Why Cutting Corners in Risky for Knowledge Workers

Posted on December 24, 2012 · Posted in Analysis and Opinion

Cutting corners: the special case of Knowledge Work

Shortcutting sign

The Wiktionary gives the following usage example  for “Cutting Corners”: The guy who built the fence cut corners when sinking the posts, and the fence fell over in the last storm. Not surprising: when we think of the risks of cutting corners, we naturally turn to construction and manufacturing, where any use of substandard materials or processes can easily lead to catastrophic failure.

But in Knowledge Work, that wide domain many of us spend our careers in, cutting corners can be just as risky, and the outcomes can be harmful in insidious and unexpected ways. Knowledge Work  involves affecting people’s reactions and behaviors, which is hard enough without taking shortcuts. Maybe this won’t make the dictionary, or the headlines, like a fallen bridge; but we should keep it in mind lest we let the temptation of taking the easy path damage our goals in the long run.

Some real-life examples

An example: deploying IT tools without training. When I was Computing Productivity Manager at Intel, I was always on the lookout for intent to deploy something the easy way. In a typical case I’d discovered that we were about to deploy Instant Messenger across the corporation. A good idea, too; with its Presence Awareness, IM is a powerful tool, and I’ve seen it do my clients a world of good in reducing Email Overload and facilitating global team collaboration. However, the general idea was that since this tool was free to install, we should just let employees install it on their own. I intervened and  had my team spend considerable effort to study the behavioral implications of IM use, seeking inputs from academic researchers. We concluded that adopting well-thought-out usage practices and group norms would improve the tool’s effectiveness considerably, and saw to it that deployment would be centrally coordinated to require every employee to train in these best practices. The extra effort had been well worth it!

An example: managing documentation without professional know-how. A group I was advising wanted to set up a documentation center, and their manager decided to entrust the task to temp hires with no background at all in the information management domain. The vague idea was to copy “all the required knowledge” and to store it without any further pre- or post-processing and with no retrieval system! Fortunately I’d jumped into the breach in time; a professional information specialist was assigned to the project, which had flourished as a result.

An example: developing employees without travel. Managers tend, at the slightest cost pressure, to forget the importance of getting remote coworkers to see each other face to face, or of sending them to conferences and training classes. The temptation is great indeed: we have the telephone, and video conferencing, after all. But in many instances this is simply corner cutting, and the harm is significant. I’ve discussed this in detail in a recent post.

An example: making exhibitions without exhibits. A fun and challenging line of work for me is the design of museum exhibitions and visitor centers that bring youngsters closer to the hi-tech industry. In doing this I often have to fight the trend of forgoing real physical exhibits in favor of models or  computer visualizations. These have their role to play in support of the real thing, but in my view they should never replace it; the impact of seeing, touching, and if possible taking apart a real piece of technology is far greater (see my opinionated article for more on this). The problem is that the computer version is usually easier to obtain, present and maintain…

An example: presenting without communicating. As countless attendees of endless meetings know, many people present what they have to say without being well prepared, without bothering to craft a suitably effective presentation, without respecting their audience. They know what they have to say; why bother investing in making the message come across? Not that the listeners care, since they’re doing email on their blackberries anyway…

How you can fight the temptation to cut corners

The problem with these temptations to cut corners is that they all make sense at the time. Everyone is busy, after all, and budgets are always under pressure, and doing a good job seems – up front – to cost more in time and money. It’s easy to get caught up in the feeling that everything should be simplified and reduced, bath water and baby included; it even feels good to be the hero that had figured how to replace, say, serious frontal training with some virtual alternative (I’m not saying this never makes sense – in many cases it does; the trick is knowing when it does and when it doesn’t!)

If you find yourself in this situation – and you will – you need to have the wisdom to pick your battles, since not every cut corner merits a major counter-offensive. And when a battle is called for – when you feel that the proposed easy path detracts from the goals to an unacceptable extent – you need to have the courage to make a case and drive it through the objections surrounding you. You will be doing your company a favor – not that you’ll be thanked for it at first…

What you can do about this as a manager

If you manage people, you play a key role in this matter of corners. Your employees look up to you, and have a keen sense of what you want them to do (whether you say it or not). You can impact how they approach the subject of this post in two ways:

  • You can pressure them to choose the path of least resistance and least cost, disdaining any alternative ideas they may raise. Except for the rare maverick, they will do what you want, and learn to be what in Israel we call Rosh Katan (“Small Head”, one who toes the line and avoids taking initiative).
  • You can mentor and guide them to think critically, to weigh the pros and cons of every situation and propose a firm recommendation based on their professional opinion; and then you can support their decision, or engage in constructive discussion to improve it. On top of benefiting the work at hand, this trust will work wonders for their motivation (yes, we have a name for that too – Rosh Gadol, “Large Head”, one who assumes ownership beyond the call of duty).

Your choice!