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February 14, 2006

Attorneys Aren't Knowledge Workers - Ron Baker

Attorneys Aren't Knowledge Workers by guest blogger Ron Baker

In light of my last post titled Your Employees are Volunteers, this one is sure to cause some cognitive dissonance.  My VeraSage Institute colleague Dan Morris thinks I'm wrong about professional firms being filled with knowledge workers; he believes the majority of them are more akin to factory workers.

Now I know this is a heretical view, but Dan assembles a very powerful argument to support his assertion.  He doesn't deny professionals have the potential to be knowledge workers.  His argument is they are not largely because of the incentives and structures of the firms in which they operate, which function like sweatshops of yore.

Now this is a powerful argument, and it made me pause to reexamine my core assumptions about automatically asserting that just because someone is a credentialed professional they are automatically a knowledge worker.

There's no doubt they can contribute a certain amount of creativity and innovation to the jobs they perform and the customers they serve, but being a knowledge worker also requires that the leaders of your organization recognize and treat you like one.

Stephen Covey writes about exactly this in his latest book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness:  "It's the leadership beliefs and style of the manager, not the nature of the job or economic era, that defines whether a person is a knowledge worker or not."

When you consider the metrics used by most firms to measure their team members, they all come from the Industrial Revolution's command-and-control hierarchies (realization, utilization, billable hours, etc).  Yet as I discussed in my posts on The Firm of the Past and The Firm of the Future, the metrics we use to measure a knowledge worker's effectiveness are woefully inadequate.

Dan further supports his argument by stating that true knowledge workers:

  • Don't have billable hour quotas.
  • Spend at least 15% of their time innovating and creating better ways to add value to customers (this destroys efficiency under the old metrics!).
  • Understand that judgments and discernment are far more important than measurements in assessing performance.
  • Are focused on outputs, results and value, not inputs, efforts and costs.
  • Don't fill out timesheets accounting for every 6 minutes of their day.
  • Are trusted by their leaders to the right thing for the firm and its customers.
  • Are passionate and self-motivated, and don't need constant supervision.

If the above describes your firm, congratulations — you are a true knowledge organization.  Perhaps nothing illustrates the value knowledge workers can add to a business than last week's purchase of Pixar by Disney for $7.4 billion in Disney stock.

Disney will have to respect Pixar's culture and continue to let it make quality movies at its own pace, in its own way.  Otherwise, if Pixar's creative talent leaves, "Disney just purchased the most expensive computers ever sold," according to Lawrence Haverty, a fund manager at Gabelli Asset Management.

Unfortunately, most professional firms we've come into contact with around the world do not fit Dan's criteria, which is why he makes such a strong case they function more like manual laborers than knowledge workers.

UPS founder Jim Casey remarked in 1947:  "A man's worth to an organization can be measured by the amount of supervision he requires."

The moment you feel the need to hover over your knowledge workers, either physically or metaphorically with the Sword of Damocles — the timesheet — you've made a hiring mistake.

Until professional service firm leaders begin to grant their team members autonomy — Greek for self-governance — and treat them like self-respecting knowledge workers, I think Dan's argument trumps mine.

What do you think?

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Here is the definition of a knowledge worker, the ability to leave which creates sufficient economic power to compel the benefits described.

"Otherwise, if Pixar's creative talent leaves, "Disney just purchased the most expensive computers ever sold," according to Lawrence Haverty, a fund manager at Gabelli Asset Management."

One must have the power to extract the value from what one creates.

Law firms viz their clients have little or no economic power. It's why they bill in .6 ;that's the cheapest way to buy legal skills.

If you think not, try to buy a car based on GM's time sheets.

On reading Mr. Baker's post, I thought that Mr. Morris had some good points to make. On reading Mr. Morris's response, I refined my response. I think that he has a good point but overstates it. Young lawyers in law firms, like workers in factories, Wal-Mart employees, etc., may have limited options but they are by no means slaves. Every one of them has the right to decamp at any time.

Mr. Levine -

Slaves can not, by any definition, be knowledge workers. The core component for any knowledge worker is to "own the means of production" - meaning that the person (knowledge worker) must be indepently in controll of creating and producing/directing the related knowledge work. Slaves - can certainly be smart, intelligent, loyal, and survivors - but never own the means of production as they are either physical or emotional property of others and therefore can not own the means of production.

Certainly, Stallin (and others) have forced indentured servents to reengineer something - yet reengingeering isn't knowledge work - as someone else created the original. That would be like comparing a student of Picasso - who duplicated the Master's original artwork with the Master himself - two distinct offerings and only one of which can ever quality as a knowledge worker (within that context).

I recall working in both the Big 8 in those days and a smaller firm before I received my license. Prior to receiving my license, in essence I (and my colleagues) were treated much like slaves as the overlord partners and slave driving managers forced us to endure months and years of abuse - precisely because they knew we had no choice and no ability to revolt until they (the power holders) signed off on our required experience forms. Then - they watched their human capital leap off their old firm's sinking ship to persue a better life. The leadership of these firms failed to recognize the value of their human capital and therefore limited the ability of their knowledge worker candidate to evolve into true knoweldge workers.

My conculsion that today's professionals are for the most part simply the 21 century version of Henery Ford's assemblyline factory worker still stands - today's human capital; employed by firms large and small may have the ability to rise above the tide of mediorcrity and service work and become knowledge workers; unfortunately, with the disaml ability of their company leadership - the probability is remote at best.

This is an unfortunate reality - and a severe waste of intellectual capital, curiosity, and committment.

its not inputs its output

slaves can be knowledge workers

for example, at the end of WWII Soviet engineers reversed engineered the B-29 in less than 18 months. Stalin gave them a choice--do the work or be shot

The point is entiel;y correct and very important. Being a knowledge worker (or a 'professional') has absolutely NOTHING to do with what you got your degree in, but how you work and (as is pointed out here) how you are allowed to work.

There's an old saying that you can manage the WHAT, the WHY and the HOW. With all people (not just so-called knowledge workers) the best way to manage is specify what needs to be done (outcomes)in incredible detail, help people understand why its important and then leave them alone to figure out how to do kit. This applies equally well to secretaries as well as lawyers. It's not JUST autonomy, it's a package that also includes accountability.

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