The Coming Knowldege Work Salt Mine

It dawned on me yesterday, just like the developing “Creator Economy” we’re seeing the creation of the “Knowledge Worker Industry”.

A recent episode of Mac Power Users was full of the usual interesting workflow ideas and productivity hacks. But then it got real serious for me real fast.

You see, Sean McCabe for years has been using automation and workflow tools to improve his own productivity. Now he’s using it to gleefully industrialize knowledge work. His current company takes podcasts and videos and hacks them up to nice promo bites for social media. It’s the kind of work that takes some editing skill, editorial ability, and thought. If you can get that down to a process, an assembly line you have knowledge workers sitting in front of a screen doing industrial line work. Get an assignment, process it, send it down the line and get the next job on the line. It sounds so nerdy and innocent: Mac Power Users #613: The Future of Work, with Sean McCabe

David and Stephen talk with Sean McCabe about how he runs his businesses from what can only be described as a Mac battle station while stitching together macOS apps and several cloud services to be more productive.

But I can see how the productivity hack industry can be used to maximize the productivity of knowledge workers. And it brought to mind Cal Newport’s vision of a world without email. Rather than summarizing Cal’s latest book, here’s an interview where he makes the point: Cal Newport on an industrial revolution for office work

On Cal’s account, those opportunities are staring us in the face. Modern factories operated by top firms are structured with painstaking care and two centuries of accumulated experience to ensure staff can get the greatest amount possible done.

Our productivity grew 50x in the 20th century. Why? Because, the early 20th century is when we got really serious about process engineering. Like hey, wait a second. If we use an assembly line, we can build cars better. We really started to get serious about building things as a process we could get better and better at. And as he underscored, he’s like, 50x growth is almost inconceivably large.

I’m a highly paid knowledge worker because of my 40 plus year career in science, medicine and drug development. I work in a company that Cal thinks is a “hyperactive hive mind” when what it is a organization of shifting expert teams loosely tied together around the world by a combination of asynchronous (email, document sharing) and synchronous (Teams, Zoom, teleconferences) in which I leverage my knowledge by contributing in dozens of different ways every day.

This is how teams work. I understand that Cal, as an academic, wants to be left alone and leave the operational stuff to a theoretical knowledge industry. But I see that as a digital salt mine. Assembly line knowledge work like Sean’s company. Where creativity and improvisational problem solving go to die.

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