Agile adoption outside of software is nothing new--it dates back very close to the origin of today’s agile methods, predating the term “agile”. However, what is new and noteworthy is the rate and scale of non-software agile adoption being witnessed today. Now--as more companies than ever are exposed to agile methods in their IT practices--these methods are being employed beyond the regular IT domain.
The key to understanding the applicability of agile outside of IT is the concept of the “knowledge worker”. Knowledge workers are people with subject matter expertise who communicate this knowledge and take part in analysis and/or development. This not only covers the IT industry, but also engineers, teachers, scientists, lawyers, doctors and many others employed today. In fact, knowledge workers have become the largest segment of the North American workforce; the so-called Third Wave of human socio-economic development after the Agricultural Age (land based) and the Industrial Age (factory based). In the Knowledge Age, value is based upon the ownership of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to create or improve goods and services.
Knowledge worker theory and agile theory are a little like twins separated at birth, growing up independently. As the agile community was determining the best way for software teams to collaborate, knowledge worker researchers were establishing ideas like Human Interaction Management--which asserts there are five principles characterizing effective knowledge work:
- Build effective teams
- Communicate in a structured way
- Create, share and maintain knowledge
- Align your time with strategic goals
- Negotiate next steps as you work
If you think this list sounds a lot like how we manage our daily stand-ups, prioritize the backlog and work in iterations, then it you are not alone. The two camps are very similar, and the ways to effectively collaborate when manipulating bits and not atoms (information not materials) are now widely taught. However, not all our guidebooks or practices embrace the subtleties of knowledge worker environments and many Industrial Worker relics remain. In the industrial age, after product design was complete, work was relatively predictable with only breakdowns, human error and raw material defects to content with. Change rates were relatively low and uncertainty can be largely planned out of a process through a management focus on process. In the knowledge worker environment, high value often comes from combining information from new or unlikely sources. Levels of uncertainty in job execution can be high, and management focuses on people rather than process.
This “Uncertainty and Management Focus” spectrum is shown below: