Anyone interested in experience location should read the cover story of the current issue of Business Week (8 Sep 2008) about research underway at IBM. 

Management by the Numbers (subscription required) is an excerpt of a book by Stephen Baker. The article sub-title says it all: “By building mathematical models of its own employees, IBM aims to improve productivity and automate management.”

IBM’s research goal is, in essence, to take principles of operations research, which drive supply chains and optimize manufacturing processes, and apply them to people. If successful, IBM could model how best to staff an engagement with its 50,000 tech consultants around the world. I was struck by one paragraph:

“This is management in a world run by Numerati. As IBM sees it, the company has little choice. The workforce is too big, the world too vast and complicated for managers to get a grip on their workers the old-fashioned way—by talking to people who know people who know people. Word of mouth is too foggy and slow for the global economy. Personal connections are too constricted. Managers need the zip of automation to unearth a consultant in New Delhi, just the way a generation ago they located a shipment of condensers in Chicago. For this to work, the consultant—just like the condensers—must be represented as a series of numbers. “

So much for lawyers who argue “I don’t need a system to find the right lawyers, I can make a call or two to find just the right person.” Law firms that are already global and getting bigger may want to read this book and educate their partners about their “one phone call myth.”

Another angle of the research is to break down complex work into its most discrete tasks. It’s industrial engineering used on the assembly line applied to knowledge work. Some lawyers will doubt that such techniques apply to legal work. The highest value work in complex matters may resist such analysis but I suspect there’s far more law practice that can be dissected this way than most lawyers realize.

It’s not clear to me where IBM’s research will lead, but it’s certainly provocative reading for knowledge managers. For reference, see also my Learning from IBM in Experience Location post of 1 Feb 2008.