An earlier SMR post addressed the subject of careers in KM/Knowledge Services.
In my work I’m noticing more and more attention being given to different categories of knowledge workers. It’s not a new idea, and in his 1997 book Intellectual Capital: The New Wealth of Organizations (1997) Tom Stewart sorts through the employees doing knowledge work and comes up with a useful description of how the workplace has moved from the agricultural and industrial focus to the more knowledge-focused environment (“The flavor is unmistakable,” Stewart writes: “An ever-growing percentage of people are ‘knowledge workers’: Information and knowledge are both the raw material of their labor and its product.”)
Stewart even quotes from (then) Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich’s comments in Reich’s 1991 book, The Work of Nations:
[Reich] described three broad job categories: Routine production services (including factory labor and supervisory jobs, back-office clerical work, and the like) accounting for a declining number of jobs; in-person services, a growing 30 percent; and the elite, “symbolic analysts” – lawyers, consultants, engineers and designers, advertising executives, professors, etc., who perform “problem solving, problem-identifying, and strategic-brokering activities” and comprise about 20 percent of the labor force. (He left out, Stewart noted, “miners and farmers as being too few to worry about and, because the focus of his [Reich’s] book was global competition, also ignored government workers, including elementary and secondary schoolteachers, who are essentially unaffected by it).
Those categories, harsh as they were, date from 1991 and 1997. If anything, the situation has changed considerably as we’ve moved into the 21st century.
In a recent presentation I took my turn and classified the people who work in the knowledge domain into three groups: Peter Drucker’s knowledge workers, a second group I call strategic knowledge professionals, and a third group of people who are the leaders and managers in the knowledge domain, mid- and senior-level executives I call knowledge strategists.
The first group probably includes just about anyone who goes to a workplace or is part of any working environment or activity. We’re not speaking here about the folks usually thought of as knowledge “professionals.” In my opinion, since knowledge development and knowledge sharing (KD/KS) is so much a part of everything all of us do – in all parts of our lives – attempting to distinguish knowledge work exclusively as “professional” seems a little precious to me.
Indeed, it is becoming clear – at least to me – that “knowledge work” is part and parcel of any endeavor we undertake that connects with our working lives. When I began to look around, for example, for people to bring in for the “Experts Interviews” being filmed for a course I’m teaching in Columbia University’s M.S. in Information and Knowledge Strategy Program, I found myself very impressed with the number of people concerned about the management of intellectual capital in their organizations. And I was equally impressed, in their descriptions of that KM need, with how much of that work is performed by people who never in their remotest imaginations would think of themselves as having anything to do with knowledge from a “professional” perspective. Their focus at work is on other things.
So the first category makes sense, doesn’t it? These are the knowledge workers identified by Peter F. Drucker several decades ago. They are employees, as Drucker described them, who undertake such activities as writing, analyzing, and advising, and they are often not thought of as knowledge professionals, per se. Much of their work requires subject-matter expertise and they work in all areas of the organization, making these knowledge workers extremely valuable to the organization. And there are plenty of times when that “subject-matter” in which they are experts is simply a well-learned and critical knowledge of how the company’s particular organizational structure works, again underscoring their essential value to the company for its success.
Interestingly, it is this practice which leads, in some organizations, to the “promotion” (quote – unquote) of these individuals to a larger or broader organizational role as “knowledge manager,” simply because their knowledge is recognized as critical. They are people who act and communicate with their particular knowledge within a specific subject, and the company could not succeed without these people using (and sharing) what they know. Their connection with formal or academic learning about KM and knowledge services, or even with professional development or strategic learning relating to more formal knowledge constructs, is often limited or, if undertaken, self-driven.
And guess what? That doesn’t matter at all. These knowledge workers are people who’ve learned how to put KM to work in their organizations – even if they don’t call it that – and they are essential to organizational effectiveness.
Next up are the strategic knowledge professionals. We’ll describe them in the next post.