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The Pride of the (Knowledge) Worker

A large part of my day to day work involves helping to set product direction and strategy. Like most folks in my role, I’d like to believe that the products I help drive are the product of more than just “ivory tower” thinking. There’s a universe of sources that factor into how a product is developed and enhanced, everything from internal customer-facing organizations (sales, services, support), our partners who offer value above and beyond our core solutions, and industry analysts with an eye to the future.

We also spend a good amount of time doing user research with customers and prospects. The former are valuable as we observe how they actually use the products they use on a day-to-day basis. The latter, while not users of our solutions, provide critical insight into how our products stack up to the competition, and in some cases why we might not have been selected. The research process itself is complicated, but you can think of it as having two phases; observational where we literally watch people work, and testing where we take graphic and user-interaction designs created from the first phase and see how the participants react to them.

In the observational phase we sit with users, preferably with an audio / video recording setup, and we simply watch and ask questions. We do our absolute best to get an unfiltered view of how the users do their work (recognizing that by studying the usage we risk changing it). It can be entertaining to see different peoples’ reactions to the interview process. Some are completely unaffected, others shy and withdrawn, some even extremely uncomfortable to the point of asking us not to tape them.

As you might expect, we get to observe all manner of workers; from customer service representatives who answer customer calls all day, to the people who run the mail-room and scanning operations, to department manager and team leads, to underwriters, actuaries, lawyers, and analysts.

Right out of the gate, I mentioned the “ivory tower” thinking that gets corporate types in trouble. Think of someone locked in their tower (corporate headquarters) looking down on the land (their customers and market) and making decisions about product direction from afar. While a certain amount of autonomous thinking and product strategy is important, a connection with the world is equally so.

I had this point hammered home almost immediately as I was immersed into product and user research. See, as “automate and improve” types, we are often taught to believe that every worker involved in a business process needs to be told what to do and is limited to doing that work assigned by their manager or team lead. Extrapolating that point, one might assume that measurement of productivity is necessary to enforce good working habits. In some rare cases, this is true, but almost to an individual, what I’ve witnessed are people who are conscientious and truly care about their jobs and their performance. They take pride in their accomplishments, and they are competitive with their colleagues.

This realization has resulted in a focus on personal analytics, communications and mentoring capabilities as part of our solutions. The reason? People like to understand how they are doing, get feedback, communicate their wants and needs, and generally feel like individuals rather than cogs in a machine. This individuality and pride is only increasing as we see more end-to-end responsibility for work (as opposed to assembly line thinking), and as more and more jobs qualify as “knowledge work.” Look for this pride in your workers and see if you can’t help them feel more valued, you might be surprised as to the return on your effort.

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