Does Anyone Want a "Decision Factory"?

  • October 23, 2013
  • Scott

Keith Swenson’s blog recently responded to a Harvard Business Review article, entitled “Rethinking the Decision Factory“, where he undercuts some of the key points raised in HBR.

There are lots of bones to pick with the thesis behind knowledge workers as factory workers, but here’s the part from Keith’s blog that spoke to me:

He describes these decision makers as simply consuming data and produce decisions, regardless of whether it is their data or someone else’s data. This completely ignores the element of tacit expertise.  Many knowledge workers provide value only after a significant investment in understanding a particular market or audience.  This over simplified portrayal of a knowledge worker as a interchangeable automaton seems far too convenient and ignores the real nature of (much) knowledge work.

So, knowledge workers are just computers that take inputs, and produce decisions (outputs)?  That’s just crazy.  A knowledgeable person brings all their work history and context with them. They bring their previous expertise in the knowledge domain to the table.  A judge doesn’t preside over just any case – first of all, they experts in the law, but secondly they specialize in terms of the kinds of cases they hear.  The key skill for a judge likely isn’t the decision-making, but the ability to manage the process of meting out justice and running cases through hearings.

Your employees and teammates are not automatons and they’re not highly replaceable.  If they were, you could do as follows:

Given that external consulting companies exist, it seems far more likely that the company would forego the pool altogether.  If knowledge workers are as interchangeable as Martin suggests, then why not bring them in from Accenture or McKinsey when needed.  That way, when the project is over, there is no need to keep them on the payroll, and you can pull from a potentially larger pool.

So who wants to outsource decisioning to an outside consulting firm?  Right.

My first thought was, whenever someone tries to make knowledge work or specialized skilled work a “factory” you have to wonder who they’re trying to exploit (or justify exploiting). Keith’s blog is a pretty convincing challenge to the assumptions behind the HBR article.


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