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  Friday, October 10, 2003

  Challenges of studying knowledge work

Just to summarise some of my thinking behind previous post. I believe that there are several challenges of studying knowledge work:

  • finding a way to address knowledge work as a system of interrelated activities (with networking in the list of activities)
  • discovering and understanding invisible aspects of knowledge work (did I mention that my PhD project ID is Iceberg?)
  • understanding what is needed to 'manage' knowledge work, which is discretionary and can not be controled

Were you able to guess that I'm writing a paper? I am :)

More on: knowledge networker 

  Knowledge work as discretionary behaviour

This paper was long in my "to blog" list: Kelloway, E. K. & Barling, J. (2000). Knowledge work as organizational behavior. International Journal of Management Reviews, 2, 287-304 (if you can't get access to it you can check earlier report on-line).

Abstract says:

Knowledge work has been defined as a profession, a characteristics of individuals, and as an individual activity. We review and critique these definitions of knowledge work and propose that knowledge works is best understood as discretionary behaviour in organizations. As such knowledge work is understood to comprise the creation of knowledge, the application of knowledge, the transmission of knowledge, and the acquisition of knowledge. Each of the activities is seen as discretionary behaviour. Employees are likely to engage in knowledge work to the extent that they are the (a) ability, (b) motivation, and (c) opportunity to do so. The task of managing knowledge work is focused on establishing these conditions. Organizational characteristics such as transformational leadership, job design, social interaction and organisational culture are identified as potential predictors of ability, motivation and opportunity. Implications for further research and practice are identified.

This paper has the best overview of the literature on knowledge work I've seen so far. It contains an interesting model that describes connections between organisational characteristics (predictors'), 'mediators' (ability, motivation and opportunity) and knowledge work activities, as well as extensive discussion on 'predictors' and 'mediators'.

The authors build on the idea of employees as 'investors' of their knowledge, referring to work of Steward (1998) and Drucker (1999):

As investors, employees choose whether or not to invest their skills in a given company. Perhaps more to the point, as investors, employees choose when to invest their knowledge, and how much of their knowledge to invest. Moreover, employees choose to withdraw their investment in the workplace when the 'pay-off' falls below acceptable levels. [...] Importantly, simply employing an individual is not a guarantee that the investment will be made. (p.293)

And related piece that I loved:

In advancing the position that knowledge work is discretionary behaviour, we explicitly deny any direct link between employees' knowledge and intellectual capital of the firm. Put simply, the organization does not and cannot 'own' the knowledge of employees, and to categorize such knowledge as an 'asset' is fundamentally misleading. (p.293)

Personally, I subscribe to the definition of knowledge work the authors propose and to the values behind this definition, but there are a few things to comment as well.

First, according to the authors (based on the literature) knowledge work takes at least four forms: finding (learning is here), creating, packaging (sharing is here) and applying knowledge. I have a few problems with it:

In all papers I read those definitions of knowledge work forms or activities are given in a way that they are almost unrecognised by normal people (Do I "package knowledge" when I give a presentation?) It seems that the terms used are coming from an organisational view and high level of abstraction. I wonder if you can do something useful with those definitions if you want to study knowledge work.

What is not said in the article is that these forms of knowledge work are interrelated and often undistinguishable from each other. When we talk at coffee-table do we share or learn? If we brainstorm new project ideas do we learn or create new knowledge? When we apply textbook principles in our work do we learn or apply? Once you want to study knowledge work in real settings you can not avoid thinking about it.

It's nice that the authors say "at least four forms", because I believe that something important is missing. I would add at least networking/contact management (that's why I'm much into using knowledge networker as a term). I'm actually very surprised that with all the work on communities of practice and social network analysis nobody (as far as I know) added "creating and maintaining personal knowledge network" and "managing own membership in communities and networks" as knowledge work elements.

I would also add "personal information/knowledge management" to address activities related to evaluating and organising personal knowledge and knowledge resources (e.g. ideas).

Second concern is much lighter. The authors address difference between physical and knowledge work:

It is relatively easy to coerce and control physical labour that by definition is observable and measurable. [...] In contrast, knowledge work is fundamentally unobservable one observes the outcomes, not the process of knowledge work. (p.293)

I'm curious if this statement is true (because if process of knowledge work is unobservable and unmeasurable we can not study it :) It may be difficult to lurk in the brains of people, but we can find some ways to get insights about specific activities that people engage into to get to outcomes. For example, looking at the learning theories we can find many models to explain learning process and some ways to measure it. And, of course, I'm coming to weblogs here because I believe that they may improve our understanding of process of knowledge work (I'm under strong influence of Jim McGee's Knowledge work as a craft work).

Anyway, must read article for anyone interested in knowledge work.

  Understanding and developing knowledge work practices

In one of the discussions about knowledge management someone asked if we were thinking of supporting "knowledge workers as they are" or some kind of "ideal knowledge workers". I guess it's true that most of people now have some elements of knowledge work in their job, but most of us are too far from what could be considered an ideal case.

We are still in the process of trying to understand what knowledge work is, how do we do it and what do we need to do it better. At the same time we want to make knowledge work more effective. I would say that we are targetting at understanding and developing knowledge work practices at the same time.

See also Is knowledge work improvable? by Jim McGee and Peter Schutt on knowledge worker productivity.

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This weblog is my learning diary. Sometimes I write about things related to my work, but the views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.

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