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Knowledge has become a form of capital. Some refer to it as intellectual capital. According to Peter Drucker, "knowledge is the sum of information and thinking generated by the human resource in the organization" implying that the competencies and skills learned are acquired through experiences. Peter Senge, another famous theorist, gives almost a same definition as Peter Drucker and explained that knowledge acquired through experience develops much of our skills and that it is important to have a mastery of the knowledge on the job.
There is indeed no simple or universal definition of knowledge work and certainly no proper understanding of who is a knowledge worker or not. Knowledge work can be broadly defined as an activity that either requires specialized knowledge or skills, or create new knowledge. Knowledge work focuses primary on creating or applying information or knowledge to create value.
Knowledge worker refers to individuals who possess high levels of education and expertise in a particular area and who can solve complex problems using their cognitive skills. According to Wikipedia a knowledge worker is someone "who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace." There are at least two distinctive categories of knowledge workers
Knowledge Generators implies workers create new knowledge therefore knowledge is more varied, unstructured and unpredictable as compared to
Knowledge Executors where workers apply existing knowledge and knowledge is more structured
Peter Drucker who is generally credited with the term "Knowledge Worker" wrote an article in 1991 on knowledge worker productivity where he put knowledge work and service work together and he defined knowledge and service as "Knowledge and service workers range from research scientists and cardiac surgeons through draftswomen and store managers to 16-year olds who flip hamburgers in fast-food restaurants on Saturday afternoons. Their ranks also include people whose work makes them "machine operators": dishwashers, janitors, data-entry operators." (Knowledge work and knowledge workers, March 2007)
At that time, Peter Drucker's main focus was to improve productivity and according to him this was the single greatest challenge which managers from the developed countries were facing. He was least concerned with factors such as where and when knowledge workers accomplished their tasks. However, a drastic change was noted in 2007 where most knowledge workers are becoming more mobile. Workers are free to choose where, when and for whom they will work.
According to Professor Thomas Davenport, knowledge workers are "people with high degrees of education or expertise whose primary job function involves some activity related to knowledge"
Knowledge work encompasses all forms of meaningful work. Knowledge workers include individuals in traditional professions such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, educators, engineers to name a few as the work of these people entail the interpretation and manipulation of information as well as the creation of new knowledge. The nature of their jobs opposes the relatively routine data collection and processing which is highly structured and procedurally-constrained in nature. However, the trend is changing nowadays and many would argue that the less skilled white collar workers are increasingly taking on more "knowledge work like" qualities due to the availability of computer-based technologies for conducting the day to day routine activities.
It can be clearly seen that knowledge work encompasses an enormously diverse set of tasks and jobs. If we take the example of a software customer support technician and a marketing strategist, we can clearly see that the nature of their work differs. The software customer support technician needs only a small number of routines to solve a particular problem whereas the job of a marketing strategist demands much analysis, designing new strategy and the need to be more creative.
We can therefore see that we have two categories of knowledge workers. The knowledge executors who apply existing knowledge to manipulate information and the knowledge generators who create new knowledge by manipulating information to develop new solutions to a given problem or to create new concepts; it is recommended that all knowledge work entails both execution and generation of knowledge though some jobs entail more knowledge execution than knowledge generation.
There are many factors like the degree of interactivity, urgency and task complexity which affect knowledge and make knowledge work activities more or less amenable to carry out. Location independence is one among the various factors which explains if a worker can perform effectively if he is away from the place of work i.e in a remote location.
According to research conducted, there are at least seven important dimensions of work activity that can have an impact on where, when and how that work can be accomplished. They are as described below:
Purpose: determines whether the task involves applying the existing knowledge to a well-defined problem or it is generating new knowledge
Process Structure: determines if the knowledge required to do the task is known in advance or if it is being created whenever required based on the creativity and experience of the individual
Outcome Structure: determines if the tasks of the work to be accomplished is well-defined and is standard throughout and the outcomes are known, predictable and controllable.
Interactivity: refers to the level and type of interaction involved in the activity of the work to be accomplished. This can be done individually or by interacting with others.
Place: whether the work to be carried out is effected in a specific place or geographical location or it will be carried out in many different places.
Proximity: determines if the task to be carried out must be done side by side with other specific tasks or it can be carried out in a distributed environment.
Time: When the task must be accomplished and if the task is related to other tasks, whether the tasks must be carried out simultaneously or not.
These seven dimensions of work activity create a complex variety of differing task configurations. They affect information and communication and they clearly define the technologies, facilities and skills that are needed for workers and teams to be effective and productive. These seven broad attributes of work can be subdivided into three primary categories of knowledge activity that affect whether and how that work could be distributed over time and space.
1. The degree of structure in the work and its outcomes
2. The type of knowledge produced, and the way it is used
3. The extent to which the work is individual or collaborative
The diagram below describes these dimensions of work.
There are some tasks which are both very information sensitive and at the same time production work. On the other hand, if both the task outcomes and the processes used to process those outcomes are very loosely structured, it is creative work. If the results are moderately structured and are generated by moderately structured processes, we call it as "problem solving". A majority of technical support jobs involve a high degree of problem-solving.
This topology is useful because it provides guidelines about how to manage differing kinds of work. There is actually more structure, or discipline in a creative work. Some structure is necessary to guide and focus creative work else there might be confusion. It is in fact difficult to manage creative work and creative workers especially when they are remote, mobile and highly distributed.
There are two basic dimensions characterizing knowledge work, the degree of structure in the process and the certainty or uncertainty of the work's outcomes. But the type of work being performed also has a dramatic impact on distributed work's environment. There are two additional important dimensions of knowledge work, the type of knowledge involved and the way it is used. These factors have a major influence on how work activities must be conducted and managed in a distributed environment. These two dimensions of knowledge combine to create four distinct types of knowledge work as depicted in the following diagram.
Knowledge Work Typology (with examples)
Use of Knowledge
Structured / CodifiedResearch Scientist
Customer Service Representative
The diagram highlights the differences between structured, fact-based work and intuitive, creatively-based work. Different kinds of interactions and interdependencies are needed to carry out differing work activities effectively. Some tasks involve the creation of information or procedures while others involve the application of knowledge that has already been identified or created. For example, when a customer service representative faces some unexpected situations, he typically follows a well-defined set of procedures and has a very little discretion on a daily basis. He frequently works independently of his colleagues and interacts primarily with his customers over telephone and via internet. On the other hand, a research scientist continually applies her skills to new situations in the quest to create new products, new processes or new scientific understanding. Although some aspects of a researcher's work may be relatively structured, the work is usually highly varied and it is difficult to evaluate the researcher's performance on a daily basis.
A third characteristic of work that directly relates to operating in a distributed environment are tasks that are relatively individual and require only periodic interaction with others and those that are highly interactive and require extensive interaction. Distributed knowledge workers whose jobs require interaction with others must rely on electronic media and postal and delivery services when they have to communicate. Interactions are as effective and productive when they take place electronically.
It is important to know what knowledge workers want, what they are looking for in their work and their work environment. It is important to pay attention to the wants, needs, motivations, goals and values of the talented knowledge workers. The most important desire of knowledge workers is autonomy, a sense of personal control over their lives and their work. Irrespective of the place of work of the knowledge worker needs to process an inherent sense of self worth and professionalism. This sense of confidence and need for self-control makes managing knowledge workers a challenge and at the same time it has much implications in building a regional economy based on knowledge work, creativity and innovation. It becomes important to ensure the knowledge workers have all the resources they need and expect to work productively.
Understanding knowledge work and knowledge workers is not a simple task. We can't classify a job as knowledge-based or that it can be carried out remotely or in a mobile context. The individual motivations and values of the knowledge workers are to be taken into consideration. More and more knowledge workers are choosing to work independently of large organizations, factors such as social, economic and technological change are to be taken into consideration. It is not the job title, the occupation code, or the employment status that defines knowledge workers. It is what they do, how they choose to do it, and who they are.
It becomes therefore important to invest in new kinds of infrastructure and new work environments to attract and retain the talented workers in this new globalize world market. The definition of "knowledge worker" needs to be reviewed and we need to enquire from the kinds of services and infrastructure they need to be successful.