posted 23 Aug 2006 in Volume 10 Issue 1
The Gurteen perspective
By David Gurteen
I was once asked at a conference to define a knowledge worker. I replied by drawing the distinction between manual work, information work and knowledge work.
Manual work is done mainly with the hands. It can be highly skilled, but it is often repetitious and provides little scope for the manual worker to take the initiative and work differently.
I argued something similar for the information worker – the manual element is gone – but many information jobs, although skilled, are process driven and information workers therefore tend to be limited in their creativity by the demands of the process.
Knowledge workers, however, have the most freedom. They got to decide to large extent what they actually do and to an even larger degree how they do it.
Many in the audience were not happy with me and argued that it was elitist to label some people knowledge workers and not others as everyone needs knowledge to do their work.
But I like the distinction and I think it is an important one because it helps us to understand the changing nature of work for many people.
A few years ago Michael Schrage said this in an interview with CIO Magazine: “I think ‘knowledge management’ is a b******* issue. Let me tell you why. I can give you perfect information, I can give you perfect knowledge and it won’t change your behaviour one iota. People choose not to change their behaviour because the culture and the imperatives of the organisation make it too difficult to act upon the knowledge. Knowledge is not the power. Power is power. The ability to act on knowledge is power. Most people in most organisations do not have the ability to act on the knowledge they possess. End of story.”
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.
What I like about this definition is that it is independent of your type of work – you can do predominately manual, information or knowledge work in my original sense and still be a ‘knowledge worker’.
So I have a question for you. To what extent do you think you are a knowledge worker by this definition?
David Gurteen is the found of the Gurteen Knowledge Community, which can be found at www.gurteen.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org