August 6, 2008

ROWE v. Young: Work-Model of the Knowledge Economy?

OR, "Is This The Revolution I Ordered?"

"You say you want a revolution
Well you know we all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world..."
Okay, this work-week has been horribly dull. It's only Wednesday and instead of enjoying my usual hump day revelry I feel like I'm just listening to the ticks of the clock, waiting for the whistle to blow.

I did discover yesterday that my dream of living in a hobbit house is fully realizable - if I'm willing to move to Oregon. That would be a resounding 'No, thanks', but it had me all giddy, nonetheless. (Clearly the venture wouldn't be going belly up if it had been developed closer to the North Georgia Mountains).

Anyway, I suppose my pitiful work-state is the perfect occasion to post my thoughts on ROWE.

For the last week I've been reading and thinking about results-only (results-oriented) work environments and the implications of/on KM.

ROWE, for the uninitiated, is based on the idea of each person being free "to do whatever they want, whenever they want as long as the work gets done". The line of thought being that, especially in our increasingly tech savvy world, as long as folks are able to get their work done, they shouldn't have to be tied down to a specific location or for a specific period of time.

I came across an article on ROWE a little more than two months ago and my immediate response was, "hell yeah". I mean, this week is a perfect example. Are there things I could be doing in the office? Suuure. Do I need to be here for 8 hours a day doing these things? Noooo, not really, but try explaining that to my boss.

Anyway, while my immediate reaction was all, "hell yeah, right on, turn it up", I started thinking about the impact of ROWE on KM and vice versa and, well, to be honest, the jury is still out.

Right off the top ROWE clearly seems perfectly suited for knowledge intensive businesses and professionals - lawyers, engineers, consultants, and salespeople for example. In fact, you could argue that these folks have utilized this concept in some way, shape, or form for years before the concept of ROWE. However (and I'm thinking about my dad and his peers here), this is also during a time when knowledge hoarding was rampant and completely OOC and it wasn't uncommon to leave for a business trip on Monday working as a consultant or a sales guy for Big Blue and come back on Friday working in a similar capacity for Microsoft.

I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, arguing against ROWE by suggesting that it will lead to employee turnover and disloyalty. On the contrary, I'm sure it could become a source of tremendous employee loyalty. I can't help but wonder, though, how successful ROWE is in organizations with a strategic KM initiative in place versus those without one. And, for organizations adopting ROWE without a formal KM strategy, how much more difficult will future KM efforts be?

It seems to me that, in the long-run, a successful ROWE implementation is dependent upon having both a strategic KM initative and a strong resource management solution. I don't think that KM is necessary to introduce ROWE to an organization, but, from a KM perspective, I don't know if I would approve of ROWE without it. For no other reason than it puts more pressure on "capture" component of KM. If an organization is already struggling with identifying and capturing information, ROWE is hardly going to make things easier, even though the demand for having access to and sharing critical knowledge and information will be bananas. And yes, it's possible that transitioning to ROWE could help stress the importance of KM, but that's kinda like recognizing the need for a fire extinguisher while your house is burning down.

On the flip side, adopting ROWE in an organization that has had some success with KM is a great way to demonstrate the value of knowledge management. Clearly, other success factors have to be taken into consideration (culture and leadership, for example), but having a managed strategy in place to coordinate a disparate, mobile, results-oriented workforce seems key to me.

I'm just saying!

Anyway, I still have questions about ROWE that I'd need to answer before I'm able to come to a comfortable conclusion on the concept (i.e., What are other organizations besides Best Buy that have had success deploying ROWE?, Does ROWE encourages employees to go above and beyond the call of duty? Or, is it better suited to the more ambitious employees?), but one thing that excites me about ROWE is its potential to become the work-model/management theory of the knowledge economy. Heck, I'm pretty sure that many of the strongest ROWE doubters are fierce adherents of Taylorism.

That is, assuming ROWE is about more than just working flex hours.

See, that's where I get stuck on the fence. I mean, ROWE was conceived as way of enabling folks to work in a manner/place/time-frame that best reflects their strengths, which, results in increased productivity and efficiency, then yeah, I'm down with that. And, I can see where this type of work environment not only promotes work-life balance, but has the potential to take the gloves off for what an employee can do in an organization and professionally, in general. Not the least by re-conceptualizing work and our cultural attitude about work - transitioning work from something you do to live, to something you live to do; because you enjoy it and because it gives you purpose, sense of self, opportunity fill in the blank.

Clarification: It may seem as if I'm saying folks can't change their concept about work on their. Not true. But our society, as a whole, does perpetuate a negative attitude about/towards work that is linked to competitiveness, issues of trust, equality, fairness, entitlement, and an overemphasis on the accumulation of material wealth. This behavior is learned and reinforced in the home, the classroom, on the playground, in church, and in the workplace. In the face of this cultural programming it's not only understandable that most people don't like 'work', it's almost suprising when folks do!

I think that having a new way of working goes a long way towards reconceptualizing attitudes about work. I once wrote a paper championing the idea of allowing employees, within an established budget and over and above any universally necessary org training (e.g., software training), to choose their own T&D/skill-building activities. The idea being that people are better able to learn from activities that matter to them and which they enjoy on a personal level. For their part, each employee must be able to share with their department and/or the larger organization (in their own way/words) what relevant lessons they were able to draw from their chosen activity. When I think about the potential of ROWE, this ability to make work meaningful, enjoyable...personal, beyond a paycheck, is what comes to mind.

However, if it's just about flex hours, mehhh, I'd be disappointed. I'd still see some value to overall work-life balance in ROWE, but I'm looking for a revolution not a reprieve.