From Assembly Line to Just-in-Time

Charles S. Lanigan describes the educational needs of the new knowledge economy.

CIOs and their organizations are very interested lately in finding ways to recognize, collect, share (and dare I say reward) expertise among their workers through techniques such as social networking and knowledge-sourcing. Ironically, the obstacle they often face in this age of information overload is uncovering hidden (that is, tacit) knowledge and presenting it in a coherent fashion. Having spent huge sums of money on computing power to help them streamline processes and create repositories of data, many organizations want to believe they can apply information technology as a simple short-cut to knowledge management.

One organization, which pioneered the use of nuclear power in the U.S. Navy, asked me about developing a simple IT solution to capture the expertise of its retiring engineers. What I offered them was a labor-intensive, time-consuming process of interviewing engineering personnel in their respective areas of expertise, documenting their responses (i.e., making the tacit explicit) and organizing the results logically in some sort of knowledge-base.

That organization’s request points to an underlying fallacy. Knowledge does not exist like vast reserves of oil, waiting to be extracted. It does not reside in peoples heads waiting to be downloaded or “jacked into” (films like The Matrix to the contrary). Knowledge is subjective, idiosyncratic and dynamic. It is formed in the interaction among people, where it is shaped by language, thought and perception. It builds on what individuals and cultures have learned and transmitted across time and distance through face-to-face communication and books, and now through electronic means such as e-mail and the Web.

However, even as companies and other organizations face an increasing need to leverage their knowledge assets and compete in the global knowledge economy, they face a shortage of workers with the competencies to function effectively in it. The success of factory automation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was based on reducing tasks, and the expertise and skill required to perform them, to the lowest common denominator. Frederick Taylor developed his gospel of scientific management in the early 1900s. Henry Ford was Taylorism’s main prophet, using it to refine and perfect his assembly-line process of auto manufacturing.

Applied across a variety of industries, this approach enabled production of a large quantity of cheap, mass-produced goods using a readily-available labor pool that possessed a minimum of education. Its disadvantages includedde-skilling, lack of understanding and lack of independent thinking among workers. These weren’t critical drawbacks in the early and even later industrial economy. Public education evolved during the nineteenth century to assimilate new immigrants and workers into society and give them the minimum skills to do the work required of them. The majority of men and women who labored in the factories weren’t valued for being literate, articulating ideas clearly, solving problems or being innovative. They were valued and rewarded for performing repetitious tasks quickly, consistently and accurately.

The knowledge economy requires a predominance of employees who can think critically, recognize and solve problems creatively and work with others cooperatively.

But the legacy of our educational system and factory automation has prepared us for an old way of thinking and acting, and an older type of work. The ghost of Taylorism persists in organizations that continue to use information technology merely as a tool to reduce the training and level of education required of their workers to the lowest common denominator. …

Schools and our mass culture reinforce the notion that all problems can be solved merely by applying the proper technology. One recent newspaper article stated that the secret to helping children do well in school lies in buying them the right PDAs, laptops and electronic spell-checkers. Anyone who has sat on a crowded bus, at a business meeting or in a classroom will notice that people sometimes seem disturbingly more adept at interacting with their iPod or cell phone than with human beings. But proficiency in using the tools that technology provides is no guarantee that these tools will be used intelligently and ethically. From the tragic loss of life in Bhopal, India, more than 20 years ago to the recent debacle surrounding Hurricane Katrina, we can see that many problems in our modern world are caused or exacerbated by human beings who fail to think and communicate, relate to others or respond mindfully to changing circumstances.

Lanigan, Charles S. 2007. “From Assembly Line to Just-in-Time: Preparing a Capable Workforce for the Knowledge Economy.” CIO.