We all do knowledge work

We’re all knowledge workers now.

Here is a question:

How do you bring knowledge management to people who do not see knowledge as part of their job?

For example the workers in a process plant.  There is knowledge all around them and embedded in the work that they do.  How, in practical terms, to do you make them knowledge workers?

The question isn’t well framed yet as I’m still thinking out it’s dimensions… i’ll expand on it as I go and I welcome all input.

(Hint: this question isn’t entirely theoretical)

[Curiouser and curiouser!]

Matt raises an important question. First, in the example here, the question isn’t so much how do you make these workers into knowledge workers. They already are. The question is why don’t they view themselves as knowledge workers and does that matter?

I tried the following rules of thumb in a speech I gave last year. I figured you were a knowledge worker if:

  • 80% of your job is doing things that “aren’t your job”
  • “It’s not my job” is no longer an acceptable excuse
  • Your mother doesn’t understand what you do
  • Your boss doesn’t understand what you do
  • You don’t understand what you do

Flip, but there’s some essential truth buried here as well. Robert Reich talks about knowledge workers as “symbolic analysts,” which I find marginally helpful at best. At the moment, Peter Drucker has the most useful take on the problem I have found. I tried to capture some of his insight in a recent post I made on knowledge work and productivity.  

For me, the starting point is to look at knowledge work rather than at knowledge workers. For one thing that helps extend the focus to all those workers, like the ones Matt describes, who do knowledge work as only a portion of their work. It also helps by reminding us that there are aspects of every knowledge worker’s job that aren’t about knowledge work. Ordering a new battery for the old IBM Thinkpad I’m setting up as a Linux workstation is a pretty mundane information processing task at best. It’s certainly not knowledge work even if I am a knowledge worker. 

As I focus on the work as a path to understanding the worker, I find useful insights in thinking about the craft nature of knowledge work. In particular, the kinds of tasks that make up knowledge work call for much more reflection about what is going on than most of us find comfortable. We’re socialized to “get on with it” and “just do our jobs.” Reflection is unproductive and industrial work is about productivity. If my job is processing insurance claims or checking in returned rental cars at Hertz, then productivity is a legitimate concern. One the other hand, if my job is redesigning those processes, then I’d better be prepared to spend time reflecting as well as doing. If I am managing either of those processes, again, I need to be prepared to deal with the unexpected or unusual, which will also call on my ability to reflect and to connect my reflections to broader questions about organizational goals and mission.

What makes all of this challenging is how many more tasks call for an element of reflection and design as well as basic execution skills. What was the realm of senior executives, consultants, and analysts has become the day-to-day reality for much of the organization. This makes everyone uncomfortable. I can’t just check my brain at the door and do what I’m told. I have to think for myself and that can be painful. On the other hand, if I was one of the handful paid to think not just for myself, but for everyone else in the organization, the prospect of everyone thinking for themselves is at least scary if not threatening. On the scary side, there are lots of people called on to think for themselves who haven’t had a lot of practice. On the threatening side, if I’ve defined myself by my differences from everyone else in the organization, the prospect of being found out as less capable than I appear can be destabilizing.

We all do knowledge work. For some of us, it’s virtually all we do. For others, it’s a small component. Knowledge work is different mostly because the end products are defined in the doing, not in advance. That demands that we learn how to think about and be mindful of the work as we do it. That runs counter to what we are trained and socialized to do and that makes everyone uncomfortable. After years of getting credit for the answers, we need to learn how to craft better questions first.