Federal Agency Employees are Knowledge Workers, Too

Patrick Devlin

Senior Vice President, Fishtree

Robert Davis authored a thought-provoking piece recently in Washington Technology: "Is it time to say good-bye to the chain of command?" My response to the question is an enthusiastic "YES!"

Davis argues that today’s businesses are knowledge-based, and therefore the traditional hierarchy structure limits the potential of workers and a company’s competitiveness. He notes, "Work is no longer about specific work roles, an employee’s goals or what is best for a department...Work is about team-based roles, enterprise-wide functions, cross-functional goals, knowledge sharing, and the company’s objectives."

The federal government should take note – this shift also applies to the agency workforce and the work it does to address the objectives of its missions. Yet the government is notoriously slow to embrace change – and a chain of command structure continues to be an integral part of federal agency culture that is desperate for change.

Agencies Lagging in Addressing Workplace Change

Employees are demanding new ways of working and collaborating, yet agencies continue to struggle to address new generations of workers, new technologies and new demands for collaboration. It’s easy to see how far agencies have to go when the recent OPM survey revealed only 35 percent of federal agency workers feel that creativity and innovation are rewarded. Clearly, federal workers remain trapped in their limited roles and in an outdated management structure that, if anything, limits and discourages innovation and creativity.

Evolving a "Chain of Command" Culture

In order for federal agencies to attract and retain the best and the brightest employees, the "chain of command" culture must evolve into one that is more collaborative and matrixed, without the confines of the traditional management structure. The closed-door, hierarchical thinking of the past must now give way to openness, transparency and focus on employee engagement.

It’s time for federal agencies to view their workforce as people who possess skills, knowledge and abilities – not just a person in a single role to complete the task of the day. The change needs to start from above – as Davis states, "Management should be an enabler that allows employees to contribute more, remove internal obstacles to growth and maximize knowledge sharing across the organization."

Call for a New Focus on Skills (Not Position in the Chain)

It’s encouraging to think about how significant the change could be if agencies began to recognize employees for the skills and experiences they bring to the mission – not the number of years they have been at the agency, or their location in the agency leadership hierarchy. This subtle culture shift could go a long way in helping the government quickly and easily bring together the right people with the right abilities to address a new challenge, take on a new project or otherwise tackle a specific agency demand.

The benefits of this kind of change would also extend to the workforce. It would be significantly more rewarding and motivating for employees, who would be able to contribute to multiple projects that fully utilize their skill sets and training. For an employee, it would be much easier to understand their roles and see their contributions in helping the agency achieve mission success.

The dated chain-of-command structure keeps employees tethered to specific roles and responsibilities, regardless of their skills and abilities to perform as a new project or task comes along. It’s time to think outside the "domain of one supervisor’s charge," as Mr. Davis states, and realize that "Every employee is a company-wide asset that can be leveraged well beyond their immediate task. It is management’s responsibility to identify and tap into this unrealized value."

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