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Knowledge at Work : Companies That Know How to Manage Employee Know-How

December 17, 1995|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Knowledge society. Knowledge economy. Knowledge workers.

Pundits are fond of reminding us that knowledge is today's most crucial commodity. Brainpower, not brawn, is behind the technological advances--Pentium chips, laptop computers, genetic engineering, wireless communications--that make headlines.

It would stand to reason then that arriving at how to manage knowledge workers--who by 2000 could account for as much as a third of the U.S. work force--would be a key to whipping the competition.

But is there a single "silver bullet" management model for the knowledge economy? Hardly.

"Knowledge workers cannot, in effect, be supervised," wrote Peter F. Drucker, the famed management professor, in "Post-Capitalist Society," one of his many books about the subject.

A typical knowledge-intensive company is less corporate than other businesses. Unlike the assembly line workers of the recent Machine Age, knowledge workers tend to have many years of education and don't need--or want--to be managed or watched.

"They are at the frontier of our knowledge," said William G. Ouchi, a management professor at UCLA. "They're working on problems about which little is known."

One definition of being at the cutting edge, he noted, is that no one can see clearly what lies ahead. An organization must be flexible enough to allow workers to take off in different directions.

Managing companies such as these poses enormous challenges, not the least of which is to get workers with very specialized knowledge to communicate with other specialists within their companies. Managers must be approachable and agile, not stodgy or remote. They must be willing to embrace ideas that bubble up from a work force that is spirited and independent.

"Very few organizations really understand the kinds of new knowledge and thinking they need," said Ian Mitroff, a professor of business policy at USC's School of Business Administration.

But some companies--and not just high-tech giants such as Bill Gates' Microsoft and Andy Grove's Intel--seem to have figured it out. Like their counterparts at traditional corporations, knowledge-company executives defy stereotypes. Yet they all have strong styles that set the tone for their companies' operations.

Here are profiles of four companies, none of them a household name, with distinctive--but successful--ways of operating.

Mapping Success

REDLANDS--Jack Dangermond's idea of Nirvana is zero population growth.

Given the extreme unlikelihood of that, he instead is doing his bit to ensure that the world can accommodate its fast-growing multitudes without wrecking the environment.

Dangermond's company, Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc., is the hottest producer of software in the booming field of geographic information systems, or GIS. Better known by its initials, ESRI, the flourishing, 1,000-person company develops products that link demographic and geographic data.

With its "flat" structure and lack of corporate titles, ESRI epitomizes the sort of company made possible by the emphasis on knowledge. Teams of workers are given great freedom to devise projects and follow through on them.

ESRI's 30,000 customers are cities and counties, marketing consultants, utilities, scientists, retailers and others that want to be able to visualize data on a computer screen.

United Parcel Service, for example, uses GIS software to establish the most efficient delivery routes; PepsiCo sizes up the fast-food competition before selecting future locations for Taco Bell and Pizza Hut outlets; Pacific Bell enlists GIS to help plot its emerging broad-band network; farmers use it to manage water use, fertilization and plantings. With the help of ESRI software, Thomas Bros., the venerable map company, moved to automated mapping from drawing with pen and ink.

Bespectacled and gangly, Dangermond, 50, is widely viewed by industry peers as the man who pioneered commercial GIS. He contends that the company he and his wife, Laura, co-founded in 1969 with $1,100 in savings has a high purpose, indeed--one that basically involves repairing, if not outright saving, the world.

In theory, he said, computer mapping enhances the ability of governments to decide how to allocate land and resources.

"Where do we locate new industry?" Dangermond said in his characteristic near-whisper. "Where do we not locate urban development? Where do we . . . drill for oil, while creating safeguards for oil spills?"

These are the sorts of issues with which Dangermond has wrestled since his days at Harvard, where he studied in the Graduate School of Design. It was also at Harvard that Dangermond was exposed to the potential of using automated geographic data.

One of his professors was economist John Kenneth Galbraith, whose liberal notions about public policy--in particular, funding for education--intrigued the young Redlands native.

"His whole point was that there is no poor country that's well educated and no wealthy country that is illiterate," Dangermond said.

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