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Knowledge Management and Telework

For most people, the phrase teleworking conjures up the futuristic vision of work propounded by Starr Roxanne Hiltz and Murray Turoff in 1978:

"For now, imagine that it is breakfast time in 1994, and you have just settled down with a cup of coffee-substitute heated on your solar stove, to read your computer-generated equivalent of the daily newspaper, including all the news that is fit to display on your home terminal" (Hiltz, S. R and Turoff, M, 1978, p xxxii).

A literal definition of telework is "working at a distance", however, in reality, telework is far more complex than that. Telework can range from a 'lifestyle choice' to an imposed corporate policy. Telework is described variously as, mobile working, nomadic working, location-independent work, telecommuting, electronic home-work, home based working or, more idealistically, working in the electronic cottage. Although all of these terms refer to the same basic phenomenon, each has a slightly different connotation. Some people focus exclusively on work done from the home, while others include work done in satellite offices or on the road.

Although we may be able to distinguish between static (e.g. home based) telework where an individual "works at a distance" from some fixed location such as their home and dynamic (mobile) telework where work can be done at any location or even while traveling between locations, many of the same fundamental problems remain. Firstly, telework means that there are few opportunities for social or professional interaction, which can lead to isolation, stagnation and poor performance; problems often compounded by the difficulty of effectively managing such work. Secondly, work will not only take place at different physical locations but also at different times. Once work can take place anywhere at any time, the pace and sequence of working will no longer be driven by the synchronicity of the physical office. The co-ordination of a group activities and the effective exchange of simple factual information can also be a significant problem in telework. How might these problems be addressed from a knowledge management perspective?

At first sight the answer to this question might appear to be straightforward. Chinowsky and Goodman (1996) showed that both social and task interaction were always present in distributed teams although the emphasis on each changed over time. Could we not simply provide the teleworker with soft KM tools to facilitate hot DCW to deal with the problems of social isolation combined with some hard KM tools to ease cold DCW and deal with the problems of co-ordination and information exchange? A brief review of the experiences of an earlier generation of mobile teleworkers will show how misleading this simple view of KM and DCW can be.

In 1986 Julian Orr undertook a study of copier machine repairers who spent most of their time in the field, but who met together on a regular basis to socialize, discuss their problems and tell "war stories" about particularly difficult copier repair problems. Moving to a wholly distributed from of working would clearly disrupt this informal social activity. In the physical world, there are many different ways of becoming a member of a community: by working side by side on a task, by socializing in the coffee room, etc. However, how can this happen if you are alone all day in your car or your home? You may have a phone, but who do you call? More importantly, what do you talk about when you don't know anything about your colleagues as other human beings?

The meetings of the copier repairers however served purposes other than simple social bonding. Learning to do a job and incorporating new knowledge into your repertoire of skills is largely done by watching others work, discussing your work with others and by listening to others discuss their work. In a wholly distributed workforce, only the second of these options is open.

The copier repairers had manuals that contained the procedures to be followed when repairing a copier. These procedures had been laid down by the designers of the machines, but only covered the problems foreseen by them. However, there were occasions when problems occurred that were not covered by the procedures. The repairers tackled such problems by creating workarounds. When a problem could not be solved by adherence to the manual, or when a newcomer had a particular difficulty, they would enlist the help of colleagues. By applying their shared experience the group would arrive at a solution to the problem. These solutions were not then forgotten, the new knowledge was shared with other members through telling "war stories" and was recorded by making annotations to the official manual. Again, for the teleworker the problem is not only a problem of soft knowledge and social isolation, it is also a problem of getting access to codified hard knowledge such as the annotated manuals of Orr's copier repairers.



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