The Knowledge Worker

Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International,,

A senior and soon to graduate, Corey Thomas was looking for a job. "While I want a company that’s good for me, I truly believe that if I don’t perform they’ll get rid of me in a heartbeat. My dad worked for Sears for 19 years as a security guard, and then he was laid off. I have to position myself so I can constantly watch out for myself. I have to be self-serving." [Fortune, March 16, 1998, Nina Munk]. This excellent article is entitled The New Organization Man, and talks about the attitudes and expectations of the newly minted knowledge-worker. Their employment reality is molded by family that has been downsized, by Internet communication and access to information, and by a sellers market - there are not enough knowledge workers to go around and it’s only getting worse.
   It doesn’t matter that Cory is graduating from college - high school graduates feel the same, though they may not be mature enough or self confident enough to articulate the thought as yet. But they aren’t knowledge workers, you say. Maybe not yet - but you don’t need a college education to be a knowledge worker. Why do we put people through apprenticeship programs if not to develop their knowledge? Why do we demand technical training in CAD design if not to employ someone with that knowledge?
   Just exactly what is a knowledge worker, anyway? A little reading and you come away thinking it means people who work principally with computers - that seems to be the most vocalized world-wide shortage for special skills and talents. The Fortune article talks about a school in Canada with a telling drop-out problem - they train videogame developers and lose promising students to corporate scouts in their second and third semesters. Note two things here: 1) these are not college educated people, 2) they don’t even finish their "technical" training. So where does this knowledge come from that makes a knowledge worker so valuable?
   Let’s look at this knowledge worker concept closer. They may be one of the latest buzzwords - but they’ve always been here. All business is the application of knowledge to produce/provide something that someone else is willing to pay for. If you don’t "know" how to do this it doesn’t work. If anyone else "knows" how to do it better it won’t work for long. And when someone "knows" a new way to do it, everybody else is in for a shock.
   That last item is what puts the spotlight on today’s knowledge worker. Our collective knowledge is changing much faster today then it was when we designed our business practices and developed our employment relationships. And we still need what we always needed: employees who know how to do what needs to be done now - in order to keep the business competitive.
   Remmele Engineering is a growing $100+ million machining company in Minneapolis. Their business strategy is to continuously master the newest machining technology first, setting new value points and providing new options for the machined metal marketplace. So they need top-flight machinists - ones that employ fast-changing computer technology as easily as a micrometer - ones that don’t want to be doing the same work next year as they are doing this year - and they need lots of them. The skills and talents they want are the same ones everyone else wants in more glamorous industries, in more glamorous parts of the world. They have an award winning apprenticeship program. They recruit in the technical schools and now even in the high schools. These are knowledge workers - but then, good machinists always were.
   When cost-cut downsizing began a few years back companies targeted middle management layers as excess baggage in the new organizational plan. Indiscriminate scything cut boxes on the org chart with no concern for the skills and talents in those boxes. AT&T and Westinghouse, two of the more enlightened, did something different. They set up a special internal consulting organization that squirreled away some of the skills and talents they would otherwise be seeking on the open consulting market. But more importantly, they populated this corporate resource with people who were 100% compatible with the corporate culture, the political environment, and the operating modes. People who had very special and very useful knowledge about how to offer fast, effective advice, that could actually be implemented. That knowledge wasn’t learned in school, it wasn’t associated with youth, and it wasn’t associated with any particular field - it was knowledge gained from relationship experience and extremely valuable - but valuable only to that company and not to any other.
   Rockwell’s Collins Avionics division is headquartered in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The changing nature of defense and commercial markets is reducing the production volume and life-time of their electronic products, while increasing the frequency of new product opportunities. That means an increase in product development activity just to stay at current revenue levels - but they want to grow. Their success is directly proportional to the number of engineers that they can hire and keep - in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Even if they were in California, everybody else wants those same engineers. People with product design and development skills don’t just employ knowledge, they create knowledge - and that’s a high demand skill.
   Back to our earlier question - just exactly what is a knowledge worker? In the important sense, a knowledge worker is anybody who must use their head on the job. For sure, there are different classes of knowledge work, each with values.
   Class 3: Specialty knowledge work - based on narrow but high utility. AT&T and Westinghouse
recognized the value of corporate experience and put their best in to the corporate consulting pool. Though these people may have other knowledge of value, knowing what can actually be accomplished is the leverage they offer. In addition to basic skills a production worker has specialty knowledge that is learned for each product - just ask Boeing Rocketdyne about the value of lost production knowledge on discontinued but later resurrected defense products.
   Class 2: Portable knowledge work - based on wide immediate utility. Software programmers are classic in this category, as are graduating MBA’s with their portfolio of general and current business theory. Remmele machinists are solidly entrenched here as well, with apprenticeships and continuing education focused on leading edge technology and its application.
   Class 1: Creation-of-knowledge work - based on innovation. Though all product design and development is not innovative - this is the classic area for this type of knowledge work. Engineers, programmers, inventors, business strategists, managers who take management seriously - these are all fields where innovation skills are in demand today.

The world is competing for knowledge workers, and everybody needs more.

   The shortage of knowledge workers today is vocalized mainly in the class 2 area, and caused by the increased pace of new knowledge development. In some macroscopic sense that would seem to indicate that we have enough of the class 1 types. If Microsoft or Intel have more than their share, however, there are other companies with less - who of course want more.
   The problem is big and getting bigger - the world is competing for knowledge workers wherever they are, and everybody needs more faster then the system can produce them - maybe there is even in insufficient percentage of the population capable of this type of work.
   What do the best of these people want? They want a challenge, they want to be on a winning team, they want to press the frontier of applications, they want to be where the action is. That means they want to work for the kick-butt leaders in any field, and there is generally one at most in any field - and a lot of fields with no discernable excitement. Alternatively they want personal leadership as an independent supplier or group membership in a mercenary organization that may take some schlog jobs but they do it with style and they don't take prisoners.
   Too many books have espoused too many "new frontier" fads as the emerging next wave. Let’s look at reality. Knowledge explosion is the driver today. Those people that can deal with it are in critical demand. Most of them have an uncontrollable need to exercise their abilities. They gravitate to the organizations that permit and encourage this. They won’t work (long) for an organization that doesn’t - because they no longer have to - a new organization type has emerged that attracts these people. That’s new reality, not fad.
   Mark Youngblood characterizes this emerging organization in his new book Life at the Edge of Chaos, Perceval Publishing, 1997. "These companies are based on an organic model, rather than that of the traditional model of organizations as machines.....They are fast, responsive, creative, resilient, balanced, and full of vitality.........Quantum Organizations have a strong shared vision that is both inspirational and challenging.......Everyone is subject to shared ‘rights and responsibilities’ in the form of core principles and beliefs. Power, authority, and accountabilities are bottom-up. Employees are self-reliant and accept responsibility for the organization’s overall success. Information flows freely based on who needs it (rather than who has it). ......People are free to interact with whomever they think is necessary to achieve a goal. Structures are fluid and are formed based on a goal to be accomplished.......Work is defined based on the skills required—not on formal job definitions—and people flow freely between tasks.
   That sounds like the press stories about Microsoft - but it is also exactly descriptive of Remmele Engineering [An Agile Enterprise Reference Model, Agility Forum, 12/ 96] - so don’t dismiss this as the land of the software high-fliers. Youngblood discusses the Quantum Organization in greater depth as the June ’98 Guest Speaker at
   Dove’s first law: You are worth what it costs to replace you (and poor cost accountants abound). So you may be a knowledge worker, but that doesn’t mean you work for someone or some company that understands the value of the knowledge that you have. We are in a time of great social transformation, larger even then the industrial revolution, moving to what some call the knowledge economy. Everybody doesn’t get it right away - let’s hope you don’t work for one of the late bloomers.
   Reality: full employment and a shifting emphasis to knowledge work. Can a non-knowledge worker cross the line? Can an obsolete knowledge worker learn new tricks? Can the procedure manual approach beat talent? These and similar questions are the issues of our times, and the issues we will deal with in the next few essays as we look at knowledge work and knowledge workers.   

1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #042 - Originally Published 6/98 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications

Home | Library
Send mail to with questions or comments about this web site.
1994-2005 Paradigm Shift International - Attributed Copies Permitted
Last modified: April 25, 2005