6. April 2005

[ English , Knowledgework und PIM ]

"The inbox is the knowledge worker's production line."

Magdalena Boettger suggests a nice metaphor: The inbox is the knowledge worker's production line.

While at first sight I subscribed to the view this image gave to me, after a little thinking I think I disagree with the statement.

While it is true that the inbox in the "production line" in the sense that it brings new pieces of information that need to be processed and therefore "brings the work that we do", I think that the real production is done elsewhere. Actually, email often keeps us from producing!

To get real work done, often you need to disconnect from the inbox and sit down with the pieces of information you need and work on them. You don't need to switch off from communication completely - sometimes you need the communication tools to do your work - but you need to focus and get away from the "production line" that feeds new bits of information and new work towards you.

I believe my thinking comes from David Allen's "Getting Things Done" (GTD) method which I have been implementing since November last year. He recommends always having an empty inbox. This seems ridiculous at first, but it can be done - I did it! - and it is marvellous. The idea is to seperate the processing of work, the "doing things", from the organisation of work, the "thinking about doing things". When you organise your work in this way, email is no longer a production line: It is a tool that

  1. Brings you new work (brings new items into the "In" basket)

  2. can be used to do work

  3. can be used to send out deliverables of work.

Maybe the metaphor of the inbox as the knowledge workers' production line is even dangerous: It focusses too much on information routing and simple communication tasks and not on those practises where real knowledge (as in *knowledge* worker) is involved. Do you know those weeks that you basically spend "in email" all the time at at the end you wonder what work you actually got done?

Or maybe I am just over-thinking something... ;-)


I was following that line of thought too... I think in order to work efficiently the knowledge worker needs to have sufficient control over the input itself. Amount and quality should be adjustable to the individual work style and task. Think of asking a specific question, active search for information, subscribing to a weblog and not to another one, filtering email, telling people to rtfm first, etc. And also drawing back from the inbox for some time to get the work done.

Magdalena am 07.04.05 14:23 #

Martin, your objections might have been valid five years ago. Modern mail clients are more an more becoming information hubs with built-in task management (flagging messages, creating alerts for unanswered mails, etc.) Furthermore, Outlook is evolving into a frontend for different business applications like Microsofts CRM system. Users should be able to accomplish their tasks without leaving Outlook. ECM vendors like Documentum or Hummingbird follow a similar approach (see their recent anouncements here and here.

Wolfgang Sommergut am 08.04.05 00:03 #

Wolfgang, we are really thinking along the same lines: It doesn't matter where or with what tools the work is done (and I do see the trend towards integrated task-management/communication/application environments), but still this doesn't change the fact that to get one thing done, you need to focus on exactly that thing and should not be disturbed by new things fed in through the production line.

Martin Roell am 08.04.05 08:47 #