Sometimes, people ask me what my job is and I struggle to answer that question. It’s especially a problem with children or very old people. Basically, if you’re a flu risk, I struggle to explain my job to you.
A couple of years ago my last surviving grandparent died. Thinking about his impression of me, I have a suspicion that he would have struggled to explain what my job was. If push came to shove he might have said “He works with computers”. I think we can cut him a bit of slack there though as he was born in 1920, closer to the invention of Babbage’s Difference Engine than to Windows Vista. Bill Gates’s parents hadn’t even been born.
I’m not saying, of course, that no one born before some arbitrary date understands the digital workforce. But technology has created new habits, approaches and whole new ways of working. For people who haven’t been involved with those changes, there’s a lot to unpack. What’s worse, I’m not even sure I know what my job is. Sure, I can talk about my job title and industry and describe the tools, systems and, shudder, methodologies I’m using. But that’s not what my job is.
I’m a product manager, software engineer and the head of a department. Most people understand being the head of a department (“Oh you tell people off for being late in”), but when I say product manager, even those who have grown up with computers start to look confused. And when I add that I work on enterprise software even some web developers glaze over.
A friend of mine has a six year old. To explain his role in enterprise IT he said: “I make things like computer games, but they’re so boring you have to pay people to play them.” Depressingly, I think that’s the most accurate description of my industry I’ve heard.
Really, I’m a knowledge worker, which is weird in itself as I’ve had no training and I’m not sure I could define what it means. I wonder if my colleagues, who are also knowledge workers, often extremely good ones, could define what it means either.
Richard Florida, an urban studies theorist at the University of Toronto describes knowledge work as:
The direct manipulation of symbols to create an original knowledge product, or to add obvious value to an existing one.
That’s an excellent, academic definition, but it’s like the apocryphal story of Douglas Adams working in an office and filing all the documents under ‘P’ for paper. It’s technically correct, but doesn’t tell us anything about knowledge workers. Other than that a lumberjack isn’t one.
That’s okay though. I’m less interested in defining what knowledge work is, than identifying what the key things are that we need to do to succeed at it and trying to give voice to those things that we do unconsciously.
My dad is a artist. He has a great joke about artists and critics: when a group of critics get together, he says, they talk about form and meaning and symbolism in art. When a group of artists get together they talk about where you can buy cheap turps.
To expand that: when a group of knowledge workers get together they talk about how many emails they’ve got.
1. Filtering incoming noise for information
Information is like air these days. The problem is no longer getting access to it, it’s everywhere. But, like air in most urban areas, it’s heavily polluted.
Emails are one example — the daily deluge of missives and messages, requests for information, corporate communication, and back-covering carbon copies of plausible deniability. But buried within them are things you need to do your job. The details of a new system or approach, an update on a project. If you miss key emails you’re left scratching your head in meetings. “What are we talking about?” you might ask. “It’s all in the email,” the person at the front next to the PowerPoint might reply.
The process of “managing” an inbox is not reading each email, writing a polite reply and moving onto the next one. When you used to get a memo brought down from the typing pool, that approach might work. Now, email management is a constant process of scanning, skimming and assessing. Wading is perhaps a better term. Flicking over noise and identifying key information without missing things. It’s like gold panning without the pan.
What’s worse, the noise might not just be emails. Depending on your role, noise could be coming to you via Twitter, Slack, IM, Jira. You may be expected to extract knowledge from “the wider industry”. Maybe it’s even information given audibly in meetings. The knowledge worker needs to find some strategy to cope with this onslaught of more information that they can possibly process.
It’s why there’s something disingenuous about efficiency guides that tell you to ignore your emails or avoid distractions and focus fully on deep work. At times you may use that strategy. But in most roles you can’t just switch off from this flood of information. It’s your job to cope with it and extract key things.
Perhaps the key skill of the knowledge worker is to skim effectively. No one explicitly says this to you. Yet if you don’t do it, you’ll start getting called into the boss’s office and instructed to “take greater care with managing your inbox” or “improve your alignment”. Probably even your manager wouldn’t realise they’re saying: look I want you to spend as little time as possible on the unimportant emails, messages, notes and conversations while paying complete attention to the important ones. Oh and even I will tell you sometimes that some things are important when they’re not, and vice versa.
In a strange way, realizing this has given me a sort of peace. Overcoming that unstoppable tide of emails and information overload I face every day isn’t something that gets in the way of my job. That is my job.
2. Communicate what you find
In computer science (and I’m a software-y type person, so I inevitably reach for software analogies) there’s a concept called Postel’s Law. It goes something like this:
Be conservative in what you do, be liberal in what you accept from others.
That is, cast the net wide and try to gather information in whatever format it comes, but when you give out information, make sure it’s in a much better, more consistent and useful format than it came to you.
A huge amount of your time as a knowledge worker is spent absorbing information. But it’s useless just in your head. It then needs to be converted into a format someone else can use.
Depending on your role that could take a number of forms: spreadsheets, PowerPoints (or Keynotes if you’re in that sort of organisation), wire-frames, designs, specification documents, use cases, JIRA tickets, code.
There’s a whole set of different skills at work here: creativity, analysis, judgement. While they’re not easy to master, it is obvious that they need mastering. It’s clear that, say, a business analyst needs to be able to analyse things.
But the unwritten reality is that those things are only valuable if they can be communicated effectively to someone. And as soon as you start communicating knowledge, you’re producing exactly the sort of things that you’ve been just been wading through.
So as well as being able to extract and filter the knowledge other people produce, you have to be able produce knowledge that will go through other people’s filters.
It’s knowledge all the way down here.
3. Define what success is
A funny thing about ideas: you can’t really set objectives for a good idea without having the idea in the first place. It’s a vicious circle, in that knowledge workers often end up having to set their own homework without being told to do so.
In many cases, the person working on a particular piece of knowledge will very rapidly become the expert on that topic. After all, if someone had already filtered and understood it why would they need someone else to do the same?
There may be some clear business objectives: increase revenue, improve efficiencies and so on. But very soon you get into the more gnarly ones. Improve the user interface. (What do we mean by improve?) And these can become more and more abstract and less specific. Run the department effectively. What might that mean? And does part of that mean deciding what the department does?
You’re given a blank sheet. You’ll soon find out if you’ve put the wrong thing on it, even if no one else can tell you what the right thing would have been.
4. Protect yourself from burnout
A different colleague of mine told me a story about how she was once complaining to her mother about work. Her mum, who’d grown up in poverty, looked concerned and said, “you do have a good job don’t you? Based inside? No heavy lifting?”
Sitting in an air-conditioned, well-heated office, it can all seem a bit first-world-problem-y at times.
Yet knowledge workers are the most susceptible to burnout and work-related stress. And although burnout is increasingly an occupational health issue, and something that companies have been successfully sued for inducing, the most effective knowledge workers are those that are able to protect themselves from burnout.
The World Health Organisation has a definition of burnout:
Feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy
Burnout reduces your professional efficacy, so to work at your best you have to avoid burnout. It’s a bit of a tautology. That’s like saying to be a good footballer you have to avoid having your foot run over by a steamroller.
The difference is, when you play football, there aren’t generally many steamrollers around. Whereas being a knowledge workers is like playing football at a steamroller rally. The acts involved in knowledge work are often exactly the same acts that trigger burnout.
That’s why such a key part of the role is to find coping mechanisms for dealing with burnout. And again, no one explicitly says this to you. At the beginning of your career, no one sits you down and say: look kiddo, we’re going to bombard you with information, give you ill-defined work, ask you to solve problems that are sometimes impossible, give you little direction and then judge you on how well you handle all of that.
I think this is why the term “resilience” is bandied about so much in the context of knowledge workers.
This list is of course woefully incomplete, but the thing with trying to bring unwritten ideas to the surface is that it provides a framework to think within. In fact, I’ve found thinking these principles through has brought me a lot of solace. It’s a relief to know that some of the things that seemed to be impediments to my work — email, stress, working out what success looks like — actually are the work.
If these things weren’t there, if you had all the knowledge you needed immediately to hand in an accessible way, the job wouldn’t actually be knowledge work at all. It would just be… well, whatever your job actually says it is.