NEW TECH: Can an ‘operational system of record’ alleviate rising knowledge worker frustrations?

By Byron V. Acohido

An undercurrent of discontent is spreading amongst knowledge workers in enterprises across the United States and Europe.

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White collar employees today have amazingly capable communications and collaboration tools at their beck and call. Yet the majority feel unsatisfied with narrow daily assignments and increasingly disconnected from the strategic goals of their parent organization.

That’s my big takeaway from a survey of 3,750 knowledge workers from mid-sized and large organizations across the US, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. The State of Work: 2020 is the sixth annual poll of its kind sponsored by Workfront, a Lehi, Utah-based supplier of work management and project management systems.

These findings reflect knowledge workers growing increasingly frustrated that they can’t do more to advance strategically meaningful initiatives. It’s not that workers are cynical or apathetic; far from it. Some 89% of respondents said they believed their role matters, including 78% who said their job represented more than a paycheck.

Fully 91% of the workers surveyed said they were proud of the work they do and cared about the bigger picture. Yet an inordinate amount of time continues to get devoted to make-work activity or wasted scurrying down unproductive rabbit trails. Over the six years Workfront has conducted this poll, one stat has remained constant: knowledge workers on average spend just 40% of their work week on the job they were hired to do.

A similar earlier survey, conducted by tech industry research firm Forrester, found much the same thing. Some 71% of global knowledge workers polled by Forrester said their jobs required  deep concentration; yet 21% said they were unable to find or access the appropriate information they need to do their job – at least once a week.

Stagnating productivity

I had a deep discussion about this with Steven ZoBell, Workfront’s chief product and technology officer. Despite spectacular advancements in communication, collaboration and project management software, these surveys highlight the fact that knowledge worker productivity has actually stagnated – and may even be declining.

ZoBell

Just think about how common it is today for work groups to be comprised of far-flung colleagues and third-party contractors, using a smorgasbord of digital systems, to intensively communicate. Email, text messaging, B2B social media, cloud-based tools and web-conferencing enable more daily activities than ever.

Consider how heavily SMBs aligned in a supply chain to support larger enterprises have come to rely on cloud tools, like Office 365 or G Suite. Meanwhile, younger workers take to leading-edge chat services, such as Slack or Microsoft Teams, like moths to a flame. Throw into this mix the widely deployed customer relationship management (CRM) tools and enterprise resource planning (ERP) tools that have enabled vendors like Saleforce.com and SAP to arise as multi-billion dollar behemoths.

Yet despite the corporate sector having spent trillions of dollars on communications and collaboration tools, companies quite astoundingly have gained almost no ground in helping workers focus on their most important work. “The focus is on activity, activity, activity,” ZoBell says. “It’s now typical to measure someone’s daily or weekly performance based simply on the question of whether he or she moved the ball from point A to point B.”

A better platform

I asked ZoBell if this pointed out a need for a better, or just plain different, technology; something to untangle the collection of siloed software corporations have plenty of already. He said, “yes,” and he went on to describe how an emerging category of services is taking shape, precisely to address this dead end. Workfront, among others, refers to it as “operational system of records,” or OSR, while Forrester and others are calling it “collaborative work management,” or CWM.

These emerging platforms, ZoBell explains, take a completely different approach from legacy professional services automation, or PSA, solutions. Legacy PSA systems take their cue from the highly structured processes used to mass produce automobiles, trucks and jetliners. The idea behind OSR and CWM platforms is that they can accommodate both structured and unstructured work flows, tossed in from familiar, as well as fresh, sources of input.

Yes, emerging OSR and CWM platforms fundamentally function as an assignment and task-tracking hub, just as legacy PSA systems do. But the big difference is that they are tuned to pull in not just structured and unstructured processes, but also planned and ad hoc tasks — and pull all of it into an actionable context.

The driving notion is to improve collaboration and boost efficiency. But a more nuanced benefit, may prove to be just as important: these nascent platforms could come to reduce the frustrations experienced today by knowledge workers and perhaps even make their jobs more rewarding.

Meaningful work

What the Workfront and Forrester surveys tell me is pretty straight forward: today’s knowledge workers really would like to contribute more directly to meaningful objectives. They want to know how their daily tasks ties in a larger strategic goal, such as achieving a revenue target or measurably improving customer retention. Just as importantly, they want to be acknowledged for specifically helping to meet those objectives.

Some 65% of respondents to Workfront’s poll said they preferred to be rewarded more on results as opposed to just deliverables. “Many times businesses reward people based on activity – essentially the heroics they perform — rather than the actual outcome having to do with meeting the larger goal,” ZoBell told me. “What we found is that employees truly want to see more of a snap-line to the outcome. And they want to be rewarded more on that basis.”

Makes sense. For the sake of my fellow knowledge workers out there, I hope these platforms gain traction so that we get the chance to see if the hoped-for benefits accrue. I’ll keep watch.

Acohido

Pulitzer Prize-winning business journalist Byron V. Acohido is dedicated to fostering public awareness about how to make the Internet as private and secure as it ought to be.


(LW provides consulting services to the vendors we cover.)

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