In the mid-18th century, the economist and philosopher Adam Smith published his seminal work "An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations," which charted the development of trade and industry within Europe, and was one of the foundations of the Industrial Revolution that burgeoned over the subsequent 50 years. One of the key concepts of Smith's work was the division of labor, which he illustrated with an example of making pins: he observed that in a small pin factory of 10 workers, if each specialized in specific parts of the manufacturing process (which had 18 components in total), they could potentially produce 48,000 pins per day, compared to a meager handful of pins if each undertook all 18 steps individually.
So how is this relevant to work today? In 1959, Peter Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker" to describe those employees whose role is primarily concerned with the processing of information or the use and development of knowledge within the organization. More than 50 years on from Drucker's ideas, we have not yet succeeded in building the methods and technology required to fully capitalize on these concepts. There is still an immaturity of information methods and tools within almost every organization, which results in an inefficiency among knowledge workers akin to that of the 18th century worker making an individual pin.
There are two major factors that hamper our ability to be productive in our processing and use of information. The first is the failure of organizations to develop a strategy for collaboration, and to apply collaboration methods to their business processes. In many respects, these business processes are still set in the ways of the Industrial Revolution; we perceive them as linear, static, and functionally oriented, but applying information and collaboration to a job does not work in that way because we need cross-functional access to both explicit and tacit knowledge from inside and outside the organization.
The second factor is that the tools available to support these methods have proliferated, yet they are more fragmented than ever, particularly in their ability to integrate together as an effective collaboration platform. The first factor is a major influence on the second: as users of these technologies, it is up to us to make a clear statement of what our organizations require, and to develop the appropriate implementation methods to realize the benefits.
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