New ways of working and human capital development

New Ways Klein

By Prof. Dr. Marleen Huysman

With the radical shift from an industrial to a knowledge society, knowledge workers are becoming more significant and more autonomous. Developments in technology and society have given rise to more openness in the processes and practices of these knowledge workers. Coordinating, learning and innovating are less constrained by organizational, geographical and cognitive boundaries. The challenge that organizations are increasingly facing is how to combine this openness with integration across individual knowledge workers, units and areas of expertise, and how to counter inherent threats of fragmentation.

To address these and related challenges, this summer, Marleen Huysman, together with some of her colleagues at the KIN Research group (Marlous Agterberg, Hans Berends, Bart van den Hooff, Philipp Tuertscher and Maarten de Laat of the Open University of the Netherlands), embarked on an NWO-funded five-year research project entitled ‘New ways of working and human capital development’. The premise of this project is that the development and utilization of employees’ human capital will require coordinating, learning and innovating to be mutually reinforcing. Two PhD students and one postdoctoral researcher will study how to manage human capital development across boundaries by means of in-depth studies of organizations that are in the process of such organizational changes, or that have already made successful changes and offer alternative ‘best open practices’ from which other organizations can learn.

The significance of human capital in our knowledge society has major implications for understanding how to manage knowledgeintensive organizations, and complicates matters even further in situations of organizational openness. In fact, while the vast literature on knowledge management discusses how to improve the acquisition, transfer and retention of knowledge within organizations, our present understanding of how to manage knowledge across physical, organizational, cognitive and epistemological boundaries falls short. This lack of understanding has become more problematic in recent years, as developments in technology and society have given rise to more openness in organizational processes and practices, making employees less constrained by boundaries that otherwise would impede knowledge-sharing. Understanding how to manage knowledge in situations of organizational openness remains an unresolved but urgent question that needs to be addressed in order for organizations to capitalize on the potential benefits from changes in terms of human capital development.

One of the major problems faced by traditional organizations and a reason for not being able to renew and adapt to changes is that working, learning and innovating are considered separate activities. Whereas working happens during daily production activities, learning occurs in training sessions and courses, isolated from daily practice, and innovating is considered to belong exclusively to R&D units. By comparison, this study takes an integrative approach to the three knowledge practices of working, learning and innovation. Effective working, learning and innovating requires that these processes are mutually reinforcing, something that typically occurs when knowledge workers engage in shared learning, coordinating, experimentation and problem-solving with others with whom they share a practice or passion, independent of functional boundaries. New and often digitized ways of working are believed to allow these interactions to occur across various boundaries.

The researchers will work closely with a consortium of private and public partners: the Dutch tax authorities, CERN, Kentalis, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, Sparked and VUMC. Data will be collected by combining qualitative and quantitative methods and by tracing developments and effects over time. Combining multiple methods will allow the researchers to validate data by triangulation.

For further inquiries about the research project, please contact Prof. dr. Marleen Huysman, m.h.huysman@vu.nl.