A few weeks ago I summarized the findings from our recent article in the Harvard Business Review. We argue that organizations investing in “big data” must increase “big judgment” too. In other words, access to faster and more prolific streams of information and more powerful analytic tools is wasted unless knowledge workers have the skills and judgment to use information effectively to make decisions.
The article discusses how IT can help knowledge workers develop the required skills and judgment. But if knowledge workers are critical to getting value from information, IT must also better understand what they want from information, and how they use (and misuse) information in day-to-day work.
This is not easy. Knowledge workers’ information needs vary by individual and across time. And you can’t just ask them. Knowledge workers struggle to describe what information they need or how they are going to use it.
IT is more comfortable with traditional requirements setting, in a waterfall or agile model, where the goal is a stable process that applies to all users and where outliers are asked to get into line. Analytics (as well as social collaboration and to a lesser extent mobility) are different as knowledge workers have greater autonomy and choice.
So it is important to find other ways to identify information needs. One novel approach is to apply anthropological techniques to identify roadblocks in day-to-day work and develop solutions based on unarticulated or unstated needs. As an anthropologist at a leading organizations told us,
“Anthropological research does not start from an ideal state to be achieved. Instead, it provides input to process redesign based on actual conditions on the ground.
Few organizations have created dedicated anthropologist roles. Most see anthropology as a new skill required for business liaisons, business analysts, service managers, and project managers, so here are six steps that individuals in these roles can use.
1. Contextualize Observation – Observe knowledge workers in their natural environments, for example, by accompanying a sales team on customer visits or in sales meetings. Look across internal divisions and at organizational and cultural contexts.
2. Observe Across Space and Time – Observe knowledge workers across multiple spaces and points of time, looking for differences that may relate to location or time of day.
3. Self- and Auto-Report – Ask knowledge workers to use written or audio-visual diaries to record their workflow and log stage gates that cause bottlenecks or stalls. Alternatively, record the use of collaboration and analytic tools, to gain insight into individual workflows.
4. Acknowledge Expertise – Neither pretend to know more about the subject matter than the knowledge workers do, nor buy in to easy answers, but always ask follow-up questions.
5. Reiterate and Qualify – Repeat what is heard to clarify meaning, but also ask whether these are the right questions to ask.
6. Read the Silence – Look for gaps in the knowledge workers’ narrative, and identify variability across knowledge worker experiences. In the context of unarticulated needs, what goes unsaid may be highly significant.