Attorneys Aren’t Knowledge Workers by guest blogger Ron Baker
In light of my last post titled Your Employees are Volunteers, this one is sure to cause some cognitive dissonance. My VeraSage Institute colleague Dan Morris thinks I’m wrong about professional firms being filled with knowledge workers; he believes the majority of them are more akin to factory workers.
Now I know this is a heretical view, but Dan assembles a very powerful argument to support his assertion. He doesn’t deny professionals have the potential to be knowledge workers. His argument is they are not largely because of the incentives and structures of the firms in which they operate, which function like sweatshops of yore.
Now this is a powerful argument, and it made me pause to reexamine my core assumptions about automatically asserting that just because someone is a credentialed professional they are automatically a knowledge worker.
There’s no doubt they can contribute a certain amount of creativity and innovation to the jobs they perform and the customers they serve, but being a knowledge worker also requires that the leaders of your organization recognize and treat you like one.
Stephen Covey writes about exactly this in his latest book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness: “It’s the leadership beliefs and style of the manager, not the nature of the job or economic era, that defines whether a person is a knowledge worker or not.”
When you consider the metrics used by most firms to measure their team members, they all come from the Industrial Revolution’s command-and-control hierarchies (realization, utilization, billable hours, etc). Yet as I discussed in my posts on The Firm of the Past and The Firm of the Future, the metrics we use to measure a knowledge worker’s effectiveness are woefully inadequate.
Dan further supports his argument by stating that true knowledge workers:
- Don’t have billable hour quotas.
- Spend at least 15% of their time innovating and creating better ways to add value to customers (this destroys efficiency under the old metrics!).
- Understand that judgments and discernment are far more important than measurements in assessing performance.
- Are focused on outputs, results and value, not inputs, efforts and costs.
- Don’t fill out timesheets accounting for every 6 minutes of their day.
- Are trusted by their leaders to the right thing for the firm and its customers.
- Are passionate and self-motivated, and don’t need constant supervision.
If the above describes your firm, congratulations — you are a true knowledge organization. Perhaps nothing illustrates the value knowledge workers can add to a business than last week’s purchase of Pixar by Disney for $7.4 billion in Disney stock.
Disney will have to respect Pixar’s culture and continue to let it make quality movies at its own pace, in its own way. Otherwise, if Pixar’s creative talent leaves, “Disney just purchased the most expensive computers ever sold,” according to Lawrence Haverty, a fund manager at Gabelli Asset Management.
Unfortunately, most professional firms we’ve come into contact with around the world do not fit Dan’s criteria, which is why he makes such a strong case they function more like manual laborers than knowledge workers.
UPS founder Jim Casey remarked in 1947: “A man’s worth to an organization can be measured by the amount of supervision he requires.”
The moment you feel the need to hover over your knowledge workers, either physically or metaphorically with the Sword of Damocles — the timesheet — you’ve made a hiring mistake.
Until professional service firm leaders begin to grant their team members autonomy — Greek for self-governance — and treat them like self-respecting knowledge workers, I think Dan’s argument trumps mine.
What do you think?