Martin Roell in a recent post described his thoughts about a workeable definition of what a knowledge worker is. In the trackbacks Florian Heidecke, Geoffry Rockwell, and Jack Vinson add interesting thoughts and observations.

What Martin describes resonates with my own perspective:
I think that when I say “knowledge work” I nearly always only focus on workers who are not in operative processes. That means their job is “different every day” – they don’t have taks that are the same every day. They innovate their own work and usually work on innovating other people’s work too. They need to manage complexity. In Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Model they would work in the Complex and Knowable fields most of the time. However I am not sure that this is really the core of my view. I can see many “knowledge workers” that do have repetitive tasks. Maybe this part is just “information work”?

I agree with Martin putting knowledge work more in the complex and knoweable realms of Dave Snowdens model, and less in the known. That in my opinion is why plumbers and carpenters are not knowledge workers, even though they are skilled specialists requiring specific knowledge at what they do. They apply an established body of knowledge to mainly well known problems.

As to the routine work knowledge workers do, I think what we deem routine largely falls into the category of activities necessary to fit into an organizational environment. Attending meetings, writing reports, etc, it’s all interfacing with the formal structures surrounding you. That is probably also why most knowledge workers find them boring.

This as opposed to the other part of their routine activities, the ones you hear them complain much less about: collaborating with others. We all engage in finding and contacting others, then building relationships, rapport and context, enabling us to create artefacts (documents, stories, objects) and exchange knowledge (in the form of information, experiences, skills and attitudes), and ultimately to store/anchor knowledge in our personal routines, flows and tools. This cycle of collaboration as I call it, is reflected at the organization level by the general knowledge flow of importing/generating knowledge, diffusing and applying it, and in the end evaluating/unlearning it.

Now everybody in the world is caught up in these collaborative cycles of course, and that in itself does not make someone a knowledge worker. What does, I think, is the notion that while you can be great at the conveyor belt, or as an artisan, without being able to nurture your social network effectively, you cannot be a great knowledge worker without being great at the collaborative cycle. In knowledge work your social environment is the source of your creativity, the place where ideas come to fruition, and where you are rewarded with appreciation and increasingly income. This second part of routine tasks knowledge workers have, is in the vocabulary of the previous paragraph, interfacing with the informal structures around you. Whenever this clashes with interfacing with formal structures knowledge workers feel restricted, unappreciated, misunderstood etc.
David Weinbergers definition of knowledge work, which he explained during the first BlogTalk conference in 2003, as having interesting conversations captures that exactly in my view.

In the september issue of the Global Knowledge Review, a new magazine by David Gurteen, in his editorial David paints a similar picture of what a knowledge worker is to him:
You take the initiative to seek out the knowledge you need and to develop your personal capabilities. What motivates you is the ability to be yourself, to speak with your own voice,and to learn and develop in your own way and at your own pace. You are a knowledge worker and see yourself as a business of one. To you managing knowledge means managing yourself. You have taken full responsibility for your working life.You continually strive to understand the world about you and to modify your work practices and behaviours to better meet your personal objectives and those of your organization. No one really tells you what to do anymore, and certainly not how to do it. […] You are self-motivated.

A better understanding of what a knowledge worker is, is relevant because it then can form the basis of a better understanding of what personal knowledge management is: what can an individual do to be a more effective knowledge worker, within his social network.

All in all the above paragraphs are all just impressions and stories around the concept of a knowledge worker, and not yet a definition. To explore this further I have set up a group of wiki-pages (in the Personal Something Management Wiki) where I will work on this question from several different philosophical perspectives, in order to build a broader understanding, and a basis to arrive at a (consensus) based definition.

7 reactions on “Defining the Knowledge Worker

  1. Defining the Knowledge Worker

    (cross posted from Interdependent Thoughts) Martin Roell in a recent post described his thoughts about a workeable definition of what a knowledge worker is. In the trackbacks Florian Heidecke, Geoffry Rockwell, and Jack Vinson add interesting thoughts …

  2. My dad is a knowledge worker!

    I’m 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.

  3. Managing “Boids”?

    Denham Grey may have thought he got the last word in our enjoyable conversation over knowledge as a personal vs. social event in the comments to my last post. (Thanks to Denham and everyone who chimed in and tracked-back!) Fat chance! (I’m a lawyer, a…

  4. sorry, Ton, it.s not possible to comment your comment on IT Frontal… so, here is what i think:
    first: one of the major problems in KM is that many people try to define “Knowledge” _and_ “Management” in the meaning of the word what makes absolutely no sense. You can not manage knowledge..
    second: there are some common understandings in companies what a knowledge worker is. I found this understanding in many companies and it is a stupid but easy way to handle things ->
    so third: a knowledge manager is someone who works in the KM dept. and he is doing knowledge work. (but what we really talk about is an information worker)
    So thats a practical way to see it, but before you try to define a _knowledge_ worker in an academic way you should start to define knowledge. good luck 😉
    (fourth: if able to understand german, why dont you write your comment in german ;-)? (as IT Frontal is a german blog [and i was not sure too if i should cite your blog in german or english…? ;-)])
    Michael Domsalla

  5. Hi Ton,
    Sorry it’s taken so long to comment on this. I’m slightly uneasy on this distinction between process and “knowledge work”. What highlighted it for me was the comment about plumbers and carpenters.
    If we take a slightly more famous example, the XEROX photocopy engineers, on your definition, they are establishing a well known body of knowledge to problems, but, if I understand you, they are not knowledge workers because much of what they do is therefore rote.
    The issue I have is that it is these same process workers who contribute to that body of knowledge (how to solve things) – in the photocopy engineers example, half of what PARC did that was so interesting, i thought, was give these engineers the ability to contribute new solutions.
    Their contributions, I think, mean that actually they are knowledge workers, albeit not naturally bookish ones. And the same probably holds for carpenters and plumbers.
    I’d agree that knowledge work involves those Snowden sectors, but I think that workers, day-to-day, float between process and knowledge work. Some have more options open to them (knowledge sharing tools), and some may be more interested in “knowledge” in a slightly more cerebral, less-hands-on/process sense, but I’m not sure I think that means they are unique, or special.
    Knowledge work, I’m beginning to think, is something that everyone naturally does, some more than others, and some more easily than others. The lesson I took from the Social life of Information was that, even if those round the water cooler were computer illiterate, they sometimes shared solutions and contributed to a body of knowledge in some way. That part of their jobs was knowledge work, and KM/PKM is presumably about helping workers (any) when they need to do that part of their job that isn’t process.

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