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Knowledge workers redefined: responsibility and creating value by acting on knowledge

From Taking Responsibility by David Gurteen in Inside Knowledge (via Luis Suarez at ITtoolbox):

The point here is the line, “the ability to act on knowledge is power”. So many of us, even when we have the knowledge, fail to act for a whole range of different reasons: it’s not our job; we lack the confidence; we don’t have the resource; we are tied to old habits or we don’t want to stick our necks out and so forth.

This leads me on to my own definition of a knowledge worker: “Knowledge workers are those people who have taken responsibility for their work lives. They continually strive to understand the world about them and modify their work practices and behaviours to better meet their personal and organisational objectives. No one tells them what to do. They do not take ‘no’ for an answer. They are self motivated.”

The key here is about taking responsibility. To my mind knowledge workers cannot be coerced, bribed, manipulated or rewarded and no amount of money or fancy technology will ‘incentivise’ them to do a better job. Knowledge workers see the benefits of working differently for themselves. They are not ‘wage slaves’ – they take responsibility for their work and drive improvement.

David formulates in a very nice way the essence of why I’m studying knowledge workers in my PhD. If knowledge workers “cannot be coerced, bribed, manipulated or rewarded” than how do you manage them? Command-and-control methods wouldn’t work, “doing a better job” is not easily specified in a job description – so what then?

For me it has been a long way from my initial questions of supporting informal learning to current focus on blogging practices of knowledge workers, but the underlying quest stays the same – how do you “manage” (support, facilitate, steer a bit 😉 knowledge worker activities that couldn’t be controlled?

Given all that I’m not sure I’d agree with David’s definition of knowledge workers as those who take the responsibility. As David himself says earlier there is a number of reasons why the responsibility can not be taken. Also work (at least for those of us not self-employed 😉 is a space for negotiations between a person and an organisation. I may like to think that I’m responsible for my work, but how far I actually can “act on knowledge”? Taking full responsibility for your own work means that the other side gives it to you as well, which is not always the case and which is definitely a matter of power exercises.

As a knowledge worker I fight to my freedom to make decisions and shape my own work, but as far as I’m employed by a company (which, I expect will be the case for many others) there are always degrees of freedom (I have a choice within boundaries; of course, I’m also free to push those boundaries, but they do exist and limit my choices 😉 and a “responsibility continuum” where responsibilities for shaping the work are shared between knowledge worker and those who pay him.

So, from my perspective David’s definition needs refinement: I’d talk about “being prepared/expected to take the responsibility” or “striving for taking the responsibility” rather than just “taking it”.

I also wonder if while focusing on the important aspect of the responsibility David lost “knowledge” part of “knowledge workers”. How far does he talk about characteristics that make new generations of “workers” different from whose who were there before, rather then “knowledge workers”? What “knowledge” part of the work has to do with taking the responsibility? The connections are implicitly in there (as far as I know from where David comes), but for a good definition they should be clarified a bit more.

Don’t think I’m ready to come with a good definition myself, but just a try. Some times ago I defined knowledge worker as someone who creates value by being subjective. May be I should redefine it as:

knowledge worker is someone who creates value by acting on knowledge

And then, to make the connections clear I’d talk about:

  • the nature of knowledge: invisibility and a personal nature of it (subjectivity, always a degree of implicitness, escaping measurement and all other things are here)
  • need for taking personal responsibility for acting on knowledge – since it couldn’t be fully specified from outside
  • and how organisations depend on knowledge workers taking the responsibility for acting on knowledge to get the value of knowledge turned into action

Makes a good outline for a section on knowledge workers for my dissertation 🙂

Archived version of this entry is available at http://blog.mathemagenic.com/2006/08/29.html#a1823; comments are here.

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