Is every worker a knight?

When I was a child, my parents periodically dragged me to the Cleveland Museum of Art in the vain hope that I would become cultured. My favorite memories of those trips are of the Armor Court. I spent hours wandering the installations, examining the swords, helmets and breastplates worn by the knights of old.

At first I simply found the suits of armor cool, but I came to see that they embodied the social, political, economic and technical realities of their age. Today, the digital devices we gird ourselves with similarly define the realities of contemporary existence. Might the forces impacting the heroes who inhabited the literal suits of armor have lessons for those who inhabit today’s digital suits of armor?

Medieval society revolved around the knight. I recall that James Burke, the British polymath who created and hosted the wildly successful Connections television series, explained how the introduction of the stirrup via Afghanistan to Europe led to mounted knights, whose military successes led to a desire for bigger horses, which led to a form of agriculture suited to breeding bigger horses, which required dukes to oversee an extended agricultural enterprise, which all evolved into the feudal system. In medieval times, decisions about who got to wear the shining armor, how the armor was to be worn and used, and who had to clean up after the animals, cut the wood or stoke the fires associated with making metal suits of armor were not left to chance. The cost of armor, horses and weapons was quite significant. An entire economy had to be created to get the knight up on horseback and ready for combat.

Space Age suits of armor — what modern-day astronauts wear for extravehicular activity — similarly required a restructuring of society. Getting us to the moon involved coordinating the efforts of 300,000 people and innumerable physical systems.

How much focus and oversight should we apply to suiting up terrestrial executives? One might argue that things are quite different for today’s Earth-based cyber-knights. Digital armor is affordable. Just about anyone of reasonable means and modest technological acumen can go to a Best Buy and digitally suit up. This has given rise to IT’s crisis du jour — consumerization.
The spacesuit could be viewed as being somewhat consumerized, since its 21 layers of material were produced by Playtex. But consumerization is much more significant for IT. Enterprise IT chieftains are besieged with demands to either replicate or propagate the features, functions and “cool factor” of digital devices created for the consumer. Tom Davenport holds the president’s chair in IT and management at Babson College. In a must-read article in McKinsey Quarterly , he questions the sagacity of adopting a laissez-faire strategy to provisioning the technology for next-generation knowledge workers. Davenport labels the norm of knowledge worker technology provisioning “the free-access model,” and he analyzes it this way:
“The most common approach, giving knowledge workers free access to a wide variety of tools and information resources, presumes that these employees will determine their own work processes and needs.

“In the free-access model, the presumption is that knowledge workers, as experts, know what information is available and can search for and manage it themselves. It’s also assumed that they have the discipline to avoid wasting time surfing the Web or watching pornography, sports, or funny YouTube videos at work. Of course, these assumptions may sometimes be incorrect.”

Around the world, IT leaders are attempting to balance “give them what they want” with the enterprise’s ability to professionally determine and provision “what they need.” I welcome your comments.

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