EugineEricKim, blogging as knowledgework :

Thoughts ...

  • Manual work is made more productive by the stripping out the knowledge work (the decision making, information processing) and putting it into the external context

** For example, the division of labour removes the switching cost of each worker shifting between tasks, a large part of which is rethinking what to do next.

** Automation exports more decision making from the worker. The production line takes away thinking about where work comes from and where it goes next.

For knowledge workers, it would be paradoxically impossible to try to win the same efficiencies. How can one work with knowledge and yet have the information processing stripped out?

Instead productivity must come through removing unnecessary knowledge work That is by minimizing the efforts and costs associated with

  • co-ordinating people
  • associating related knowledge
  • finding relevant knowledge


: Manual work is made more productive by the stripping out the knowledge work

That's quite a strong statement. For example the Toyota Production System, and other "lean manufactoring" methodologies are all about increasing productivity by adding knowledge skills at all levels in an organisation and fostering generalists over specialists. – AdrianHoward

: I think the main reason for training generalists is flexibility rather than productivity. But of course, some smarter, more flexible people who cope with problems at a local level may solve problems that would otherwise perculate through the system. And therefore improve overall productivity. So, I agree at the macro-scale, but think I'm right at the micro-scale. (See also OnGranularity) – PhilJones

It's not just the flexibility to deal with problems, it's also the ability and empowerment to improve the process itself. People going "if we move Bob's fribble box next to Jo's fribble maker then he doesn't have to move it every ten minutes". It's the same theme of moving from a process that tries to avoid change to a process that copes with change.

It also improves efficiency at a micro level since anybody can take up the slack at any point in the process. Fewer people are left twiddling their thumbs waiting for something else to move the product to their bit of the production line.

You also see improvements due to engagement. If you're involved in the creation of a product from start to finish and sign your name to it at the end you're more likely to want to do a good job.

Division of labour is more about control than it is about efficiency. Ford's initial focus on division of labour was as much driven by the fact that he had a migrant/immigrant workforce that was easy to exploited. Hiring and training somebody to do one task is easy and cheap. You can fire them with little risk. Hiring and training somebody who can cope with an entire production cycle is harder and more expensive (if more productive) so it's harder to fire them.


Hmmm. Ford's introduction of the production line resulted in an increase of several orders of magnitude. According to JamshidGharajedaghi in SystemsThinking : [Ford] could produce 6,000 cars a day, while his closest competitor in France could muster only 700 cars a year Undoubtedly Ford was bigger, drove workers harder etc. But the division of labour had a big impact. Jamshid says this of the effect of LeanProductionSystems : Effective commercial use of organized research ... accelerated the role of product development, giving rise to a new era marked by rapid change. Unpredicatibility ... undermined the usefulness of ... "predict and prepare" ... The new generation of winners were those ... interactively influencing their environment. [This new game] emerged slowly but effectively in Japan , when Ohno, chief engineer of Toyota, created LeanProductionSystems by applying SystemsThinking in the biological context. Using cybernetic principles he was able to lower the break-even point by an order of magnitude ... flexability and control became the basis for competition.

I guess my point is that there's an initial, very large increase in productivity due to division of labour and stripping out thinking. Re-introducing skill in certain specific ways increases productivity further. And is essential due to a rapidly changing environment. But it's different from a return to the craft model. But I don't think you were saying that it wasn't. In fact, maybe the point is that in lean organizations everyone does knowledge work, and efficiency there is increased by introducing more knowledge and thinking.

A "production line" and "division of labour" are not synonymous. Yes Ford was a lot more efficient than old craft based systems - but I don't think that was just (if at all) because of division of labour. Having a production line. Having standard parts. Having a supply chain. etc. All these played their part too.

Toyota still runs production lines, but they have a lot less focus on division of labour and this makes them more efficient.

Also, in Ford's defence, part of the reason for their initial focus on division of labour were language problems. Since they had a huge immigrant workforce having a team-centred approach was made very difficult because of the lack of good common language skills. I remember reading somewhere a quote from somebody involved in the original setup saying it wouldn't be appropriate for a different workforce - buggered if I can find a reference of course - so I could be making it up ;-)


Yep, I got caught up on the division of labour thing. It does seem, however, that all the things that you are saying Ford did, are examples of my original point : stripping thinking out of the process. It's only later that thinking gets put back in, to deal with rapid change.


Your original point was (and I quote :-):

: Manual work is made more productive by the stripping out the knowledge work

And I still say that is an overly strong statement. In some circumstances it can. It others it does not. In fact your later statement says it better:

: 'productivity must come through removing unnecessary knowledge work

And applies equally to "knowledge workers" and "manual workers". IMHO of course :-)


As an aside I am /really/ beginning to dislike the phrase "knowledge worker" and I'm seeing it more and more. It's very "us" and "them". We're all workers gosh darn it. People on the shop floor need to communicate, associate and find knowledge just as much as librarians, programmers and middle management. Removing barriers to these tasks help people in all positions.

Darn... my socialist leanings are showing ;-)

: Well, that's hardly off-topic on this wiki (See PoliticalStuff). There's also a great quote from TheRaggedTrouseredPhilanthropists where Owen says soomething like "the bosses say they do the thinking and we do the mechanical work, but if there was really no thinking in our work they'd hire lunatics from the asylum or apes from the zoo to replace us."

Yeah. It just annoys me to see so many "knowledge workers" talk about how different their work is from everything that has come before, when they have zero experience of "manual" working environments. Almost exactly the same sorts of issues about communication, slack, etc. come up in both. It should be a surprise since almost all jobs involve people working together to produce something.

Of course, with OffShoring its KarmicPaybackTime. Compare GlobalizingKnowledgeWork

See also :

CategoryInformationalism, CategoryWork