Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Encouraging Volunteerism in Knowledge-Based Organizations

This topic has been nagging at the back of my brain for a while - and still does for that matter.

Peter Druker introduced the concept of "knowledge worker" and there has been lots of writing and thinking on what knowledge work is and how it is done. In parallel, there has been much writing on the need to shift management thinking from the scientific method and a mechanistic view of the firm to more of a leadership perspective - at a recent conference I heard someone say " you manage things, you lead people." Covey wrote an in interesting related article in the summer 2006 edition Leader to Leader magazine titled Leading in the Knowledge Worker Age.

So a Manager's job in the knowledge age is to create the work environment for people to be successful, or as a former colleague says, to "release the will and the talent of the team."

The challenge in this is managers can't see knowledge work happen. There is now way of measuring and controlling how much "brain power" someone puts into their work. There is no way of measuring if someone is putting 100% of their energy and focus on a problem or only 80%.. or 50%.. Managers can only objectively observe some of the results / outputs of knowledge work.

Two colleagues recently visited from Poland and I was completely fascinated, as I have been for 3 years now via email discussions, about the country's emergence from communism, changes in organizational culture, and focussed people seems to be on "learning before doing" and building on the experiences and expertise of others. And they are doing a very good job at that.

Conversations with my colleagues reinforced the notion that when people are told to do something they often rebel by doing as less as possible to be compliant. Compliance, though, falls far short of commitment or engagement. An example is that employees who are told that it is mandatory to complete a summary form after each training course or conference will mostly do so, but with as little effort as possible so that they can 'check the box' to either mitigate negative consequence (e.g. can't submit expenses without your summary form) or a positive one (some form of reward / recognition).

So, I'm thinking that something that bears exploring is the concept of "encourage volunteerism" among employees. Creating conditions where they wholeheartedly commit, contribute and engage as much as possible.

MIT Sloan Management Review in Spring 2003 featured an article titled Moving Beyond Motivation to the Power of Volition. The general notion in the article is that volition, which implies deep personal attachment to an intention, is encouraged through perception of an exciting opportunity, a catalyst to provide focus, freedom of choice, disciplined action, protection of intentions, self-confidence, positive energy and emotions. The ability of managers to create this type of environment has some significant knowledge and skill implications.

I think that there are some vital lessons that can be learned from NGO / volunteer sector. What successes / failures have they experienced in encouraging sustained volunteerism? What skills / competencies to managers and leaders have to create an appropriate enviornment? What are the skill / knowledge implications for the volunteers themselves? How do their work processes / collaboration activities differ from a typical public or private sector organization?

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