Anne Zelenka has been writing some really interesting things about the nature of work lately, as an extension of her work at Web Worker Daily. She proposes that there are two models for knowledge workers, one older and one emerging now.

Busy: Show your face during all standard working hours.
Burst: If you produce what you need to, we don’t care when you do it or how long it takes.

Busy: Manage the hierarchy inside your company.
Burst: Connect laterally outside your department and company.

Busy: Always available during working hours.
Burst: Declarative availability.

Seeing the response to this has been very interesting. The replies on WWD seemed mostly positive. Several people said, “This is how I want to work, but it goes against how our work environment is set up.” Elsewhere, including her own blog, followers of Peter Drucker’s management philosophies are complaining. “You misunderstand. What you’re talking about isn’t meaningful. That’s just frosting on the ideas we’re promoting.”

I disagree. When Matthew Hodgson says the Drucker credo is, “Worker, manage thyself. Organisation, get out of the way”, I know he’s not getting the burst work concept. Because what I hear from Anne is “Workers, organize yourselves.”

For those of us that glommed onto the burst concept automatically, I think the issue is this. We procrastinate. We work hard, and then we take breaks. Our day looks like a mishmash, but we’re productive. And traditional management and organization structures, even in ‘knowledge work’, are not very accommodating of these patterns. When I’ve done project management, I actually prefer situations where people aren’t all in the same office (and especially the same room) together, because it helps me remember that I don’t need to care what people are doing at any given moment as long as the work is getting done. The very nature of being able to see everyone in person all day is that it’s really hard to support anything but a ‘busy’ work pattern.

I’m in kind of an odd situation right now, employment-wise. I’m not working full-time for anyone, but I’m running a (very small) business, doing contract work, and generally enjoying the chance to write and network and claim my own time. At the moment, that just barely pays the bills. I’d like to be earning more, but it’s really hard to trade away this kind of freedom. I get work done. On time, and to spec. What else matters?

4 responses to “Bursty

  1. Yes, exactly. Your restatement “Workers, organize yourselves” is exactly it.

    I’m in the same place you are — not making anywhere near what I could as a regular employee. But I love what I do and get to organize myself with other people on an ad hoc basis as I like. It’s people first, organizations second, if at all.

  2. One of the most interesting ideas I got out of Newton’s Wake (by Ken MacLeod–it’s SF, mostly Glasgowian thugs! in Space!) was the characters’ participation in an organization that operated by building small temporary teams that went out and did whatever, and if they came back successful that gave them however much more status and rank for the next gig.

    Okay, so this was fiction and the organization was essentially a crime family, but the idea of small temporary teams stuck in my head. Why can’t more work be done that way? There’s the problem of finding the right people for a job, but that’s why we’re all so focused on networking these days. With the current pace of technology, wouldn’t we gain a lot from focusing on creating the team for this job right now, not a long-term empire?

  3. I’m afraid you’re taking my comments out of context.

    Anne and Drucker are actually talking about the same thing – removing traditional organisational hierarchies, traditional ways of working, and empowering people to work in the way that best suits them (whether busy or burst).

    The whole discipline of Knowledge Management is about getting these ideas into the heads of traditional managers who usually just want to manage everything, including knowledge. It is the evangelising of this message that Drucker is best known for.


  4. For the last time… Drucker advocating that senior managers take responsibility for their own personal productivity does not clash with Anne Zelenka or anyone else preaching collaboration… sheesh… it is not about the promotion of individual productivity at the exclusion of group collaborative productivity. You are the knowledge worker 2.0 that Drucker predicted, so is Anne, deal with it🙂

    I’ve worked with Matt, and with Steve Collins, and with a bunch of other people that have read Drucker, and trust me, we get burst work.