Leading Knowledge Workers the OBK Way

The recent book review of Reinvent Your Enterprise has sparked a fantastic discussion on the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, especially in a Professional Knowledge Firm (PKF).

Senior Fellow Paul Kennedy, of OBK fame in Great Britain, joined the discussion in an email to me explaining the obk simple management system™.

As OBK is a true Firm of the Future, I was excited to share Paul’s methodology. I only wish more PKF leaders understood the difference between knowledge and manual/service workers, efficiency and effectiveness, and a measure vs. a judgment.

Obviously Paul Kennedy does. Study the following. If you’re smart, implement it, or something similar to it.

Thanks for [the book review] Ron.

I have been giving this some thought about efficiency vs. effectiveness and I will send you some notes. However, the underlying issue if I have read the article correctly is how to manage a knowledge worker (KW) or can KW’s be managed?

I had thought that this debate had ended. That is—KWs are more led than managed. At obk we have developed the obk simple management system™ which is laughingly simple but seems to work. It is about aligning the skills of a KW to business objectives and then coaching them. It goes like this:

Step 1. Everybody has a job and every job has a body. This involves designing a functional organisation chart with a “position contract” in each box ([Michael] Gerber style). This is business object orientated.

Step 2. Each position contract describes desirable outcomes, qualitative performance expectations and cross refers to an assessment form (see step 3 below).

Step 3. We design an assessment form for each KW. This is a short list of judgement criteria that assesses how well the function is being discharged. Against each criteria (usually between 5 and 10 headings) is 2 columns. One for self assessment and one for manager assessment. The KW and their manager score how well the criteria point is being done / performed / achieved, using 1 = low and 5 = high. The criteria headings can be anything you like but in our case includes:

  • Development of relevant Human Capital
  • Contribution to firm’s structural Intellectual Capital (IC)
  • Consistency with firm’s core values

    …Among others

    Step 4. The KW and their manager have a 15 to 20 minute chat about their scores on a regular basis (sometimes weekly, sometimes monthly)

    We have been experimenting with this system in the obk lab for some time and we have a number of clients using this system. What we have learned is:

    • When you present a position contract describing desirable outcomes and with qualitative performance expectations some KW don’t want the position! (This may explain why management has been so frustrated with this KW for so long)
    • Others say “to get to that standard I need help” (also good because its management’s job to provide help in terms of inspiration, tools and training).
    • When assessment forms are completed we have observed a number of things:
    • When a KW scores themselves low but their manager scores them high—the KW is pleased and their work is recognised (A good thing according to Blanchard’s One Minute Manager and Baker see Page 64 of The Firm of the Future—the 4 reasons why people go to work).
    • When a KW scores themselves high but their manager low—also good because it means we are now at stage 1 on the progress ladder. Most managers never get to this stage with their KWs and can therefore never make progress.
    • Whenever a score is less than 5 the conversation is about how can we get you to a 5? In other words this becomes a coaching process.
    • The coaching chat plans and monitors the KW’s personal development.

    At obk we have badges (Boy Scout style). We use these badges to define and test competence in skills required to create value for our customers. These badges may be technical or may relate to personal skills such as listening or speaking. Our KWs target and acquire these badges as part of their development. Their personal development is therefore aligned to our business needs.

    This system works for us and for others where it has been introduced. In getting clients to use this system we have to educate them to make judgements. To get them to tell their KW’s how they feel without the need for justifying why they feel the way they do. We do not use measurements unless they can be directly related to KW performance, e.g., a salesman picking up new customers.

    I think the key to making this system work is the environment in which this management system sits. This environment of course is the function of leadership and this is the key to getting more from KWs.

In my opinion, this is a far easier framework than the one laid out in the Reinvent Your Enterprise book. I can always count on Paul to shave with Occam’s Razor.

We’d love to hear what others think of the obk simple management system™.

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