Jan 9, 2009

Knowledge Work Equals Lower Satisfaction?

Thought provoking article in the Mint by Jared Sandberg.

We've all thought that the ability to create ideas and knowledge work is the ultimate form of work, but this article questions whether that ability truly gives us satisfaction. I personally think it can't be generalised to all kinds of people. There are some people who might get more satisfaction with intangible outputs.

“Not only is work harder to measure, but it’s also harder to define success,” says Homa Bahrami, a senior lecturer in organizational behaviour and industrial relations at University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “The work is intangible or invisible, and a lot of work gets done in teams so it’s difficult to pinpoint individual productivity.”
She says information-age employees measure their accomplishment in net worth, company reputation, networks of relationships, and the products and services they’re associated with— elements that are more perceived and subjective than that field of corn, which either is or isn’t ploughed.
Companies should create meaningful short-term goals. Instead, “managers create all sorts of surrogate metrics that they can measure, like PowerPoint slide counts and progress charts,” says consultant Tim Horan. “The person doing the landscaping has a better sense of accomplishment.”
Jon Williams once worked in an auto-claims department where the number of new-claim calls, which could take half an hour, were tallied with the same weight as brief reminder calls to customers. Even so, his greatest sense of achievement was transforming an initially angry and frustrated customer into someone who was satisfied and even laughing. “That wasn’t measured at all,” he says.
The difficulty of putting your finger on what you’ve accomplished gives employees pangs. James Ault recently visited a municipal park where he worked in maintenance while in college. He saw the same signs he painted, the same electrical job he wired, and the same trees he planted 35 years ago. Now, he works on state energy policy, where he spends countless hours debating policy issues.
“I’ve said to my wife on multiple occasions, ‘It would be nice to be an electrician’,” he says. “You can take pride in what you’ve accomplished.”
At closing time, work doesn’t seem completed, just temporarily abandoned. 

How can we make knowledge work more meaningful ?

My personal take is that once employees get to see how their actions will have an impact deriving satisfaction would be better. However, that becomes tougher to do as employees get farther and farther from the end product. Or in functions that are 'support' to the final production process. Like HR.

The other idea is to build a component of creating something tangible in every role. When we design a leanring program we build it so that different people can learn according to their preferred learning styles.
Can we build a way so that people can get the satisfaction according to what satisfies them? Something on the lines of Job Sculpting or building in Career Anchors in each role/career ladders?

How about Alternate Career Paths? Or not?