Lately I’ve been reading Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford, and it has been an education. (Should be required reading for all knowledge workers, in my estimation.) One of the things Crawford discusses in chapter two, The Separation of Thinking from Doing, is how Frederick Taylor’s efficiency studies and Henry Ford’s assembly line turned carriage craftsmen into knob-turners. As the title of the chapter suggest, the process required less in the way cognitive thinking and more in the way of finely-tuned repetition of movement—muscle memory, if you will. But Crawford doesn’t stop there. He contends that white-collar work is experiencing the same degradation. Knowledge workers are being confined into more and more narrow roles, performing tactical transactions in enterprise systems that take the need for cognitive thinking out of the equation.
As a consultant that helps organizations better engage their employees and create a thriving culture, I have to say that I agree with this. We’ve all heard about the supposed skills gap that’s plaguing our economy. Other economists wonder if instead of a skills gap there’s more of a wage gap. (I’ve seen many employers offer up job descriptions with skills, education, and experience requirements as long as my arm and then wonder why no one will take the job at $27,000 a year.) But instead of playing “us versus them”—supposedly under-skilled job candidates versus seemingly stingy employers—maybe Crawford’s observation of the degradation of professional labor can offer an additional dimension. Take one of my clients, for instance. They want to hire someone with significant online portal architecture and programming skills—or do they? At the end of the day all they want is someone that can build web pages in SharePoint. That’s it. Nothing more. And that’s all they want to pay for. But real information architects come with—and want to use—far greater cognitive skills than are necessary to build a web page from a standard template. These candidates want to factor in design architecture and user acceptance. They want to be creative and innovate. In short, they want to contribute in meaningful ways and be compensated for their effort. But the employer just needs this one skill—a skill they can’t find in isolation of all those other skills. Hence, employees see a wage gap, while employers see a skills gap.
This illustrates one of the great paradoxes of mechanistic organizational structures. On one hand we want to segment our resources into functional departments (increase knowledge-sharing, develop best practices, leverage a shared cultural acumen, etc.), yet on the other hand we want these departments to collaborate seamlessly. To put it another way, we work hard to build functional silos, then try to figure out how to break them down so the parts can work together. The more we de-scope a knowledge worker’s role down to basic functional tasks, the less able they will be able to see the whole picture, upstream or downstream. This will make cross-collaboration all the more challenging. Furthermore, it will continue to stifle engagement and innovation as these highly-skilled employees are turned into button-pushers and dial-turners.