My friends confirm my huntch that knowledge work is dead

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —January 3, 2008
Filed in Anecdotes

Yesterday I arrived home from a relaxing trip to Jervis Bay to enjoy Christmas with my family (sans computer). So today I couldn’t help myself to have a peek at Google Reader to see what was happening on the blogosphere when I noticed my little post about knowledge work has raised the hackles of two friends, Dave Snowden and Matthew Hodgson.

So let me respond in the relax way I’m feeling at the moment without a point by point refutation because most of what they say is right on. The main problem we face in this dialogue is the limitation of the written word and what can be said in three paragraphs (my original post length). Imagine the terrific conversation we could have which, if we weren’t in the mode of one-upmanship and scoring points, we could increase our pool of meaning (a phrase I’ve recently learnt from a fabulous book, Crucial Conversations). Sadly, the three of us rarely get the opportunity to sit and talk.

Matt says I miss the point about knowledge workers because the phrase is still useful for communication. Matt seems to saying there is something else that this phrase can be used for other than communication but in my book the term ‘knowledge worker’ can only be used to communicate and the communication is misleading. As soon as you say someone is a knowledge worker and someone is not you create a false dichotomy. It’s easy to make the distinctions at the edges but try making them in the middle of the distribution and you find that you are making stuff up. Matt also says he knows what the term ‘knowledge worker’ means but at the same time wont tell us because a definition will be messy and do little to progress the objective of helping organisations make the most of people’s knowledge.

Both Dave and Matt latched on to the point I made about technology and how it is becoming ubiquitous and even those jobs which Drucker might have excluded from ‘knowledge worker’ status are now being affected. This observation became even more apparent to me last year as I travelled around regional Australia talking to farmers, pastoralists, conversations and natural resource managers and it became clear that in our global economy everyone is forcing people to up-skill and use whatever technology available to gain or maintain a competitive edge. But technology is just one factor—a point I make in the original post but ignored by Matt and Dave. Increasing speed, increasing complexity, abundance of products and services, rampant consumerism and out-sourcing are just some of the other factors forcing everyone in the first world to be a knowledge worker.

Dave thinks I have fallen foul in three areas: The confusion of knowledge artifact use, with knowledge work; Failure to understand the impact of time & experience in knowledge capability; Ethical naiveté or the moral red herring. I’ll dismiss the first two points because I can’t believe Dave really things I don’t understand these distinctions. It’s the third point that requires a response while I know it’s Dave’s style to stir the pot but he also has the habit of muddying the waters with his own sophisticated arguments.

My position on knowledge work is actually a practical one, not one bound in idealism. If you avoid categorising your staff as ‘knowledge workers’ or ‘not knowledge workers’ you move to a more practical conversation about what knowledge our people use and how can we help them create, share and use it better (yes, I know this statement suggests that knowledge is a thing and ignores knowledge as a flow, but the wording gets quite difficult when you need to cover off on every statement). It’s quite a useful approach Dave.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of 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:


  1. Matt Moore says:

    It’s not me!

  2. Matthew says:

    Not sure how I missed the original post but reading it now and your follow-up comment I’d like to add my support for your argument. I’ve recently posted something on a related subject, the death of KM (

  3. Hi Matt (Moore, that is). Matt Hodgson emailed me and pointed out my error. When I read Matt H’s post it did read like you and I even said to myself, ‘Oh, looks like Matt has updated his website look and feel.” Silly me.

  4. So many words expended here on what was, I think, a very simple and honest idea from Shawn – that ANY label or tag, that might lead to a limiting view of a human being, even by not getting us anywhere. ‘Knowledge worker’ no longer helps us define someone’s active contribution (those days are over) but sadly, it can get in the way of imagining a POSSIBLE contribution.
    And how counter-productive to knowledge work is that?

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