How to Lead, Manage and Motivate Knowledge Workers

How to Lead, Manage and Motivate Knowledge Workers

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How to lead, manage and motivate knowledge workers

A Global Knowledge Society

In 1993, esteemed management scholar Peter Drucker did not say we were heading towards a knowledge society, where the minds and expertise of employees, of knowledge workers, are a firm’s greatest asset. He said we were already there, adding that “we” pertains to the entire globe, not just Western society.

23 years have passed. This should have been plenty of time for theorists and practitioners, together or separately, to develop sound models for managing this new post-capitalist wave of knowledge workers, models that actually work and are more than fads. It seems not.

What we know is that the supply of management models has flourished, alongside cybernetic systems, most of which are concerned with how to store and transfer knowledge, seeing it as a structural commodity. Putting workers’ knowledge, and the sharing and development of such, into systems has been recognized as crucial for making firms less vulnerable to turn-over, and more prone to innovation and the development of firm-specific expertise. The individual responsible for these structures and systems has traditionally been the manager. In this case the knowledge manager.

How to lead, manage and motivate knowledge workers

Management, a mere Leftover from the Industrialization?

Shenhav and Weitz (2000) make the argument that management is an inheritance from the early period of industrialization, inspired by the many gains the western world was making from industrialization and engineering almost two centuries ago. They claim that ideas from engineering were taken from the world of machines into the world of people for the sake of reducing uncertainty in managing a work force and enhancing productivity.

Management was from the start a way of controlling through deploying standardization and systems. During the latter decades of the 20th century, these ideas were brought into the domain of knowledge as a new wave of knowledge workers emerged, precisely as depicted by Drucker.

Knowledge was partly seen as something tacit residing beneath the surface of language, inextricably connected with practice, and partly as something explicit that could easily be binary coded, stored and transferred between workers. As a result, today knowledge management systems are an expected component in the management of companies.

The contradictions of Knowledge and Management

Critical voices have, however, pointed out that knowledge and management form an oxymoronic relationship; a relationship where contradictory terms are sought united (e.g. Alvesson and Karreman, 2001; Styhre, 2003). Knowledge cannot be managed, as it is private property, which cannot be shared, as such, between workers. The stuff, which is codified and stored in systems, or in books or manuals for that sake, is worthless outside of the practical experience and context of those possessing it.

One might store a word, an SOP or a narrative, but what is stored are merely symbols, not knowledge itself. When using ‘knowledge management systems’, then, workers experience massive difficulties in interpreting, translating and breathing life into language symbols to which they may have little or no personal ownership. For instance, as reported in Alvesson’s and Karreman’s (2001) empirical analysis of knowledge management in a Swedish consulting company:

It is not difficult [to publish material in the knowledge management system]. The problem is rather that the procedures for uploading information are weak. So when you search the databases you often get 1000 hits with varying degree of relevance” (p. 1009).

Giving voice to ‘Communities of Practice’

How to lead, manage and motivate knowledge workersChallenges with knowledge sharing through information technology seem to protect, even enhance, the autonomy of knowledge workers. Their practical experience and expertise are desired treasures, hidden privately. Scholars have therefore started looking at alternatives for knowledge sharing and development, and recently ideas have emerged from studying the practice and learning of traditional craftsmanship.

Coining it “Communities of Practice”, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) were pioneers in promoting knowledge sharing through informal co-practicing, mentoring and lingo-forming, such as are found in many of the traditional trades. These models, interestingly, incorporate ideas from pragmatist philosophers basically saying that knowing and learning is always, and should always be, practical more than theoretical. Knowledge is practice.

Leading as in the Good Old Days

Not much closer to a model of how to manage knowledge workers, one is prone to ask – how does one go about one’s role as a leader in a knowledge incentive firm? What is the lesson learned from all these wicked issues of knowledge, expertise, sharing and autonomy, particularly under growing demands for innovation and knowledge development?

Answers may be ready at hand, but perhaps we should look beyond yet more models or systems of management. A cruel joke has been made in Norway at the expense of sheep farmers for losing much of their stock to wolves; how about herding them like in the old days? A similar joke can be made at the expense of the over-managed corporation – how about leading instead of more management?

Characteristics of the Knowledge Workers

How to lead, manage and motivate knowledge workers

We know that knowledge workers are deeply vested, often ideologically, in their trade. Typically they are highly educated, specialized and prone to changing workplaces, off to seek new adventures (see for instance Hislop, 2013). We label them autonomous. From a manager’s point of view autonomy may be seen as a problem, because it renders the workforce uncontrollable.

Knowledge workers such as doctors, lawyers, engineers and scholars, on their side, may hold their ethos high, maybe higher than monetary incentives – they do what they do because it is (part of) who they are. Their work is their identity.

Efforts of management control may be counter-effective with these workers, in the worst case, it may motivate them to leave the organization, taking with them much needed expertise and experience. But instead of asking how you can control these individuals, you might want to ask why you should control them in the first place?

Trust-Based Leadership or Distrustful Management?

Autonomy does not imply by default that one is always full out dedicated or energized. Laziness, unwillingness, resistance, may always lurk in the shadows. Or sometimes even out in the open. A knowledge manager must, however, make a choice whether to direct one’s focus on distrust, and pick one’s methods accordingly, or on trust, and develop approaches from that. This is a choice more easily made in theory than in practice, especially when one’s career is dependent upon delivering results. Still, I would argue that more is gained through trust-based leadership than by distrustful management. And I’ll explain why.

Peter Drucker (1993) says that “partnership with the responsible worker is the only way to improve productivity. Nothing else works at all” (p. 92). Prone to overstatements, we should take his words seriously, though discern them critically. What does such a partnership entail?

For one, in the field of practice, this is formalized in what is referred to as “the Scandinavian model” – a partnership between the state, the employers and the work force. Even if this model is constantly battled and challenged, and soaked with uncertainty and vagueness, it is based on a firm belief in cooperation. Behind it is a long tradition of democracy and co-determination, and even if highly contested it delivers a high standard of living for many.

Macro-level analyses of societal models are, however, outside of the scope of this article. And as we approach the micro-level of everyday work life, we shall look into what ‘partnership’ may mean in the context of organizing practices, where managers and workers meet and make exchanges.

The Empowerment of Knowledge Workers

Empowerment is an obvious candidate as a tool for managing knowledge workers. Henry Mintzberg (1999) says the following about the phenomenon:

Organizations that have real empowerment don’t talk about it. Those that make a lot of noise about it generally lack it: they have been spending too much of their past disempowering everybody. Then, suddenly, empowerment appears as a gift from the gods.” (p. 25).

Empowerment, for it to be meaningful and have impact, has to be more than a management technique, and perhaps it is not so much something a manager can give away as it is a core value to organize around. And in that case co-determination may be a more accurate term.

Co-determination: What Does it Mean?

Co-determination is not laisses-faire leadership. It is not some blunt form of ‘anything goes’. It is authentic involvement with the workers, acknowledgment of their presence and recognition of their skills. It is different from empowerment, because under conditions of co-determination the knowledge worker is always already in power. It may, however, be necessary for a manager from time to time to remind knowledge workers of their significance, illume their professional value and related responsibilities, but always with respect and from a dedication to cooperate rather than control.

As a starting point for any change process, co-determination should be considered for the sake of arriving at sound courses of action, with minimum risk of conflict and maximum potential for success. Co-determination must, however, be made with caution and cleverness.

For a manager, or a group of managers, to decide when to involve whom, at which stage and to what extent is a complex affair. It can be wrong to involve a worker in one setting, just as it is wrong not to do so in another. The crucial thing is to always consider, how co-determination is a factor in a work situation, seeing it more like a professional value than a managerial instrument. This implies that the managers are themselves a part of those processes of organizing and innovation going on at a given time, and therefore should be ready to undertake the same changes as everyone else (Klev and Levin, 2009; Quinn, 2010).

How to lead, manage and motivate knowledge workers

Mindful Organizing with Regard to Context

According to Winnie the Pooh’s Christopher Robin, organizing is something you do before you do something else. On a deeper level, organizing is something a manager does continually, mindfully and always with regard to context (Dehlin, 2008).

In a knowledge intensive firm, workers are the most significant contextual element. They are the most valuable capital, to the extent that one aims for mindful innovation over mindless production. Managing knowledge workers has, however, been compared to herding cats (Døving et al., 2016). Rather than aiming for control, then, knowledge managers should aim to build a system of mutual trust and learning, a system in which they themselves are a crucial part.

The role of the knowledge manager is not as an outside mover causing exogenous changes. Managing knowledge workers is better understood as an acknowledging style of leadership, always sensitive to the autonomy of workers but also mindful of responsibilities and demands that apply. If you trust your knowledge workers, they may start to trust each other. And if you don’t, why should they?

Leading by Way of Recognition

It can be difficult to see in concrete terms what recognition and acknowledgement mean in everyday work life. Perhaps it is easier to see what it does not mean.

Building and enforcing a system of management control, for instance, may signal a lack of trust, which again may spur the understanding that the best you can do is not to make mistakes. If workers are already professionally dedicated, their identities tied up in their work, their energy associated with original problem-solving, innovation and learning may be difficult to foster under strict control regimes.

This is not to say that bureaucracy and management control are always counter-productive to innovation or to the successful leading of knowledge workers. Some level of structure and system is of the utmost importance as a means to organize complex businesses.

The trick is to avoid making it into an ideology, in which management becomes managerialism. In the case of the latter the organization has become totalitarian, effectively cleansing its practices of any potential for authentic recognition and acknowledgement. Management is a tool for leadership, not an end unto itself (Dehlin, 2012).

Knowledge workers not only spot trends of managerialism easily, they also loathe them to the extent that they are seen as hampering a sound development of knowledge practices. A leadership style of co-determination and acknowledgment may go a long way, in that it pushes the right buttons.

Acknowledge the Expertise of Knowledge Workers

In a knowledge incentive company, workers often know more than their managers. They are experts. To acknowledge them can be hard for any manager afraid of being seen as less important, less skilled, or less adept at creative problem-solving. But not to try is equivalent to constructing inauthentic positions where power and authority become more of a struggle than a negotiation.

In managing and organizations the arbiters of legitimacy are never those who claim authority. Authority is always bestowed by significant others” (Clegg et al., 2015: p. 262).

And when legitimacy is given to a manager, it reduces the chance of conflict as a meaningful context is established. Acknowledgment can be a fruitful way of achieving such legitimacy.

How to Acknowledge Knowledge Workers

To acknowledge knowledge workers is to involve them in dialogue, invite them into strategic decisions, help them see that they are responsible for their own actions and the organization’s development. In short it is everything that involves taking an interest in others, not because the Human Resource Management system demands it, but because the manager sees it as vital.

Acknowledgement is appraisal and reward, but on a much deeper level it is confirming others as important, valued and interesting. To acknowledge someone is to confirm his or her identity, and it presupposes taking an interest in where this someone is emotionally, socially and professionally.

How to lead, manage and motivate knowledge workers

The Power of Social Recognition

A manager who acknowledges his work force is a manager who learns from the workers and who is also capable of making them acknowledge and learn from each other. Contemporary philosophy highlights the importance and power of social recognition, deeming it vital for professional and personal development (see for instance Honneth, 1996; Windt, 1998 and Weber, 2006). Many expand on philosopher George H. Mead, claiming that participating in communities, groups and teams is the precursor for individual freedom and identity.

For knowledge workers, recognition from peers or other experts may be a prime driver for growth. A knowledge manager’s job is to facilitate opportunities for such processes, perhaps by methods such as allowing groups to form, organizing mentoring programs, or peer guidance systems, or providing and maintaining arenas for organizational learning.

This is not a clear-cut model for managing knowledge workers, but rather a reminder of the shortcomings of any such model. A way of seeing all is a way of seeing no one. The stepping stones for knowledge managers are context sensitivity, recognition and respect in harmony with the use of appropriate tools and systems, clear expectations and possibilities for growth. Knowledge workers need collectivity to learn, and managers are co-learners in that same collective.

References:

Alvesson, M., & Kärreman, D. (2001). Odd couple: making sense of the curious concept of knowledge management. Journal of management studies38(7), 995-1018.

Clegg, S. R., Kornberger, M., & Pitsis, T. (2015). Managing and organizations: An introduction to theory and practice. Sage.

Dehlin, E. (2008). The Flesh and Blood of Improvisation. Trondheim: Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

Dehlin, E. (2012). Fleshing Out Everyday Innovation: Phronesis and Improvisation in Knowledge Work, In Pitsis, T., Simpson, A. and Dehlin, E. eds. Handbook of Organizational and Managerial Innovation. London: Edgar – Elgar Press.

Drucker, P. (1993). Post-capitalist society. HarperBusiness, New York.

Døving, E., Elstad, B. and Storvik, A. (eds.) (2016) Profesjon og ledelse. Oslo: Fagbokforlaget.

Honneth, A. (1996). The struggle for recognition: The moral grammar of social conflicts. Mit Press.

Hislop, D. (2013). Knowledge management in organizations: A critical introduction. Oxford University Press.

Klev, R., & Levin, M. (2009). Forandring som praksis: endringsledelse gjennom læring og utvikling. Fagbokforlaget.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press.

Mintzberg, H. (1999). Managing quietly. Leader to Leader1999(12), 24-30.

Shenhav, Y., & Weitz, E. (2000). The roots of uncertainty in organization theory: A historical constructivist analysis. Organization7(3), 373-401.

Styhre, A. (2003). Understanding Knowledge Management – Critical and Postmodern Perspectives. København: Copenhagen Business School Press.

Quinn, R. E. (2010). Deep change: Discovering the leader within (Vol. 378). John Wiley & Sons.

Weber, B. (2006). Negative autonomy and the intuitions of democracy. Philosophy & social criticism32(3), 325-346.

Wind, H. C. (1998). Anerkendelse: Et tema i Hegels og moderne filosofi. Aarhus universitetsforlag.

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Erlend Dehlin is Associate Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology/Programme for Teacher Education. Erlend earned his PhD from studying the significance of improvisation in organizing processes, and has publications within organisation and management theory, knowledge work, innovation and project management. In both his consultancy and research practice Erlend works from the grounds of practice theory, and his current research is concerned with the role of co-determination, recognition and aesthetics in leadership with a particular interest in educational development.

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