Know-how at work
To ask for help is not a sign of ignorance or incapability; it is a sign of wisdom, maturity, and competence. I would encourage each of you, whatever your job. To look around and see what knowledge and guidance you can obtain from others to help you perform more effectively. Our great wealth of know-how is yours for the asking. Your opportunity to grow in your job will be greatly enlarged as you develop the ability to take advantage of this know-how in your day-to-day activities. (Packard, 1963a)
Measure was a magazine written for the employees of the Hewlett-Packard Company. In each issue, Dave Packard wrote a column entitled “from our president’s desk.” I featured his message from the first issue of the magazine in my blog Organizational Matrix. In that column Packard wrote how he and Bill Hewlett preferred an informal work culture to one of rigid channels of communication. He and Bill believed that it was in these informal settings that know-how flowed most freely. Packard turned his attention to production planning in the second issue of Measure and wrote that forecasts of an upturn in demand for products necessitated production planning methods that required hiring new people during peaks and having to lay them off during low demand cycles. He called for policies governing order point calculations that began “smoothing” production planning forecasts. In the third edition cited here, Packard turned his pen towards know-how – the knowledge created from our daily living.
The biology of know-how
Influenced by the physical sciences, knowledge was thought to be beyond our experiences and something to be obtained, much like any other material possession. An alternative to this view was to understand how knowledge is produced from biological processes connecting our senses to our nervous system.
Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget described knowledge as having an individual and collective nature produced through our general coordination of action and wrote that “…almost no theorist of logico-mathematical knowledge has thought of explaining (human) knowledge by going back to the obviously necessary frameworks of the living organizations.” (Piaget, 1971).
The Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana studied vision in animals, and accomplished just what Piaget found to be missing – Maturana explained knowledge as a property of living organizations. He explained that what we see is determined by the structure of our nervous system (H. Maturana, 1980). This was a scientific breakthrough in our understanding of know-how. As Maturana and his student, Francisco Varela would later write – “All doing is knowing and all knowing is doing.”(H. R. Maturana & Varela, 1992)
Living in language
Human beings are social animals living in language and conversations. Language is the consensual coordinations of actions and conversations are the coordination of actions and emotions (H. Maturana & Bunnell, 1998). It is through our networks of conversations that we generate the cultures we live in (Dávila Yanez, 2011). This is not a deductive theory, concept or model but an explanation of our daily living that we validate whenever we reflect upon our daily living.
Furthermore, when we reflect on our daily living, we realize that we live in networks of networks of conversations that weave together the whole of our relations. Some networks are conversations about work, others about health and so on. Consider how at work, we have all experienced supporting someone who has come to some misfortune in a desire to help them regain their mental, physical or spiritual wellbeing. When this occurs, we collectively produce know-how concerning work and know-how about caring for others.
Dave Packard wrote not only of the importance of the know-how of the engineer but the know-how of all functions of his company.
We can enhance our progress and strength by innovation in new products. Similarly, we can enhance our progress and strength by innovation in every other function of our company-in manufacturing processes and techniques, quality control, sales and service, office procedures – literally everywhere. This can best be done by teamwork and the free exchange of information and assistance at all levels. The job of the specialist is to expand our know-how in his particular area. The job of everyone else is to make frequent and effective use of this know-how for the over-all betterment of the individual and the company. (Packard, 1963a)
How we do what we do
I first encountered the Hewlett Packard Company shortly after I opened Dynatron, a small electronics manufacturing business in Bend Oregon. I employed adults with developmental disabilities whose lives were at risk from being abused and neglected in state-run institutions. They were placed in institutions because of a theory of intelligence that deduced they could not learn and were treated as though they were sub-human.
Our responsibility was to employ those who were most vulnerable and help them become productive citizens. We operated as a research site for the University of Oregon’s Specialized Training Program, and the evidence we produced with similar community-based businesses, led to the closure of Oregon’s large institutions and changes in employment policies for those with developmental disabilities across the United States.
HP was the first business to do business with my business. This was not a charitable act on their part but the acceptance of our business as a legitimate sub-contract vendor building small electronic assemblies such as cable-harnesses and circuit boards for their printer division located in Vancouver Washington. As long as we met their rigorous quality and delivery requirements, we maintained and expanded our business and the employment of those we cared for.
Now, this is interesting from a know-how perspective. Our know-how was from creating, maintaining and expanding the wellbeing of our workers. We had no experience in electronics, manufacturing or quality improvement. Still, we became one of HP’s highest quality sub-contractors – “The Dynatron facility is something to see, these severely handicapped individuals are preforming close to 100% quality and delivery..” (Luongo, 1984). The know-how HP engineers had developed about their product and quality improvement was shared with us and became part of our business operations.
Because HP treated us as a legitimate business, our performance was the result of the flow of knowing how to assemble and deliver quality electronic products and continuously improve quality. The continuous quality improvement was a particular network of conversations that were generated from reflecting upon how we do what we do in the business of producing sub-assemblies for HP printers. This was a circular process that we not only applied to assembling our products, but also applied to our support for our workers with developmental disabilities. At the end of each day, we met as a staff to review data on positive behavior change and product quality. This daily staff meeting resulted in listing the next day’s actions necessary to improve both our business and the wellbeing of our workforce.
Continuous quality improvement, be it in caring for the most vulnerable, or in building electronic equipment occurs in a collaborative network of conversations concerning how we do what we do.It is common in Industrial Age management cultures to tell workers what to do, thereby reducing or eliminating the freedom workers have to perform. Improvement originating in a conversation concerning how we do what we do, brings freedom and expands social wellbeing while revealing how we do what we do when we live well together. Living well together is the social nature of our humanness.
From leadership to humanness
We live in conversations – networks of networks of consensual coordinations of our social actions. Our emotions determine how we do what we do, and our preference for how we do what we do is for living well. Living well we transform into the noun – wellbeing. Wellbeing changes from day to day based on our preferences for living well and these preferences are determined by each of us. Some prefer to eat home-cooked meals while others prefer fast food, and so on.
We also live well together, and this is our social wellbeing. In our networks of networks of conversations, we conserve our social wellbeing – our preferences for living well together. When our culture of work acknowledges our preferences for living well together, we do our best work and are most productive.
Bill and Dave realized this nature of our humanness in establishing their preferences as founders of HP. Their company was created through their friendship which they applied to the flow of knowledge throughout their workforce.
All of us, I’m sure, are aware of the importance of communication in our everyday lives, Whether we’re on the job, at home with our families, or engaged in some outside activity, our effectiveness as Individuals is helped immeasurably by the free and frequent exchange of information and ideas among ourselves and those around us.
The best communication, of course, is personal and informal This is why Bill Hewlett and I, throughout the history of the company, have avoided setting up rigid channels of communication and instead have attempted to foster group meetings, coffee breaks, and other informal gatherings where people can get things done through face-to-face, personal contact. (Packard, 1963b)
This always gives me pause to reflect. Nowadays, it is fashionable to describe leadership in organizations. There are so many kinds of leadership that the word is losing its meaning. I believe this is because we have objectified a process. We have turned a verb into a noun and then made a list of the characteristics of a leader. However, in creating the list, we unintentionally lose the nature of the actions we wish to describe.
In 1963, Bill and Dave laid the path before us – by acknowledging our humanness, we do our best work together. The preferences we conserve for living and working well together bring out our most productive selves, and the founders of HP developed a unique and timeless know-how. Folks call it the HP Way.
Dávila Yanez, X. (2011). Liberating Conversations. Constructivist Foundations, 6(3).
Luongo, C. (1984). Dynatron/CPA Supported Contracting. Retrieved from Palo Alto, CA:
Maturana, H. (1980). Biology of Cognition Autopoiesis and Cognition: Realization of the Living. Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Co.
Maturana, H., & Bunnell, P. (1998). Biosphere, Homosphere and Robosphere.
Maturana, H. R., & Varela, F. J. (1992). The Tree of Knowledge. Boston, MA: Shambhala.
Packard, D. (1963a, September ). From the President’s desk. Measure, 1.
Packard, D. (1963b, July 1963). From the Presidents Desk. Measure, 1.
Piaget, J. (1971). Biology and knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.