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Work Process Knowledge Book Review

Where employees possess work process knowledge there is a greater likelihood that they will be able to solve problems at work and generally help improve organisational performance.

Some organisations require workers to have a deep understanding of organisational work processes and this may invole a mix of skills, knowledge and understanding - this combination of requirements may be quite demanding as well as strategically important, irrespective of whether or not they are labelled as 'high skills'. Boreham and colleagues (2002) have examined issues concerning the use of work process knowledge at work. The concept of work process knowledge developed from European research into the knowledge and competence needed to work in modern workplaces, characterised by increased functional flexibility, the use of ICT, the integration of previously separated production functions and an emphasis on knowledge creation within normal work activity. The concept of work process knowledge captures crucial aspects of the ways of knowing needed in such workplaces:

  • Work process knowledge encompasses systems-level understanding of the work process (including the business process, production process and labour process) in the organization as a whole.
  • Work process knowledge is used directly in the performance of work – it is ‘active’ as opposed to ‘inert’.
  • Work process knowledge is constructed by employees while they are engaged in work, particularly when they are solving problems.
  • In place of the binary opposition between ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing that’, work process knowledge is a synthesis which typically results from the dialectical process of resolving contradictions between explicit or codified forms of work-related knowledge on the one hand, and the ways of knowing implicit in work experience on the other.

The book by Boreham et al. (2002) represents an attempt to foreground the importance of work process knowledge in understanding processes of organisational change. Work process knowledge is defined as an understanding of the labour process and the production process in the organisation as a whole, and it is this understanding that can underpin effective work performance when there is significant organisational change, including changes in the pattern of work organisation. This edited book draws on the work of twenty-four contributors from nine different European countries. It can therefore be seen as a useful guide to the different, but related, strands of thinking on this issue from across Europe and draws upon findings of the application of ideas about work process knowledge in very different contexts.

The book developed out of the work of a European Fourth Framework project and the contributors were all interested in the kinds of knowledge required of workers to cope with organisational change and changes in patterns of work organisation. The authors, however, do not see all (European) employers embarking on the 'royal road' of a quality-centred, continuously improving competitive strategy, and Huys and van Hootegem point to the continued importance of (neo-)Taylorism and approaches based on work intensification in some parts of manufacturing industry. Indeed Rasmussen points to how these approaches are sometimes extended to new areas, as in the case of industrial design where competitive pressures have fragmented collegial work systems and designers have had to adjust to explicit neo-Taylorist approaches to work.

However, whilst acknowledging that 'new' (more flexible) ways of working are not inevitable, the authors do make the case that where these have been introduced then knowledge more generally, and work process knowledge in particular, has become increasingly significant. As information and communication technologies have led to the crossing of work boundaries and extended the inter-relatedness of people in (network) organisations, thus requiring greater connectivity and flexibility, so there is a greater need for more workers to have a fuller understanding of labour and work processes as a whole. One strength of this book is that the general line of argument is substantiated by in-depth investigations of specific workplaces which highlight the new ways of knowing related to the greater networking, lateral communication and more flexible working required by changes in the nature of work. The book also draws attention to the idea that, while practical understanding and theoretical knowledge are significant, what is really key is how these different forms of knowledge are combined in solving problems at work and this is the basis of work process knowledge. Thus Samurcay and Vidal-Gomel point to how 'electricians' work process knowledge is constructed by the electricians themselves, by resolving contradictions between lived experience and the theoretical principles and procedures of electrical maintenance' (Boreham, p.9).

Work process knowledge therefore has to be actively constructed through problem solving and a process of 'shared sense making' (Boreham, p.9). The studies of a number of contributors (notably Mariani; Fischer; Lammont and Boreham; and Rogalski, Plat and Antolin-Glen) all emphasise the collective and cultural dimension to the development and application of work process knowledge in the workplace. The case studies are also very often interesting for the wealth of anthropological insight that they generate: the collective narratives on individual debtors generated by debt-collecting staff being particularly memorable, if a little chilling in the way 'kindness is simply viewed as lost income' (Lammont and Boreham, p.99).

That one of the vital lessons for employers, if they are trying to capitalise on employees' knowledge, is that they should provide opportunities for reflection is reassuring for advocates of the education of adults. In this respect one of the fundamental underpinnings of adult learning in 'new' workplaces remains the same as it was in 'old' workplaces or indeed other learning contexts: the value of critical reflection. The key, however, is not whether employers recognise the value of this, but whether they can protect the time employees have to do this in practice. Several contributors (Rasmussen; Boreham; and Krueger, Kruse and Caprile) make the point that organisational change, changes in the pattern of work organisation and ways of working and sharing knowledge are by their very nature essentially political processes. As such they fall within the realm of industrial relations rather than being simply technocratic questions about the most effective way of working.

Overall then this book is a rich resource, not least because as Norros and Nuutinen point out that studies on work process knowledge integrate contributions from both 'pedagogically oriented research on expertise and ergonomically oriented research on work activity' (p.25). It also goes with the grain of current thinking on linking working and learning more closely together, as with Fischer and Roeben's conclusion that learning should be organised in the form of 'learning and working tasks' (p.54) through which key work process elements can be explored. Finally, by focusing upon different forms of work organisation the authors do draw attention to how these are historically created and culturally situated and as such there will be a range of possible alternatives. However, whatever alternatives are considered the application of a work process knowledge perspective underscores the need to actively involve employees in decision-making processes about the organisation of work.

Reference:

  • Nicholas Boreham, Renan Samurcay and Martin Fischer (eds) (2002) Work Process Knowledge, London: Routledge.

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