The Need to Make Work Observable

As work processes and products become more and more heavily focused on knowledge work and knowledge production, work has become less “observable”. Whereas in a physical production environment, the visible work product is the final work product itself, in information and knowledge work, the visible work product is often descriptions of the final work product, namely requirements documentation, specifications, and project plans.

In knowledge teams, a key issue that affects both team performance and the perception of the team by its stakeholders is the observability of “what’s going on” with the project. Too often, status communications are infrequent, untimely, and incomplete, and even within the team, there is uncertainty and confusion as to what is the current status of the project.

Observable work is a term that has been used for several years[1] and which generally defines the ability for an observer to understand the process, progress, and status of a project. Jim McGee and others have noted that as the dominant production paradigm has shifted from craft to industrial to knowledge work, the ability for an external observer to identify the process being used to create, the progress toward completion, and the overall status, including risks, has become difficult[2].

When a person desired to enter a pre-industrial, craft-oriented profession (for example, blacksmith, glazier, or watchmaker), a young apprentice would observe how the master worked, painstakingly learning by mimicking the master, failing to some extent, and then mimicking again. By receiving many small pieces of information the apprentice learned and, over time, became the master. This intense informal feedback allowed learning to occur, and this kind of feedback is what observable work is all about.

In any kind of work, the ability to communicate the what, why and how of what is being done is crucial.  In an observable work stream, this feedback is constant, but in a typical large team or distributed team environment it is missing.  Social Business Applications help to create this stream of constant feedback…more on how they do that in our next post.

[1] At least since 2002, see –

[2] ibid

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  1. Pingback: Social Project Management – Narrating the project as it happens. | The Project Wall

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