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Agile for the Knowledge Age

One of the greatest ironies in business today is found in our management practices. Recruitment is estimated to cost nearly 150% of the first year's salary for the new hire. This comes as no surprise, since companies want the best to work for them. So, they spend all this time and money searching, interviewing and lunching people until they find the "right fit", the brightest minds, the ones who will really make a difference, and when they're finally fortunate enough to land them, they put them in a chair and tell them exactly what to do and how to do it… Huh!?!?

Now, if you believe in crystal balls, that people are resources, or you still find yourself thinking in terms of carrots and sticks, then the above statement may not seem like much of an irony at all. For the rest of us, however, it’s confounding and can often be a great sucking force on the gratification we seek to find in the work we do. But, if it’s so obviously wrong, then how did we even get to this point? Two words: Industrial Revolution.

Industrial Age

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, new manufacturing processes, mainly in the form of machines, changed the way products were made. Machines, which are made up of intricate and precise parts that are designed to work together, were found to produce their products in a much more efficient and effective manner than had previously been achieved. While this became a boon for much of the world’s economies, machines still needed people to create, run and maintain them. This factor inevitably changed the way people worked.

Think about it this way, if machines were so effective and efficient, then why couldn’t people be made to work the same way and have a similar level of productivity? Genius, right!? Well, in fact, it was. People were trained to perform very specific tasks and they began to be managed under very detailed, and sometimes complicated, structures. People became an extension of the machines they were meant to create, run, and maintain, while managers were needed in order to get people trained and running the way they were designed to work.

This worked very well when it came to rudimentary and easily repeatable tasks, which most jobs required at that time. One problem with this, however, is that, unlike machines, people have brains. And, if you are going to argue that machines have started to have brains too, don’t forget the most important difference between people and machines; the human spirit.

Brains + Spirit = Dreams; Enter the Knowledge Age

One could argue that people have always had dreams, and I believe this is true. The problem is, before the Industrial Age, no one had time to realize them since they were doing everything they could just to survive. Since then, we can easily see how so many dreams have been and continue to be realized; electricity, telephone, motorized vehicles, airplanes, nuclear, wind and solar energy, space travel, household appliances… oh yeah, and computers. Each of these innovations spawned more innovation; people started to realize that dreams could become reality, and that left no limit to what could be done.

So, how do we draw a line between the Industrial Age and the Knowledge age? In a post titled The Knowledge Age, on the Shifting to 21st Century Thinking in education and learning website, the author states, “Knowledge Age knowledge is defined—and valued—not for what it is, but for what it can do. It is produced, not by individual experts, but by ‘collectivizing intelligence’ – that is, groups of people with complementary expertise who collaborate for specific purposes. “

I think of it like this: Industrial Age knowledge was contained or siloed by very specific people. In organizations, management likely had the knowledge needed to solve problems and it was rarely shared with the common worker. In the Knowledge Age, knowledge is open and free for anyone to have. This “collectivized” knowledge not only frees others to realize their dreams, but also arms them with the information on how to do it. Instead of a limited group of people and organizations owning this knowledge, now anyone is capable of great innovation, which gets us back to the heart of this post; how we manage the people we hire.

The only constant in life is change – Heraclitus

Now that knowledge is so abundant, we need to consider what impact that has on the way we do business. Look at how technology has affected all aspects of our lives; it has become an integral part of everything we do. This fact, coupled with the continued reduction in the cost of technology, brings on a level of change we have not before seen. Change happens so fast, in fact, that large organizations are struggling to maintain their competitive edge due to their very detailed and sometimes complicated (bureaucratic) structures. In a world where anyone can build innovative creations and reach customers across the globe, it is imperative that any organization, who wants to maintain a competitive edge, have the ability to quickly respond to change.

Dr. Stephen R. Covey, author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, said on his site in a Q&A session that, “in the Knowledge Age, change, not stability, is a given.” If change is given, then how do we manage people to be able to respond quickly? It’s a trick question, because the answer is that we don’t.

In his book, The 8th Habit, Dr. Covey states that he believes the Knowledge age will out produce the Industrial age by fifty times. When asked in this same Q&A why he’s so confident in this increase in productivity, he states the following:

Simply because people are empowered; and not only people, but entire cultures. These cultures will experience an internalization of the idea of interdependency so that the mores and norms are supportive of being productive and everyone will be accountable to everybody. This will unleash incredible energy, talent, creativity, resourcefulness, and new ideas. If I could have people understand one key paradigm of the Knowledge Worker Age it would be that you manage things, but you lead people. That is how we will empower them.

Agile in the Knowledge Age

There is a movement in the software development industry, called Agile, which holds to principles and values that are focused on being able to adapt to change. At their core, these tenets are centered on people, and instead of telling people exactly what to do in an Industrial Age manner, leaders are told they should empower their employees to make decisions in a self-organizing, highly accountable environment. While, at the same time, these same leaders are told they should relinquish their command-and-control style of management and instead become servant-leaders, all in the name of higher productivity and being able to stay competitive. Sound too good to be true? Well, according to the Annual State of Agile Dev Survey, conducted by VersionOne, respondents said that, on average, the ability to manage changing priorities increased by 90%, and that productivity got better by 85% when adopting Agile practices from their traditional (Industrial Age) practices.

Just to give you an idea of which companies are adopting Agile practices, Microsoft, Apple, HP, Oracle and Adobe should be some names you can relate with. And, the adoption is growing beyond just software development as more manufacturing, food, hospitality, government and construction organizations, just to name a few, are starting to adopt the various methods that adhere to the Agile values and principles.

These companies and industries are all recognizing our rapidly changing world as we shift into the Knowledge Age. They have also recognized that Industrial Age tactics are not going to help them continue to be competitive, and in order to be competitive, they must change their relationship with their customers as well as with the people they employ. As you move forward in your business, have you considered whether you are still using an Industrial Age style of management? If you are, do you recognize how that style may hinder your ability to manage change and be productive? If not, you need to, and if you think your industry is safe from the effects of this rapidly changing environment, you may want to reconsider, because with new innovations like 3D printing, synthetic biology and nanomaterial, you may wake up one morning to a whole new world and not even know what just happened.

Is Agile the answer for our shift to the Knowledge Age? Right now, it seems to be focused on the right things, and considering the success companies are having in their adoption, it’s at least a step in the right direction. There is one thing for certain, however, that is that we, as people, are changing. So, whether your industry or business is feeling the immediate impact of the Knowledge Age, your employees are, so it just may be time to reconsider your management practices nonetheless.

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