server, transform it, and provide it as a service to another. Some of this transformed information is used by the larger organization --the environment, but some of this information is used by the user services organization itself. As you might expect, staff assumptions play an important role in the relationships that support the flow of this information. Assumptions, values, and perspectives of your organization must be identified, and perhaps changed, to follow the course of Total Quality Management.

User services staff, as well as the general American worker, must recognize what it means to be a knowledge worker. Computer facilities have developed a reputation of being staffed by a very knowledgeable, technical priesthood that are as isolated as the equipment that they work with. In many situations the tool has become more important than the client. To be a knowledgeable worker, you must have knowledge of your client and your organization as well as your transforming tool.

A knowledge worker is expected to be a true professional whose chief concern is the objectives of the client at all times identifying expectations and seeking feedback. Professionals must take responsibility for leadership in his area of expertise, yet everyone on a team must be responsible for the completed whole. As a professional, a knowledge worker must continuously learn and improve skills and use these activities as their own rewards. Knowledge workers are evaluated on their contributions to the goals of the organization.

Both Deming and Drucker suggest that workers, especially knowledge workers, be given autonomy. Autonomy allows workers to reduce barriers to communication, develop teams, solve problems quicker, and respond to client expectations. Autonomy should allow workers to develop relationships and organize teams based on requirements of individual tasks. Autonomy allows the worker to plan intermediate tasks, set intermediate objectives, and identify intermediate standards necessary to meet client expectations. This autonomy is the authority to make decisions that control variation between a product and its ideal governed by client expectations. Controls must focus on observable events. The purpose of control is to make a process go smoothly, properly, and according to high standards with a minimum of work.

However, this autonomy requires even greater responsibility and effort on the part of the worker. With this authority the knowledge worker must accept the responsibility for the completion of the work, the accountability through positive and negative consequences, the responsibility for contributing towards the objectives of the enterprise, and the responsibility to communicate to management what the worker expects to do, what the worker is capable of doing, what standards the work can be expected to meet, and what new opportunities, needs, and challenges present themselves to the organization. In situations of significant autonomy and individual responsibility, the worker must clearly communicate client expectations and what he or she is expecting to do to meet client expectations.

Drucker suggests that the most effective, adaptable organization is a federation of autonomous organizations or workers whose objectives, not operations, have been well defined by management. Those objectives are defined with a set of common measurements and controls that allow workers to gauge their performance. A federation requires confidence and controls that make options unnecessary. A supervisor does not exist in a true federation because personal supervision is only necessary when measurements and controls are inadequate. The autonomous, responsible, accountable, communicating knowledge worker fits very well into a federation.

4. The Knowledgeable Manager

Originally published in Proceedings of the ACM User Services Conference XXI, 1993.
Copyright Association for Computer Machinery 1993
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