Local knowledge is everything

As I mentioned in my last post, I was doing work on the frontline with some our staff in JobCentre Plus last week. I was in a disadvantaged area in Scotland, somewhere around Glasgow, and  as I said before, the experience was incredibly valuable.

It is so easy to imagine how things will work in production when you’re remote, but you don’t really know how they’re going to work in practice. That’s why (as I said in my last post) you see good people at the frontline who cover over the cracks with manual workarounds, paper based systems, and their own home-built IT.

I mean, let’s face it. No matter how many requirements you gather, no system is going to be perfect for every single user in every single situation. I suppose the art is to get as many use cases that suit as many people as possible whilst minimising the inconvenience you cause to everyone else.

But there was a particular eye-opening, smack in the face, ah-ha moment in the whole week for me. And I know, as I relate it to you, you’re going to say “well, duh!”, especially given the fact that I do work in the trend space as part of my day job.

Here it is: Local knowledge is everything. 

There is a particular stage in the present back-to-work regime in the UK that requires people who’ve not worked  for about two months to attend a 1 hour group session with a staff member for Job Centre Plus, who explains to them what they’re required to do from a benefits perspective, and who provides a basic refresher on what to do to get a job.

There is a script full of guidance notes on what to say, and you have to be trained specially to give the session.

Anyway, so I sat in on one of these, and got to watch.

The script, had it been given verbatim, would not have provided all that much additional value at all to the attendees, I suspect. But the presenter in my session had detailed local knowledge of who was hiring, who wasn’t, and what facilities were available in the local community to help job-seekers. Questions weren’t answered in generalities: there were specific, do-right-now action points. The local stuff made all the difference, and you could see the attendees going from disinterested, to interested, to pleased they’d attended.

I mean, I don’t know why I was surprised at how valuable locality turned out to be, because we’ve all been talking hyper-local on social sites for a few years. But to see it in action for people suffering the recession: well, it made me recognise the value of all this stuff more than intellectually. I mean, I believed in it before, but now I believe it.

The value of local knowledge is no great revelation I suppose. But it certainly is good to get reminded of the fact that at the edges, small things – like which specific building sites are hiring today – are the most important things.

Now, of course, there is a lesson here for those of us who are responsible for building systems. When we build them, rigidly prescribing every sequence and every transaction, what we tend to do is eliminate the value of locality.

We seek to use systems to impose standards of service and uniformity across the offering. “People are unreliable!”, we scream as we write as much discretion away from users as possible, thinking, as we do so, that we are serving both them and the customers.

Well, we’re not. What we’re actually doing is eliminating those things that would really make what we do thrill customers. At the edge, where people meet real customers, such a standard offering doesn’t thrill anyone. It may provide some value to most people. But I suspect that only outliers would actually be thrilled.

And, yes, I do think it is possible even for job-seekers to be thrilled in their interaction with a government department.

Anyway, the fact of the matter is that  people recognise this and find their own ways to generate thrill. That’s why you see all this stuff springing up around the systems, service, and processes that get provided centrally. 

Thank you, Jobcentre Plus, for reminding me of something so fundamental as this.

5 Responses to“Local knowledge is everything”

  1. February 8, 2010 at 9:30 am #

    Excellent post.
    Hope that its central point and its ramifications can be designed into services. Local knowledge is central. However, paradoxically, it is also both dispersed and dynamic – lots of different people carry fragments of 'local knowledge'.
    How can we build social technology that allows this local knowledge to be pooled, updated and made accessible to those who need it on a just in time basis?

  2. José Luis Cam
    February 8, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    When i read your previous post, i didn't come to think about it this way, but i think you actually did some "gonzo usability testing" on your whole branch.
    First time i hear from such an effort 🙂
    Did you also include input from the beneficiaries (i.e: the people that lost their jobs)?

  3. Stephen
    February 8, 2010 at 8:49 pm #

    Harvard Business Review Article
    Reengineering Work: Don't Automate, Obliterate
    by Michael Hammer
    7 pages. Publication date: Jul 01, 1990. Prod. #: 90406-PDF-ENG
    “Companies rarely achieve radical performance improvements when they invest in information technology. Most companies use computers to speed up, not break away from, business processes and rules that are decades, if not centuries, out of date. But the power of computers can be released by "reengineering" work: abandoning old ways of working and creating entirely new ones”.
    So my question is, why is there a one size fits all model?
    In these days of RSS, Personalisation, Collaboration and risk scoring, perhaps 50% of the people who have to attend these places don’t really need to?
    Localisation is an attribute and a harnessing of knowledge, but is the business model fundamentally sound, given the modern society that we live in?

  4. Ken Maier
    February 9, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    Great post James..
    Would love to see more on this topic.. because it really is at the front lines where initiatives either succeed or fail.
    I am not a great fan of many Television shows -however a new show called "Undercover Boss" premiered following the SuperBowl on Sunday.
    Premise is that the CEO of big company (Waste Management) goes undercover and interns at some of the front line jobs of their organization. Amazing what this CEO learned and the changes he made to policy and process that he had implemented… once he learned how his people on the front lines were really affected. IMHO- every exec should have to spend a week on the "front lines" to see what really happens.

  5. February 12, 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    Local knowledge is key, but so is allowing the front-line staff to use their skills and knowledge to do the job they are there to do. Building a system that includes a rigid script and process will only serve to de-motivate them, which will in turn result in poor advice/support and frustration on the part of the job seekers. A collaboration tool that enables front-line staff to share local knowledge would probably be a useful resource. It would also ensure there is a social element to the job, which is intrinsically motivating.

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