What Knowledge Workers Really Need

"Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” George Bernard Shaw

You know, there are times when you read a blog posting or online article and find yourself left simply shaking your head. Such is the case with an article that I just ran across (“Trends in Knowledge Work”) referencing a McKinsey & Company 2010 article (“The Productivity Imperative”). And that McKinsey article supposedly stated that, “while demand for knowledge workers is continuing to grow, the supply isn’t.” Really? Seriously? Give me a break.

But wait! Perhaps there something going on out there that we should be aware of? Someone is kidnapping all the knowledge workers and shipping them off to some mysterious island (run by Doctor No…yes, pun intended)? Or is someone hoarding the ready supply of knowledge workers? Or subjecting them to secret experiments that then somehow render them unable to do, well, knowledge work? The supply of knowledge workers isn’t growing they say?!? Give me a break.

This article actually has so many, many rabbit holes to go down I’m not sure where to begin. But let’s start with a statement in the “Trends” article that refers to the supposed diminishing supply of knowledge workers.

I disagree completely with that statement, and I’d take exception to the McKinsey viewpoint assuming that I could verify that was the McKinsey viewpoint (the article’s link to that McKinsey report is a bad link, and I’ve yet to be able to find a 2010 McKinsey article titled, “The Productivity Imperative” so that I can read what McKinsey supposedly stated). And I also disagree with the supposed definition presented of knowledge workers, as well as the “main attributes of knowledge work.”

But to the point, let’s begin with the availability of knowledge workers.

It seems to be pretty well settled that the term “knowledge worker” as first used by Martin Feregrino (1959) presents that a knowledge worker is described as one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace. That seems to be a whole lot of folks, right?

Charles Savage discussed in “Fifth Generation Management” data which suggested that in the Knowledge Age (where we are today) some 88% of the world’s working population are knowledge workers. And Peter Drucker (1969) believed that the largest working group would be knowledge workers. Others go even further by suggesting that any worker can be a knowledge worker (“Are All Employees Knowledge Workers?” John Hagel III and John Seely Brown, 2010).

So….if there are these knowledge workers everywhere, increasing in number (given the upward trend in world population and all that), then how is it that the supply of knowledge workers is supposedly not growing? Makes no sense whatsoever.

The “Trends” article also states that “in the U.S., 85 percent of the new jobs created in the past decade required complex knowledge skills: analyzing information, problem solving, rendering judgment and thinking creatively.” The author then identifies the problem as being that “for the most part, the only tools IT provides for those tasks are email and documents (and maybe wikis and instant messaging).” And further states that “a company that could speed up these critical knowledge worker decision processes would have a killer advantage over its competitors.”

Ah….now I see where they’re going with this. Apparently we’re all supposed to be looking ONLY for IT tools that support those specific “knowledge skills” (which sound suspiciously like “decision support”). Based on the premise that those tools are absolutely necessary and without those tools no analyzing information, problem solving, rendering judgment and thinking creatively can happen? But supposedly there should be a magic set of software tools out there which when turned on, would instantly allow knowledge workers to analyze information, problem solve, render judgment and think creatively. Thus simplifying a knowledge workers day, and creating a “killer advantage.”

Give me a break.

If that were true, imagine if you will the morning meetings at say, for example, Google. Where they sit around and bemoan the fact that neither they or anyone else has yet developed that magical set of software tools which would allow for them to utilize knowledge that leads to innovation by reducing decision making time. So they just have to work that much harder. The “old fashioned way.” Brainstorm (divergent thinking) or focused thinking (convergent thinking) or communicate in a structured way with other knowledge workers, collaboration, or attempt to create, share and maintain knowledge. You know, real “old school” stuff. How in the world can they ever survive without those software tools to just make all this knowledge work stuff simple and faster???

Give me a break.

Tom Davenport’s, “Thinking for a Living” and his predictions that collaborative capabilities will be the key to sustaining organizational value comes to mind.

My point being that one significant aspect of what knowledge workers are involved in is what we refer to as good old fashioned collaboration. Stuff like knowledge sharing across organizational boundaries. Expertise networks that connect those that have expertise with those that need it. We’re not talking about software tools that allow for a knowledge worker to somehow reach faster decisions as the author suggests – that is a very limited view of what a knowledge worker is, pretty much reducing that to someone who needs to use specific decision support software.

“Perhaps the single greatest lesson from Japanese auto manufacturers is that all employees are ultimately knowledge workers and that the role of the firm is to both encourage and support problem-solving by all employees.” (“Are All Employees Knowledge Workers?” John Hagel III and John Seely Brown.)

I think that Hagel and Brown say it well, and this makes a strong case for the need to try not categorizing knowledge workers by whether or not a software tool is needed (as it’s doubtful that all employees in a Japanese auto plant are using them).

It comes back (again and again) to the issue being that a “fool with a tool is still a fool.” Knowledge management isn’t about software tools. And knowledge workers are not waiting around in hopes of finding some sort of decision support software (and they’ve yet to create software that can think creatively in a way that a person can). It’s all about thinking, collaboration and sharing of knowledge. And using that to drive and foster innovation. With an organizational culture that supports that, one which views knowledge workers as an asset and not as a liability. And knowledge work is not all about decreasing the time to reach a decision.

Dr. Dan's Daily Dose:
Knowledge workers include anyone develops and uses knowledge in the organization. And knowledge work is about thinking, collaboration and sharing of knowledge. Knowledge work is not about using decision support tools to more quickly analyze information, problem solve, or render judgement. Knowledge workers need a culture supportive of collaboration, innovation and knowledge management.
About Dr. Dan Kirsch