A conversation on the nature of knowledge work

Anyone working in the realm of knowledge management has no doubt considered the nature of knowledge work on at least one occasion. I know I have. A few weeks ago there was an interesting exchange of ideas among Shawn Callahan, Matt Hodgson, Stephen Collins, and Dave Snowden (and many others, I’m sure) on the nature of knowledge work. Some key excerpts:

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. 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?”

Ultimately, the term ‘knowledge work’ and the debate that surrounds it is important because it highlights that there are people who need to consume, create and share knowledge as an integral part of their work, and need the support of policy, process and technology. This was basis of Drucker’s premise of the knowledge economy — the differentiation of the support required for the mechanised work that produces widgets from work that requires support to share and create knowledge.

Sadly, Shawn misses this point about knowledge workers. The term isn’t irrelevant because the term is still important for communication. It carries with it specific meaning to those amongst us who call themselves knowledge managers and practitioners. The term is vital for education of those outside the profession who still don’t understand (or even missunderstand) the importance of what knowledge work actually means in practice. And, despite Shawn’s suggestion of the ubiquity of technology making the term redundant, there are still organisations that are not yet knowledge-intensive [3] but probably will become, so who need to hear how understanding knowledge work can help them.

Shawn Callahan of Anecdote argues that the need for the term knowledge worker is redundant now that technology is ubiquitous in the developed world and that almost every worker trades in knowledge of some sort. He sees its use as a way to discriminate between identified knowledge workers and those whose roles are not traditionally viewed this way.

I see where Shawn is going with his argument, particularly in developed nations. But I agree with Matthew Hodgson, who puts forth an alternative position that Shawn’s views are misplaced. Matthew argues that Shawn misses an opportunity to communicate an understanding of knowledge work outward from the insider community to the larger workforce and organisational management who don’t necessarily label themselves as knowledge workers – “Oh, no! I work in marketing/HR/finance/logistics/whatever.”

Shawn has created some controversy through his recent claim that The term ‘knowledge worker’ is now a meaningless concept, Matthew has countered, with the support of Stephen Collins, to the effect that Shawn has missed the point, failing to recognise that the term still has value in communication. I want to assert that both protagonists are wrong, mainly because of the way they frame the problem. This is of course an minor controversy between friends. If you want a contrast look at the handbags at dawn controversy between two philosophers, Colin McGinn and Honderich reported here which is a spectators delight.

Now McGinn and Honderich are academics, not Consultants like Shawn and Matthew which may account for the more polite and respectful tone of Matthew’s posting. The latter pair may of course work together at some point in the future, whereas work for a philosopher is argument, and a good controversy will almost certainly result in higher book sales. The philosophical debate between Radical Externalism and the Mysterianism is of interest, but the debate is esoteric. Both Shawn and Matthew are talking about an issue of some immediate significance within the knowledge management community, may be as esoteric in its way as Mysterianism but let us pretend not, at least for the present.

Following the discussion through the various threads and links I found a trackback (on Jack Vinson‘s post Knowledge worker thread) to a post of mine from September 2004 (!!!) called My dad is a knowledge worker!, reprinted below for your reading enjoyment.

While I was reading Martin Roell’s Terminology: “Knowledge Worker”, a TV commercial I saw a while back came to mind: elementary school students were telling the class what their dads did for a living, and after a couple of well defined jobs (policemen, construction, etc.) were announced one boy proudly stood up and stated, “My dad’s a pencil pusher!” I don’t remember what the commercial was for, but the imagery stuck with me I think for the same reason Geoffrey Rockwell, as described by Martin, doesn’t like the term “knowledge worker”: the job title gives you no real idea of what the job is.

When my kids were finally old enough to ask me what I do, I told them simply, “I figure out how to solve problems.” That seemed to satisfy them, at least for now. Trying to explain to friends what I do everyday is a bit more difficult. When asked, I usually give my official job title, Systems Engineer. Of course, that instantly begs the question, “OK, but what do you do?”

I work with technology.
I prepare papers and briefings.
I conduct studies.
I work with other people to figure out what needs to be done.
Then we figure out how to do it.

But, like the tasks that go along with the equally generic pencil pusher and knowledge worker, that doesn’t really tell the story. Not sure there is an easy answer to what terminology is best suited here. After all, there is still not really any consensus on the definition of knowledge itself, the very basis of the discussion.

From a practical standpoint, of course, definitions don’t really matter. Or, in Martin’s words:

Most organisations don’t care about the differences between different “knowledge workers” or “knowledge work” and “information work”: They want to solve business problems. They want to improve the bottom line.

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