“Meetings are the factory floor for knowledge workers.” Dick Axelrod
There are probably hundreds of articles floating through the web “demonizing” meetings, depicting the majority of meetings to be unproductive and a complete waste of time and money. Having worked in the engineering services business for years and, through this experience relying heavily on meetings for team alignment, collaboration, innovation and production, I have never agreed with these articles. So, when I saw this quote from Mr. Axelrod I was very curious to understand his side of the story.
His philosophy is basically that meetings are where a lot of work gets done or should get done in today’s organizations. Because of the complexity of business today and the interaction that is needed between so many different components of a business (internal and external to the business), people must meet face to face or virtually in order to have alignment in the business. Now, not all meetings are run properly so not all meetings are productive (see the Tripp Crosby youtube video for an example ). Axelrod goes on to provide a solid model and methodology for running meetings that are focused and productive. See his book Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done (BK Business) for more details.
Going back to the quote, “Meetings are the factory floor for knowledge workers” and giving this some thought, I found it very insightful.
The factory floor is where products are made for the marketplace. This is where workers strive for product quality, quantity, efficiency, profitability, and innovation. Workers on the factory floor are generally an interconnected team with output from one worker flowing to the next worker for the next value added step and then to the next worker and so on, until the final product is completed and ready to ship to market. This is a serial process. If one of the workers is not properly engaged or has quality issues with their output or is not producing their portion of the product quickly enough, it affects the workers downstream and the end product. This usually results in product defects, rework, inefficiency, etc. It definitely affects the productivity, production targets and morale of the overall team. If an interruption like this happens, the factory workers or a foreman on the factory floor can talk with each other, troubleshoot the problem and get the production line back up and working.….it is interactive and team alignment is key.
In the same way, a knowledge based workplace that does not have proper interaction and alignment between its knowledge workers will result in productivity, production and morale issues. The added danger with a disconnect in the knowledge workplace is that in most cases the work being performed by the knowledge worker is not a production line type product but rather the combination of the thoughts, creations, ideas, and innovations from the whole knowledge worker team. The knowledge worker output depends on the collective and integrative brainpower of the whole knowledge worker team. The team is not working in serial like the typical factory floor worker. The knowledge worker team typically works in parallel and comes together to integrate their outputs at various stages of their project. If there is a disconnect up front, it is possible that this will not be detected until late in the project lifecycle when the team members bring their contributions to the project together for integration. A disconnect at this point is typically complex, costly and painful to correct.
How do knowledge workers avoid these painful and costly disconnects? They must ensure that they are aligned at the onset of the project and then at strategic milestones throughout the project. The best way to do this is to have them meet on a regular basis. The frequency and the duration of the meetings must be determined by the type of project, its deliverables and the schedule for delivery. There are many different ways to meet in today’s world of internet connectivity, I have listed just a few of them below;
- The old fashioned face to face meeting is still extremely powerful when the meeting is structured and run properly
- Video conferencing
- Instant messenger
- WebEx or LiveMeeting
- Electronic document management system (SharePoint, Documentum, Coreworx)
The key for productive knowledge workers is to build a collaborative environment that encourages openness, dialog, creativity, innovation, and productivity. Effective meetings are a powerful tool for fostering this environment. Effective meetings really are the factory floor for knowledge workers.