Past the Dogma of the Document
By Martijn Aslander
The knowledge workers of 2020 are trapped in a dogma. And, like Johan Cruijff used to say, ‘You see it once you understand it.’ Without noticing, we are using software on a daily basis that is based on analogies and metaphors of a 1970’s office environment. At best, that’s a shame and pretty silly, especially when looking at the current state we find our technology in.
Old fashioned expressions of productivity
Within most organizations information still travels from point A to point B on a vertical or horizontally oriented A4 carrier. In their vertical state, these are usually referred to as Word-documents or PDF’s and in their horizontal state they are often called a PowerPoint or a Spreadsheet. Many economists have been asking themselves for years how it’s possible that with all the advancements that have been made with automation and technology, there is barely an increase to be found in the productivity of the workforce. I think I’ve found part of the reason for this (and the solution): people are using their computers like modern typewriters, usually typing with two fingers because they were never taught to type blind and with all ten fingers. It’s kind of like using an airplane to drive down the highway. You could; it has wheels after all. But it also has wings and they are there for a reason, much like the huge jet engines that are attached to these wings. This is what happens in the life of the knowledge worker on a daily basis.
Where do we go from here?
In the three KNVI (Royal Dutch Society Government Information) documentaries, which I had the privilege of working on, we explored the information society, the network society and the existence of knowledge work. The purpose of these documentaries was to start a conversation around these aforementioned themes. The question these documentaries deliberately didn’t answer was: “where do we go from here?” There are so many possible answers to this question, because we simply don’t know what the future holds, especially when looking at the blinding speed with which technology is advancing.
However, what is becoming clear is that a large percentage of the millions of knowledge workers in this country are not digitally ‘fit’. Simply put, the majority of them lack dexterity in the digital realm which could lead to a decline in mental health, ultimately causing potential damage to their physical well being. I am convinced that these three phenomena are interlinked.
No digitalization or digital transformation without digital awareness
There are countless organizations running digitalization programs or trying to implement digital transformation in its entirety. As the founder of lifehacking.nl and author of three books, like Easycratie and Nooit Af (Never finished), I’ve been on lecture stages for the better part of a decade. More often than not, I would check the room to see if anyone present was responsible for any sort of programme in a company that promotes its workers learning new skills and/or maintaining the digital skills they already possess. Some exceptions aside, hardly any organization in this country has anything in place which would allow their people to learn these types of skills. I find it remarkable that OR’s and HR departments haven’t picked up on this. Especially in an age where work-related stress is rapidly becoming public enemy number one. What’s even more remarkable is the fact that boards and management teams are hardly paying any attention to this, despite the fact that there is so much to gain.
What most decision makers don’t want to face is how the dynamics of the network and information society will change the rules of the game within an organization. And of course, the game of society as a whole. It can even change the distribution of power, as Moses Naïm explained so eloquently in his book The End of Power. If you keep delving into areas such as AI, Big Data and Blockchain without first making the digital awareness and skills of your workforce a top priority, all attempts at change will be an exercise in futility.
Darwin’s insights on ‘survival of the fittest’ have long been reduced to ‘the strongest win’. However, what Darwin actually observed is that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent – it is the one that most easily adaptsto change. According to my dictionary, the word ‘fit’ means ‘in good health, especially because of regular physical exercise.’ For the past few years employers have been well aware of the benefits (not to mention financial benefits) to employees being physically fit. They are making an effort to stimulate fitness and health in the workplace. Employers are also slowly coming to the realization that mental fitness and stress reduction are also important.
However, progress is slow. In our current state of work things slide. Our sleep, attention, focus and concentration are under constant pressure. To top it all off, we’ve realized that sitting is the new smoking and that sitting behind a desk staring at a screen all day is a twenty a day habit. These are the aspects of physical and mental circumstances in which we conduct our work. We will truly start to win when digital fitness is improved by new policies.
This is all pertaining to recent insights from neuroscience concerning the much-coveted concentration and attention span. Last year, in an acclaimed article in the New York Times it was stated that psychological security in the workspace is key when it comes to procrastination. In my opinion, mental fitness, physical fitness and digital fitness go hand in hand. In 2020, digital awareness is a must. The absence of this awareness means you are building on a flawed foundation.
It’s strange that with everything we currently know, the largest cost item in pretty much any organization – the people – isn’t given the attention it deserves. For example, 20% of humans are more productive in the evening. From a cost perspective, you are utilizing 20% of your largest cost item (personnel) at a time where they are of the least use to you. The new way of working has led to open plan workspaces that wreak havoc on concentration. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that so many people are dealing with burn-out symptoms or even a total burn-out when they are being distracted throughout the day by incentives, meetings, managers and are just not getting anything done.
The big question is of course: how do we adapt?
Learning how to filter and use your tools
The amount of information we have to deal with on a daily basis has increased dramatically. But an information overload doesn’t have to be a problem at all, according to Clay Shirky in his paper Filter Failure. You do, however, need to learn how to filter. This is not something we are taught in school or in other organizations. If knowledge work is a trade, it’s not one many people have mastered. Most people are winging it. If you take a macroscopic view of the daily reality, knowledge workers obtain, process, analyze, synthesize, store and share knowledge and information.
That process is quite flawed. This has to do with tools, lack of insights and strategy, and sometimes simply because of a lack of training. For the most part, we don’t look very deeply into our digital tools. For instance, most Outlook users don’t know that you can set rules and turn off notifications. Most Apple users have no clue about the fact that through ‘replace text’ you can make nifty macros which can save you an enormous amount of time when typing.
Together with Arjen Broere and Mark Meinema I wrote a doctrine for information tools, for an upcoming publication The new work reality. Looking through the lens of this doctrine at our work tools: most are not up to par. Information has to be storable, searchable, sortable, orderable, reorderable, meta-datable and shareable. All in a second and preferably on a smartphone. Tools that are too slow out of the gate will be used less and, at the end of the day, become obsolete. Success is usability and thus speed.
Most information that orbits around us in articles, podcasts, magazines, blogs, emails, newspapers and the water cooler is hardly stored or not at all. And if we do store this information it will typically disappear in a stack of notes, which we will hardly look at or simply lose all together.
All the while, these small notes and observations are pure gold for organizations – they just need to be accessible. How and where do we store these tidbits of information that consist of two words or three sentences at best? It is usually not enough to spawn an entire file, so most people opt for emailing these notes to themselves, put them on a to-do list or in a note taking app of sorts. I call these tidbits ‘micro notes’. If we are able to quickly store these tiny notes and somehow interconnect them, we are essentially building a digital exoskeleton, a second brain.
Building a Second Brain
In recent years, technology has allowed us to no longer store all this information in our heads or in a physical storage system, but to process it into a second, digital brain. Globally, there are thousands of researchers working on this, with people like Tiage Forte leading the charge. They are building on old school formats, such as commonplace books and more recently the Zettelkasten principal, leveraging the computer and smartphone as an added super power.
There is a good chance that the real reason knowledge management projects fail is because they are forced upon employees top-down, without any perceived value for them. The better scenario where employees have their knowledge organized, maintained and ready to share it seems to be a wonderful opportunity and should be of tremendous value.
We are in the midst of a text-renaissance, with tools like Workflowy, Roam Research, Notion and Obsidian that are going to make all this possible. The new work reality indicates job security to be an illusion of late. This will push a lot of the workforce to keep learning new skills in order to stay employable longer. The ones that do and stay physically, mentally and digitally fit will be better equipped to adapt to the changes in the work world. If employers and employees alike start building a second brain where knowledge, information and insights are findable quickly, then they can form some stiff competition to the classically bureaucratic institutions that limit themselves to vertical and horizontal A4s.
The speed and ease with which you can be of value to others will determine your success in the near future. Work needs to generate income, but also joy and it needs to be a catalyst for personal growth and development. It’s time to get technology better involved. Not for an organization’s sake, but for our own.