“As knowledge varies among different people, even in the same field, each knowledge-worker carries his or her own unique set of knowledge. Knowledge work requires both autonomy and accountability” ~Peter Drucker
So what exactly is a knowledge worker and how can the nature of their work be described? At the most generic level, the term ‘knowledge-worker’ refers to individuals who possess high levels of education and/or expertise in a particular area, and who use their cognitive skills to engage in complex problem solving. Wikipedia defines a knowledge-worker as someone “who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace”.
Professor Thomas Davenport says: “I certainly think there’s a lot of fuzziness, ambiguity, and imprecision about what a knowledge-worker is, and it’s not a term most managers use easily. They don’t say, “Okay, these are my knowledge-workers, these are my non-knowledge workers.” So despite the fact that the term’s been around for a long time, very few people have been comfortable using it as a managerial concept”. Davenport then proceeds to define knowledge-workers as “people with high degrees of education or expertise whose primary job function involves some activity related to knowledge”.
Researchers suggest that there is no simple or universal definition of knowledge work, and certainly no common understanding of who is, or is not, a knowledge-worker. However, there are at least two distinctive categories of knowledge-workers; those that create new knowledge and those that apply existing knowledge.
In the article “Knowledge-Workers Need New Structures” by Michael Maccoby writes: The information age demands new thinking about organizational structure. Structure describes roles and relationships, responsibilities, authority and accountability. Structure inevitably raises sensitive human issues of status and power.
In the U.S. managers pursue the elusive democratic ideal of a flat organization. In Asia, the structural ideal is the hierarchical Confucian family, welded together by mutual obligation. In all cultures, complex information age companies must design three aspects of structure: macrostructure, strategic structure and work process structure. Macrostructure describes the overall way a company is formed by the architecture of business units, divisions and corporate governance. There are five ways to structure these units: by place or region, product or service, customer or market, function or type of knowledge, and processes.
How knowledge is aggregated, directed and employed depends on the strategic structure of the organization. The ‘work process structure’ describes the different ways work processes are designed, depending on the nature of the product or service and the process. Essentially this process becomes a heterarchy in which leadership functions shift according to which team member has the appropriate knowledge. This means that all team members need leadership skills or heterarchical capabilities.
These include aspects of style having to do with interactivity: openness, consensus building, listening and learning from other experts, and willingness to accept leadership responsibility. People generally reach the top of the strategic structure by being tough and self affirmative; by being the kind of person others feel safe in following.
The new structures require that managers play a number of roles, as good followers and team players as well as leaders and subject matter experts. As the work process structure includes people who are scattered throughout the world, leadership requires much higher levels of interactivity, to create trust and shared understanding of strategic goals.
In the article “Preparing a Capable Workforce for the Knowledge Economy” by Charles Lanigan writes: Today you can hardly open the latest business magazine or book without encountering phrases such as intellectual capital, learning organization and knowledge economy. Data, information, and knowledge are not the same things, though you wouldn’t know this by how people, even those in the information technology industry, sometimes confuse the terms. Webster’s defines knowledge as “a clear and certain perception of something; the act, fact or state of knowing; understanding.”
Knowledge-workers spend most of their time interpreting and communicating information using words and symbols rather than acting physically on materials such as brick, stone or wood. This shift from physical toward intellectual labor represents what Shoshana Zuboff in her book ‘In the Age of the Smart Machine’ calls the informating-of-work. Knowledge is subjective, idiosyncratic and dynamic. It is formed in the interaction among people, where it is shaped by language, thought and perception.
It builds on what individuals and cultures have learned and transmitted across time and distance through face-to-face communication and books, and now through electronic means such as e-mail and the Web. The knowledge economy requires a predominance of employees who can think critically, recognize and solve problems creatively and work with others cooperatively.
Technology pundits, business executives and educators preach the promise of workflow automation, intelligent systems and computer-based learning. But businesses and society still rely on human beings to define and respond to needs, recognize risks and opportunities and be motivated to find creative solutions to problems.
As we talk of building intelligence into computing systems, we also need to make sure the people who design and use them are intelligent and capable. The late Neil Postman suggested that “the main challenge facing us in this era of easy access to information and proliferation of online content is not so much finding answers, but asking the right questions”.
In the article “Gen Y and the 2020 Organization” by James Kerr writes: In less than a decade from now, the Millennials (Generation-Y) will be firmly entrenched within all management layers of most large corporations around the world. We all know ‘Generation-Y’; or, we think we do. They’re driven, abrupt, technologically savvy, information hungry, communicative multi-taskers, short of attention and seeking immediate gratification in everything that they do.
Ironically, these personal growth seekers are also the ones who seek constant feedback and positive reinforcement. Stated another way, this generation is difficult to engage and nearly impossible to manage. Today’s organizational designs will likely be deemed obsolete. Millennials will demand a shift away from “command and control” reporting lines to more cooperative-based leadership models that provide greater autonomy and freedom of choice in the way work is performed. Such a shift will stress and flex the organization in new and challenging ways.
Looser, team-based organizational designs will need to be adopted. Gone are the days of multi-layered designs characterized by managers-managing-managers. Rather, temporary, purpose-based worker groupings emerge and flatter reporting structures are the up-shot. The pyramid management structure that we all grew up in will slowly be replaced with a more fluid and responsive network design. A networked organizational design is the next evolutionary step for today’s “matrix” organization.
The shifting of the organizational design will, in turn, lead to a new kind of operating model – one that can accommodate a more transient workforce. ‘Generation-Y’ employees are very comfortable with a more integrated professional and personal life as long as working schedules are flexible. To this end, operating models of the future will need to contemplate and weave the freelance and contract working arrangements preferred by Millenials, into the way work is performed. Indeed, the next generation of workers is willing to trade the routine, predictable and secure for the freedom to choose where, when and how work is executed.
This type of operating model, one characterized by pulling talent in as needed and freeing it up when demand is lower, fits hand and glove with the network design. These ideas can also be institutionalized at the same time that many businesses are recognizing that the use of contracted talent is a key ingredient to establishing the much needed agility required for success in the 21st century business environment.
In the article “The New Knowledge-Worker” by Dwight deVera writes: According to 2010 McKinsey Global survey, ‘Economic Conditions Snapshot’, knowledge-workers have driven more than 70% of the economic growth in the U.S. over the past three decades, and 85% of the new jobs created in the past decade required complex knowledge skills. Additionally, companies incorporating decision-making as a core competency – even a competitive differentiator – are outperforming their peers.
These companies have learned that for business intelligence to be used successfully, organizations need to overcome not only technology hurdles, but also change the organizational culture around decision-making. In order to improve results, companies need to optimize all three performance drivers: people, process and technology. Knowledge-workers are changing with respect to their type, complexity, location and sophistication.
The new breed of knowledge-worker is no longer tied to their desks, and they are operating in a more complex environment. Additionally, with the rapid adoption of Web 2.0 technology platforms, knowledge-workers of all types have new, upgraded expectations about how to work. Hierarchies are flattening as knowledge-workers grow accustomed to connecting with colleagues and having access to others’ expertise…
According to James Kerr, the year-2020 organization will be one that is markedly different than what we see today. It will be a world in which the next generation of worker chooses to embrace personal independence at the risk of security, and one in which businesses must work hard to attract this budding talent. With this, comes a very real leadership challenge whereby organizations will need to think differently about their management structure and the skills, competences and capabilities required to thrive in the new operating models that will result.
Clearly, a greater degree of emotional intelligence will be required by senior leaders so that they can proactively guide organizational transformation while continuing to grow and evolve successful enterprises. Without greater insight and sensitivity, companies of tomorrow will be hard-pressed to create an organizational design or operating model that will consistently draw the best and brightest that ‘Generation-Y’ has to offer.
However, through open mindedness and a willingness to break mold, some enterprises are already evolving towards the new operating models and organizational structures needed in the next decades…
“A knowledge-worker is one who gathers data/information from any source; adds value to the information; and distributes value-added products to others.” ~Kappes and Thomas