Knowledge workers, alternatively termed knowledge entrepreneurs, free agents, or human capital, constitute the fastest growing sector of the workforce in the world. Peter Drucker, the eminent management writer credited with coining the term knowledge worker, defines these individuals as "high level employees who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal education, to develop new products or services". Knowledge workers are those who acquire, manipulate, interpret, and apply information in order to perform multidisciplinary, complex and unpredictable work. They analyze information and apply expertise in a variety of areas to solve problems, generate ideas, or create new products and services.
Examples of knowledge workers include professionals, scientists, educators, and information system designers. Knowledge work is characterized by the use of information, by unique work situations, and by creativity and autonomy. Knowledge workers make decisions rather than physical items and work with ideas rather than with objects. Their work focuses on mental rather than muscle power and is characterized by non-repetitive tasks. Knowledge workers use different methods and techniques to solve problems and have the authority to decide what work methods to use in order to complete their varying job tasks.
Knowledge workers can be grouped into various categories, based on the amount of time spent on individual tasks or on the type of information or skills possessed. The fact that knowledge workers can be classified in different ways is indicative of the variety of jobs they hold.
Knowledge workers can be categorized according to the amount of time engaged in routine versus innovative behaviors. On one end of the scale, workers perform tasks that are primarily repetitive and routine in nature but occasionally use complex information to make independent decisions, often with regard to customer service issues. Employees at the spectrum's opposite end spend most of their time accessing information and making independent decisions with regard to that information.
A second way to categorize those whose work focuses on information and ideas is as follows: specialty knowledge workers, portable knowledge workers, and creation of knowledge workers. Specialty knowledge workers possess a significant amount of knowledge related to a specific company's products or services. These individuals can be thought of as housing vital corporate assets in their heads. Portable knowledge workers possess information of wide and immediate utility. They are familiar with knowledge that is in demand by a variety of organizations. Software programmers, librarians, and persons with business degrees are examples of portable knowledge workers. Creation of knowledge workers focuses the majority of their efforts on innovative behaviors, such as product design and development. Examples of creation of knowledge workers include scientists and information systems designers.
Knowledge work is complex, and those who perform it require certain skills and abilities as well as familiarity with actual and theoretical knowledge. These persons must be able to find, access, recall, and apply information, interact well with others, and possess the ability and motivation to acquire and improve these skills. While the importance of one or more of these characteristics may vary from one job to the next, all knowledge workers need these basic qualifications. More jobs now require college degrees than ever before and a shortage of knowledge workers is imminent. Another future concern is the retirement of experienced plant managers, research scientists, and other knowledge workers that will lead to reduced capacity to innovate and pursue growth strategies as well as increase costly operational errors and decrease efficiency in the management of resources and productivity.
Knowledge workers are conversant with specific factual and theoretical information. Schoolteachers possess information regarding specialized subject matter, teaching strategies, and learning theories. The sales representative commands factual knowledge concerning the product he or she sells and theoretical knowledge about how to interest customers in that product. Prospective knowledge workers may need years of formal education to master the information needed to enter a particular field of work. Because knowledge is always being created, this type of employee will be acquiring additional information on a continual basis.
At a time when the operations of today's information society depends on knowledge that is continually growing and changing, distribution of information within organizations has become problematic due to the massive amount of information with which employees need to be familiar. Knowledge workers must therefore know how to independently identify and find such material. Such employees need to know which sources provide the information they need and how to use these sources in order to locate information successfully.
Knowledge workers use information to answer questions, solve problems, complete writing assignments, and generate ideas. Use of analogical reasoning and relevance judgment enables employees to address successfully personal and customer service-related issues. Analogical reasoning is a knowledge-based problem-solving process in which persons apply information from precedents to new situations. Relevance judgment is the process by which individuals decide whether or not a precedent is applicable to the problem at hand. The non-repetitive nature of knowledge workers' jobs makes crucial the ability to apply information to new situations.
Knowledge work is characterized by close contact with customers, supervisors, subordinates, and team mates. Successful knowledge workers present clearly, in spoken and written word, both factual and theoretical information. These employees listen with understanding and ask for clarification when they do not understand what is being said to them.
Knowledge workers must be able to speak, read, write, and listen in one-on-one and group settings. Emphasis on quality customer service and customization of goods and services to meet individual customer needs and wants brings knowledge workers into close contact with customers. The goals of organizational effectiveness and continual improvement of products, together with the need to continually consider new information in order to accomplish work, require communication between supervisor and supervised and among team mates or colleagues. Knowledge workers possess communications skills that enable them to collaborate with one another for goal-setting, decision-making, and idea generating purposes.
The nature of knowledge work requires continual growth, in terms of mastery of information and skill development, on the part of those who do this type of work. Knowledge workers must become and remain interested in finding information, memorizing that information, and applying it to their work. Because new technological developments call on knowledge workers to change continuously the way they accomplish their work, these individuals must maintain a desire to apply their talents toward incorporating new information and new technologies into their work.
Knowledge workers must have the intellectual capabilities to acquire the skills discussed above. Such intellectual capacities include those concerned with the understanding, recall, processing and application of specialized information. Persons who perform knowledge work must possess the abilities needed to acquire appropriate communication skills and to learn how to figure out where and how information can be located. Knowledge workers are able to learn how to read and write at postsecondary levels and to perform abstract reasoning. They also have the intellectual capacity to understand the value of acquiring and maintaining the knowledge and skills needed to accomplish their work.
Some occupations have always centered on the use of specialized information. Only recently, however, have persons employed in these types of occupations begun to outnumber those employed in jobs that do not require intensive use of specialized knowledge. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, writers such as Fritz Machlup and Peter Drucker first identified and described the reasons behind this phenomenon. Today the increase in knowledge work professions concerns business administrators, professors, management consultants and others interested in learning how to increase business profits or improve life's quality.
Recently, the number of persons employed in traditional types of knowledge work professions has escalated while new types of knowledge work have appeared. Throughout history, people such as writers, teachers, and ministers, for example, have engaged themselves in intellectual activity. Their numbers grew as the population of Europeans in North America increased in the 1700s and early 1800s. Industrialization then fostered the creation of new categories of employees who used information to make their livings: inventors, consultants, and managers. As the population continued to grow, so did the economy, which became able to support greater numbers of knowledge workers.
In the 1950s, computer science and other knowledge based professions rapidly expanded. Economist Fritz Machlup examined the distribution, use, and creation of information in the United States. He used statistical information to show that manual workers' share of the labour force was decreasing while the white-collar share was increasing. He tried to differentiate among various types of knowledge workers. Machlup showed that knowledge-producing occupations were growing much faster than manual labour occupations, and he redefined the word "work" in terms of a way to manage and use knowledge.
Peter Drucker wrote extensively on the subject of the knowledge worker. Drucker identified and described the reasons for the decline of the blue collar worker and the rise of the knowledge worker, and he made what are now considered accurate predictions about the knowledge worker's future place in society. He described how knowledge-based positions evolved from manufacturing and agricultural jobs as automation changed the way these jobs were accomplished. Drucker argued that service sector activities had increased, expanded, and diversified, causing the number of knowledge workers to grow. He explained how emphasis on and developments in science and technology fostered the creation of new knowledge professions while an expanding economy enabled their growth.
Information continues to influence work and alter the way it is accomplished. Technology makes possible computerized databases to manage and access such information. In turn, the introduction of new technologies creates jobs for those who design, manage, and utilize these technologies. Organizational expansion, brought on by the use of new knowledge, also creates this type of work, as employees turn their attention toward coordinating additional work. Information's importance in the workplace continues to make crucial its accessibility.
The information society requires a highly qualified workforce. As compared to the past, a larger proportion of the population should attend college and participate in formal training programs designed to teach specialized information and specific skills associated with knowledge work. The fact that traditional blue-collar workers cannot acquire easily the knowledge and skills needed to become knowledge workers will create a shortage of these types of workers. Although colleges and universities may adapt their curriculum's to prepare students for various types of knowledge work, it is unlikely that significantly greater percentages of the population will attend college. The American Society for Training and Development maintains that, while nine-tenths of all new jobs now require post-secondary levels of reading, writing, and math, only half of those entering the workforce for the first time have attained these skills. When the traditional blue-collar worker cannot make the transition to knowledge work, society will face problems caused by both unemployment and understaffing.
The shortage of knowledge workers makes employers concerned with attracting and retaining these employees. In order to hire and retain knowledge workers, employers may offer higher salaries, attractive work environments, and continuing educational opportunities. Employers take actions designed to attract and retain knowledge workers by creating a free-agent community, respecting knowledge workers as new bosses, and providing growth opportunities. In a free-agent community, employees have the freedom to choose their work methods and work in the environments in which they function best. Treating knowledge workers as the new bosses means that management operates as a facilitator rather than as a controller of work. This gives knowledge workers the autonomy they need to complete their work as they see fit. Employers make work attractive and rewarding by providing growth opportunities, such as those that are associated with ongoing training and development, special assignments, and rotation of jobs and job responsibilities. In such ways, employers attempt to address the knowledge worker shortage.
Knowledge worker productivity influences success in today's competitive work economy, and businesses are focusing on increasing this productivity. Management facilitates the knowledge worker's job performance by providing access to relevant information; environments that promote this information's desired use, continuing educational opportunities, and a balance between guidance and autonomy.
Employers use costly technologies to facilitate access to and manipulation of information. The term information technology refers to computer equipment and programs used to access, process, store, and disseminate information. Examples of information technologies include word processing, spreadsheet, and electronic mail programs, and a variety of other software programs designed to process information in specific ways. Information technologies are designed to reduce the amount of time employees spend on information access, management and manipulation and to increase the accuracy of these processes. Information technology is important because it helps make information accessible and manageable in a time when accessibility and manipulation of information are crucial to the world economy.
The characteristics of each individual knowledge worker's workplace depend on the type of work accomplished and what the employer is willing and able to provide. Workplace arrangements range from traditional physical office space occupied by employees between the hours of 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M. each workday to virtual office space which can exist just about anywhere.
The traditional clerk or manual labourer's workspace may remain basically the same as it was in the past, altered slightly in order to bring employees into closer contact with one another and with their customers or to permit the introduction of new equipment. This being the physical aspects of this type of workplace center on the completion of repetitive tasks and job duties.
Knowledge workers who work exclusively with ideas and information may operate in a non-traditional workplace situated anywhere that employees have access to needed computer and communication equipment. Individuals who work in such "virtual offices" may utilize physical office space as necessary or use "hoteling" to visit customers. Hoteling is a process by which those who work out of virtual offices schedule physical office space for meetings with colleagues, customers, clients, and sales representatives. Writers, researchers, outside sales representatives, and product designers are examples of knowledge workers who might utilize non-traditional workspaces.
The increasing demand for employees who use their skills and talents to perform complex and non-repetitive work presents both challenges and opportunities. The challenges include attainment and maintenance of a well educated, highly skilled, and efficient workforce. Opportunities include chances for greater numbers of working age people to hold more rewarding jobs than previously possible and for employees to be judged according to their unique talents and abilities rather with regard to how quickly they complete repetitious tasks or how well they conform to pre-established work standards.
Education of a properly skilled workforce will take special effort. Society will need to convince its members to pursue educational and training opportunities that will qualify them for knowledge work. Businesses and educational institutions may work together to determine exactly what skills and knowledge students need to enter the workforce and how to educate students accordingly. Educators and employers will need to ensure that those who need to know how to use certain technologies are able to do so and will not become disconnected because they are unable to use advanced computer programs or telecommunications equipment. While potential knowledge workers will require familiarity with specialized information related to the type of work they plan to undertake, it will be important that their educational backgrounds give them a common basis for understanding one another.
Hiring, retention, and productivity of knowledge workers will remain important issues. As the shortage of persons qualified to perform knowledge work increases, employers will be challenged to find more effective ways to hire and retain these individuals. In order to improve productivity, employers will try to figure out how to promote teamwork among knowledge workers, how to best design the workplace, and how to keep knowledge workers from becoming overwhelmed with the information they need to do their jobs.
The use of information technology to manage and manipulate information presents a series of challenges. Employees will need to find ways to fund these technologies and to provide training on their use. In order to maximize the value of information technologies, employers will want to determine how and when information technologies increase knowledge worker productivity and performance, how to best match a particular technology with a specific job, and how computer programs can be best used to locate, process, and create information. Employers will also need to know how to evaluate employee use of information technologies and how to cope with underutilization of and resistance to these technologies. With this user-oriented infrastructure, mission critical business news, financial and research data is now available upon demand to the user's desktop. In fact, the availability of critical information via the web has created a new breed of telecommuting knowledge workers with anytime/anyplace capabilities.
The shift from blue-collar jobs to knowledge work presents new opportunities. Greater numbers of people will be able to hold jobs that enable them to develop their talents and use their creativity. These new knowledge workers will have greater job mobility. Employers will respect them as individuals who bring unique talents and abilities to their jobs as opposed to workers who perform repetitious tasks. Leadership opportunities will be open to increasingly greater numbers of people.
The twenty-first century has brought a new challenge in the form of outsourcing knowledge workers in several sectors of the economy. Business process outsourcing services are now flowing to countries such as India, the Philippines, Russia and China. Consultant A.T. Kearney predicts that analysis and research, regulatory reporting, human resources, and accounting will be the next generation of financial industry jobs migrating overseas. Concern about high costs and poor quality resulting from cultural and communication issues due to outsourcing, has been expressed. Under utilization and cost demands of business worldwide are influencing the changes in knowledge worker skills, requirements, and work location. Identifying and utilizing the knowledge worker in an effective and cost efficient manner is a challenge for business and for the economy today.
William W. Prince
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