Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International, www.parshift.com,
|A senior and soon to graduate,
Corey Thomas was looking for a job. "While I want a
company thats good for me, I truly believe that if
I dont perform theyll 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 its only
It doesnt 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 arent knowledge workers, you say. Maybe not yet - but you dont 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 dont even finish their "technical" training. So where does this knowledge come from that makes a knowledge worker so valuable?
Lets look at this knowledge worker concept closer. They may be one of the latest buzzwords - but theyve always been here. All business is the application of knowledge to produce/provide something that someone else is willing to pay for. If you dont "know" how to do this it doesnt work. If anyone else "knows" how to do it better it wont 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 todays 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 dont 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 wasnt learned in school, it wasnt associated with youth, and it wasnt 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.
Rockwells 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 dont just employ knowledge, they create knowledge - and thats 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 MBAs 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.
©1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #042 - Originally Published 6/98 in Automotive Manufacturing & Production, Gardner Publications