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Our need for the knowledge worker is over

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —November 3, 2007
Filed in Insight

The term ‘knowledge worker’ is now a meaningless concept in developed countries because the shift Drucker started to notice in the ’50s from jobs requiring manual work to jobs requiring knowledge work is now complete. Today all work is knowledge work because even the most manual of activities such as farmer digging post holes for a fence requires pre-planning using their spatial information system, the use of GPS to position the hole and entry of data when it’s done. The ubiquity of technology is one major factor that makes everyone a knowledge worker.

Sadly, when we use the term ‘knowledge worker’ today we are often unfairly saying one type of job is superior that another. It’s an dark undercurrent and tacitly becomes a basis for discrimination. “Our salespeople are knowledge workers but our gas fitters are not.” I suspect this feeling of superiority comes from the erroneous data-information-knowledge model where knowledge (and even more ridiculously, wisdom) sits at the pinnacle of the pyramid. See here for an alternative model for thinking about data, information and knowledge.

Have you ever seen anyone in recent years define what they mean by knowledge workers and knowledge work? They tie themselves in knots and confuse their readers. The people who write about knowledge workers see themselves as a knowledge worker and wish so very hard that the term is true and useful. But alas it’s not and the sooner we realise this the better so we can get back to asking more useful questions like, “How does knowledge help us to work better?”

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

14 Responses to “Our need for the knowledge worker is over”

  1. Matt Moore Says:

    I agree. Rather than asking if someone is being a knowledge worker, it’s much more helpful to ask when they are being a knowledge worker – and as you say – what knowledge they need to do their job better.

  2. Shawn Callahan Says:

    This is OK Matt as long as we assume everyone is a knowledge worker. I think the danger of using the phrase is that someone will define some people as knowledge workers and other as not.

  3. Yigal Chamish Says:

    I agree. It is a long time since I use the phrase “Management in the Knowledge era” instead of “Knowledge Management”, which means that everyone is a knowledge manager within organisation: no matter if you are a “Manager’ or any other ‘Employee’.

  4. Stephen Bounds Says:

    Shawn,

    I actually think the idea of a “knowledge worker” has far more to do with the employer than the employee.

    The old style of work is satirised by the phrase, “We’re not paying you to think!”

    But now, employers increasingly recognise the value of employing knowledgeable people who will add value to company practices and procedures.

    Hence, to be a knowledge worker you must either:

    (a) have been hired because of the knowledge that you bring; and/or

    (b) be retained by the company because of the knowledge you now hold.

  5. John Parboosingh Says:

    The need for knowledge work is often greatest when a worker asks, “how can I do this better, next time?”
    In a recent editorial Paul Batalden and Frank Davidoff state: “everyone who works in health care recognizes that they have 2 jobs when they come to work every day, ie, doing the work and improving it”
    Batalden P, Davidoff F. Teaching Quality Improvement . The Devil Is in the Details JAMA. 2007;298:1059-1061.

  6. Shawn Callahan Says:

    Hi Stephen, are there really people who don’t think they are being hired for the knowledge that they bring, or the knowledge that they hold? I think people are deeply aware of this dimension. It’s true that we need to help employees understand thinking is a useful faculty and managers have a big impact, especially if they believe that part of their workforce are knowledge workers and part are not. The ones deemed unknowledgeable workers will never be encouraged to think.

  7. Stephen Bounds Says:

    Shawn@7:43AM: Yes, absolutely.

    Here’s the simplest example: If you are hired by McDonalds, are you expected to (a) provide a unique style of customer service that harnesses your past experience of what makes a customer feel valued, or (b) follow the company rule-book, as far as practicable, to the letter?

    It doesn’t matter how many bright ideas you might have, in 96% of situations, the rulebook wins. So do you seriously think that McDonalds classes its staff as “knowledge workers”?

  8. Shawn Callahan Says:

    But that’s my point Stephen. By saying McDonald’s worker are not knowledge workers we are denigrating what they know and just assume they are robots. While I don’t know for sure, I suspect our view of McDonald workers is a stereotype. I say this because I’m thinking of Wenger’s work with call centre staff where he found what amounted to communities of practice in a job you would also think is bound by rules. Also Julian Orr’s work with photocopy repairmen. Management thought they just read the error message on the machine and fixed it. Of course it wasn’t that way at all. It takes knowledge to learn rules, to get people up to speed, to handle irate clients, to adapt when the process fails.

  9. Stephen Bounds Says:

    Hmm.

    I’m not sure if we’re furiously in agreement or not. I’m sure that McDonald’s staff engage in what we would call KM activities. But my point is that you can only be a “knowledge worker” if management acknowledges the use of knowledge as a key part of your role.

    Otherwise, only the strictest of assembly-line jobs could ever be possibly non-knowledge work. (Even digging a field with a spade requires knowledge!)

    Here’s an easy test: if your manager calculates staffing levels by counting heads rather than measuring skill sets, you’re not doing knowledge work.

  10. Shawn Callahan Says:

    I’m pretty sure we have a point of disagreement. I’m saying that as soon as management starts to say, “these workers are knowledge workers and these ones are not” they are setting themselves up to become blind-sided by the fact that every worker in a developed country is a knowledge worker. The problem doesn’t lie however in the extremes. It’s a particular problem when management says “Our salespeople are knowledge workers but are costing clerks are not.” I still say we get rid of the term when talking about knowledgeable workers in developed countries-i.e. all of them.

  11. Osiberu Olajide Says:

    Shawn, I like your view concerning knowledge worker. Just yesterday I was inspired of a shift from what we call knowledge worker. There’s a shift now; what we need now are Intellectual/Creative worker. This is confirmed in the JEWISH TEXT and I quote: “wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy day”. Only knowledge will fail in this age, it is the combination of knowledge and wisdom that will sustain. Wisdom + Knowledge = Intellectual. Intellectuals workers will be made of knowledge and wisdom. They will not only be knowledgable but will be able to go from being knowledgable to being able to process the information to addressing human challenges

  12. Matthew Hodgson Says:

    An interesting opinion, but only opinion nonetheless.
    How does knowledge help us to work better? You just have to read research by people like Haas and Hansen to see how knowledge helps people to work better.
    M

  13. Dave Snowden Says:

    I am not sure why, but this thread cropped up in my RSS feed this morning and it motivated me to a
    post, by way of stirring the pot up a bit.

  14. stephen Says:

    such terms are needed for study purposes.so dont make them obsolete.let those who didn know know.

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