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Why company culture is at the heart of good knowledge work outcomes

Jack Shepherd

Performing knowledge work efficiently and effectively is key to achieving your organizational goals. How do firms create a culture that stimulates the collaboration, exploration, and innovation that elevate knowledge workers, knowledge work, and its outcomes?

In recent survey, 95% of respondents agreed that optimizing the resources, processes, and tools they use to support and share knowledge work will be key to helping their organization reach its goals.

This should come as no surprise. Optimal knowledge work performance is essential to organizational success. It follows best practices, harnesses the expertise of your employees, enables you to deliver quality work at speed, and improves outcomes for your services.

What is knowledge work?

Knowledge work can be differentiated from other forms of work by its emphasis on “non-routine” problem-solving that requires a combination of convergent and divergent thinking. The difficulty is that truly efficient and effective knowledge work, the kind that makes a difference to your bottom line, can be challenging to execute.

This is especially true in large organizations with many disparate teams, where processes aren’t clearly defined and workflows can vary widely from one person to another. In these firms, working methods tend to spring up organically, and — even if you suspect there are better ways of doing things — it’s not always easy to understand what is happening or what needs to change.

Overcoming resistance to change

We may also find people in more traditional business environments are following a “this is how we’ve always done things” mantra, which makes them resistant to change. But those time-honored processes can be inaccurate and slow, hamstrung by delays and human error.

Technology can help, but careful application is needed or it can create information silos, frustrate workers with poor user experiences, or be too rigid to address knowledge work. Worse, knowledge is often lost when people leave, hindering employees that are left behind and who are already working long hours.

Good people may even leave a firm due to these sorts of impediments to job satisfaction, and both the individual and the organization pay a price for this ever more common occurrence. The key to overcoming this alarming trend lies in creating a culture that optimizes knowledge work to empower knowledge workers to be truly effective in their roles.

But how do you do that?

Building a culture that supports knowledge work

A culture of optimized knowledge work is best defined by the desire to do things better. It acknowledges how important knowledge work is to the organization and its goals and promotes the freedom for everyone to ask the question “is there a better way?”

New company cultures don’t happen overnight, however, and a desire to do things better is not, in itself, enough. It takes dedicated investment from the top down and the bottom up to persuade workers to view change as positive and to support them in trying new approaches to everyday tasks.

Business leaders often pour money into technology solutions aimed at streamlining knowledge work, anticipating universal adoption and instant results. In my opinion, blindly investing in technology is a very expensive way to find out if people will change, and holding unrealistic expectations makes this approach a wasteful use of budget. Technology alone is not a solution, and changing culture and behavior takes effort.

Putting people first is at the heart of transforming culture

Successful transformation starts with people. Raising awareness and making incremental changes to the way things are currently done, from a people-first perspective, is key. To create a culture that is receptive to change, gradually add new technologies that demonstrably improve people’s efficiency in their day-to-day activities. Support them through their transitions and, above all, reward adoption.

When change is experienced as a benefit, people are happier and more productive. They can work faster, achieve more accurate results, collaborate and share knowledge across sectors, departments, and the business — ultimately generating better business outcomes.

Who drives this cultural shift?

In my experience, this shift comes from one of three places.

First, a push from the top, with the C-Suite looking to seize the business benefits of replacing entrenched processes to optimize knowledge work.

Second, when employees themselves want to find ways to make knowledge work more efficient.

It’s vital to encourage this, and that means giving people enough freedom and time to experiment with new ways of working. Even when it means sacrificing some billable hours while new processes are trialed and tested, firm leaders must recognize that the long-term benefits outweigh the time spent.

Third, external factors can be a catalyst for cultural change.

With the rise in remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, many organizations had to find workarounds for long-established processes. Sweeping changes, such as the proliferation of electronic signatures on legal documents, have made people more open to new ways of working — even some not dictated by the hybrid work environment.

I say strike while the iron is hot — it’s the perfect time to introduce more efficient work practices. Resistance wanes when the benefits of change are clear, and firms can take advantage of this temporary disruption to instill a more permanent mindset geared towards adopting more efficient work practices.

Three tips for implementing a culture of optimized knowledge work

When supported by a culture that promotes and rewards change, optimizing knowledge work can bring about significant business growth. You can begin to create that culture, today, with these three tips:

  1. Incentivize people to change, right now

Something I refer to as “The Zone of Apathy” is a state where people are comfortable with the status quo, despite its drawbacks. Asking people to step outside of this comfort zone can be difficult, which is why it’s important to incentivize your workers to change.

Clear direction from leadership and a compelling business case are essential for success. Does a new technology remove the fear of document errors and help them sleep at night? Does a more streamlined process allow them to spend more time at home with the family? Highlight the benefits for people, whatever they are. Pay them more if they change. Praise them more if they change. Promote them if they change. Work out what your incentives are, have a plan around this and don’t just wait for change to happen.

  1. Allow people to experiment

For a culture to truly permeate an organization it needs to be adopted by everybody, so make sure people have the freedom to suggest new ways of working and trial new processes. They will feel more appreciated, and your outcomes will improve.

  1. Listen to your workforce

Not everyone will come to you with solutions, but you can be sure they will have problems. Listen to the struggles as well as the ideas people bring forward — what tasks keep them working late? What processes cause unnecessary errors? Listen, and then work with them to provide solutions that resolve those issues.

Your business runs on knowledge

Knowledge has the power to help your business grow and prosper. Activating high-value knowledge is what makes your business tick.  Learn how to uncover complementary intelligences that bring the value of the collective to its full potential.

Learn more about Making Knowledge Work.

About the author

Jack Shepherd

Legal Practice Lead at iManage