Creating the software stack for the Knowledge Era (Part 1)

5. General

Creating the software stack for the Knowledge Era (Part 1)

About a month back, I had just completed an online course called ‘Building a Second Brain‘ (BASB) by Tiago Forte, on productivity and personal knowledge management. I had earlier written about a memorable moment from that course.

As I was going through the course and reflecting on its implications, I realised something.

As a student in #BASB12, I was getting a ringside view to something remarkable.

Something that folks a few decades from now will herald as a breakthrough in personal knowledge management and productivity.

Something that is essentially a revolutionary new software OS for the Knowledge Era.

Here’s why.

A revolution requires the right hardware and software

In the early 1700s, while India was still ruled by a Mughal Emperor named Aurangzeb, many folks in Britain were grappling with a peculiar problem. How to get water out of coal mines.

These industrious guys had discovered the energy potential of the black gold that is coal – but since the coal mines were underground, they tended to get frequently flooded.

Then, a humble blacksmith called Thomas Newcomen built the first prototype of a gloriously inefficient, but workable contraption – known as a steam engine… and kickstarted a revolution that changed the world forever.

Here’s the brilliant Matt Ridley, from ‘How Innovation Works‘:

“The Newcomen steam engine was the mother of the modern world, ushering in an era in which technology could begin to amplify the work of people into fantastic productivity, freeing more and more people from the drudgery of the plough, the scullery and the workhouse.”

Newcomen’s engine was invented in 1712, and further developments – especially vast improvements made by a Scottish instrument maker named James Watt, which made it viable for mass use – led to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the 1770s.

Over the decades and centuries ahead, manufacturing became more and more mechanised. Humankind was freed of its physical power limitations.

To make this revolution happen, innovations in the use of three key resources were critical:

  1. Energy: From the use of steam, to coal, to the biggest one of them all – electricity, several innovations propelled the manufacturing industry. Of course these also has a massive impact on travel, cities, entertainment – basically life as we know it
  2. Materials: From the widespread use of metals like steel, aluminium, copper to the invention of versatile wonders like plastics, material science has also been a key driver of innovation and progress
  3. People: Finally, the education, hiring and management of an innumerable mass of workers was the final piece of this Industrial Revolution.

You could say that the Industrial revolution needed both, the right hardware (Energy, Materials) and the right software (people and their skills and management practices) to come to fruition.

Now, we all know that both hardware and software need frequent upgrades. Hardware upgrades continue through innovations in the use of energy and materials. But it’s in the software upgrades that I’m more interested in.

The first phase of manufacturing was what is called the ‘craft’ phase. Small, cottage units would use highly skilled workers and small but flexible machinery and tools to create custom-made products. Think high end furniture, fancy cars, decorative works of art.

As you can imagine, the issue with this approach is that it lacks scale and results in significantly high costs – resulting in a very small potential customer base.

In the early 1900s, some pioneers in the US auto industry decided to do something about this.

Upgrading the human capital software to unlock Manufacturing 2.0

To achieve the goal of mass manufacturing at low costs, entrepreneurs hit upon the solution which was a combination of: standardisation, extreme division of labour and rigorous top-down planning. These new techniques were a bid to improve the productivity for both man and machine.

One of the earlier pioneers in this area was an engineer called Frederick Winslow Taylor. Sometimes called the first ‘Management Consultant’, Taylor was a thorough, methodical guy, who revolutionised factories with his scientific approach.

Here’s management guru, Peter Drucker (writing in 1974) on Taylor:

“Frederick W. Taylor was the first man in recorded history who deemed work deserving of systematic observation and study. On Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ rests, above all, the tremendous surge of affluence in the last seventy-five years which has lifted the working masses in the developed countries well above any level recorded before, even for the well-to-do. Taylor, though the Isaac Newton (or perhaps the Archimedes) of the science of work, laid only first foundations, however. Not much has been added to them since—even though he has been dead all of sixty years”

Taylor (and other pioneers) were the drivers of the ‘Efficiency Movement‘ – which was widely adopted by the ‘industry of industries’ – auto. Specifically by the Ford Motor Company and General Motors, post World War 1. This led the US Auto industry to global leadership of the sector.

Now, while mass manufacturing was great at producing low-cost standardised products, it had its fair share of challenges:

  • Limited customisation (Henry Ford: “A customer can have a car painted any colour, so long as it is black.”)
  • A top-down approach, leading to extreme specialisation and mind-numbingly boring jobs for the vast majority of workers (brilliantly epitomised in the Charlie Chaplin classic, Modern Times. Check out this hilarious scene.)
  • High inventory levels, and higher workforce requirement, resulting in a higher cost structure

It was time for the next major ‘software update’ in manufacturing.

If Europe pioneered craft manufacturing and the US took the lead in mass manufacturing, it was the third industrial powerhouse which gave the world the next innovation. Japan.

And the innovation? Lean manufacturing.

Pioneered by the Toyota Motor Company (leaders like Sakichi Toyoda, Kiichiro Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno), Lean Manufacturing was a whole new way of approaching the activity.

If mass manufacturing focused on efficiency, lean focused on flexibility.

If mass manufacturing was top-down, lean empowered the frontline worker with a bottom-up approach.

If mass manufacturing was the past, lean was the future.

If you have worked in or been exposed to any factory in the world, you would have most likely come across one ore more Japanese management concepts – such as Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma, Kanban (including actual Japanese words like Mura, Mudi, Seiri, Seiton etc).

In other words, Japanese manufacturing workflows are arguably the most influential ‘software-stack’ in the history of manufacturing.

Even today, the world’s leading manufacturers apply some versions of these Japanese management principles to achieve their objectives of optimising quality, cost and time.

(Interestingly, many of these ideas made a smooth shift to the world of ‘software-manufacturing’ too – underscoring their conceptual solidity and versatility.)

But then, the world started to change in the early 1980s. Manufacturing increasingly gave away to knowledge work.

A new type of work needed new tools. New hardware and new software.

The Knowledge Revolution begins

For most readers – especially millennials and Gen-Zs – the idea of manufacturing and industry might seem quaint. Doesn’t everyone work on computers, you may ask?

That has been the power of the Knowledge Era – most of us work with our brains, not hands.

While this may seem to be a fairly recent phenomenon, the term ‘knowledge worker’ was coined by (who else) Management Guru, Peter Drucker, way back in 1966, in his seminal book, ‘The Effective Executive‘. (I remember getting a copy on landing my first job… but not being mature enough to really understand the ideas therein)!

Later, in 1999, Drucker wrote that “the most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.”

It’s useful to see the parallels between manufacturing and knowledge work – especially from the lens of the hardware and software which have been used to run it.

Let’s start with hardware: perhaps the most important tool for knowledge workers, was the invention of the Personal Computer in the early 1970s.

Digression alert: I’m taking you through a cool digression – because it is such a good example of storytelling!

​In its initial versions, the personal computer it was seen more as a geek or hobbyist’s plaything and not something that can seriously help regular office folks.

The person to see its potential and tell a compelling story – was Steve Jobs.

Today every house has a computer. But in the early 1980s, it was not seen as a must-have. For a present day analogy, think 3D printers. Maybe in 20 years, each of us would have one at home. But today they are an expensive plaything.

Back to Steve Jobs: Instead of talking about the speed, computing power or memory of these machines, Steve told a story.

A story of how a computer was like a bicycle for the mind.

Once a storyteller, always a storyteller.

Digression done, back to the main story!

​After the PC, the next major hardware revolution was the advent of the internet. Like electricity a century earlier, the internet has been the the most fundamental change of our era.

With the pace of hardware innovation picking up, we kept seeing new tools – new bicycles for the human mind.

Faster, sleeker computers. Smartphones in 2007. Faster internet access at lower costs. Democratised computing power through innovations like AWS.

Knowledge workers have had a plethora of hardware innovations to help them perform better.

Let’s talk about software now.

Creating the software for the Knowledge Era

Just like productivity was the Holy Grail for the manufacturing sector, it was for Knowledge workers too. Every knowledge worker has pondered the question: how can I get more done with lesser time and effort?

Of course, this is also not a recent question. Especially, when you look at productivity enhancement through the lens of Time Management (since time is the knowledge-worker’s universally constrained resource). We have had thinkers mull over better time management for centuries now.

Consider this article on Benjamin Franklin’s daily schedule – he created it in the 1700s.

Franklin says: “every part of my business should have its allotted time, one page in my little book contain’d the following scheme of employment for the twenty-four hours of a natural day.”

Franklin was a model knowledge worker, amirite?!

Having said that, the real developments in thinking about knowledge worker productivity started in the mid-late 20th century.

Just like Taylorism was one of the early attempts at streamlining manufacturing, knowledge workers found their champions in Peter Drucker (with works like ‘The Effective Executive’ and ‘The Changing World of the Executive’) and Steven Covey (‘Seven Habits of Highly Effective People‘).

​But these efforts were still at a philosophical level. It did not get into the weeds. It answered the Why and What questions, but not the How.

The first person to attempt a comprehensive answer of the ‘how’ question was an odd-jobs-worker turned productivity consultant called David Allen.

In 2001, David wrote the bestseller, ‘Getting Things Done‘ (abbreviated as GTD) a book that has been through several revised editions since then.

GTD was breakthrough thinking and Allen was feted by the media with positive coverage across leading outlets (for e.g. in Fortune and the Time).

Here’s how the Time article (published in 2007) starts:

“Every decade has its defining self-help business book. In the 1940s it was How to Win Friends and Influence People, in the 1990s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. These days we’re worried about something much simpler: Getting Things Done.”

So is that it? Is ‘Getting Things Done’ the ultimate Bible for the Knowledge worker?

Not yet. Something was missing.

Knowledge work still needed to build its ‘Japanese software stack’.

Enter Tiago Forte.

When GTD met PKM (and BASB was born)

GTD was focused on tasks, efficiency, organisation, structure. But it didn’t really grapple with the fundamental unit of the Knowledge Era: Knowledge!

Also, GTD came in 2001. We all know how much the world has changed in the last 20 years. David Allen did stellar work, but his worldview was still formed in the pre-smartphone, pre-ubiquitous-internet era.

Tiago Forte is a digital-first thinker. And sure, GTD was a major influence on him. But he built on top of it and has come up with a groundbreaking new software update to the system.

Incidentally, here’s a cool conversation between Tiago and David, in December 2015. You can almost tag that as the moment the baton was handed over.

From GTD to BASB. From Mass to Lean. From the Americans to the Japanese.

What is the BASB system? How does it solve the Knowledge workers’ fundamental problems in an elegant and powerful way? And why do I call it the ‘Japanese software stack’ moment for the Knowledge era?

All this coming up in the second part of this article.

Photo by Amanda Jones on Unsplash

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