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October 14, 2005

6 Common Attributes of Knowledge Work and Knowledge Workers

The fact that knowledge workers primarily rely on their brains in their jobs rather than their bodies means that they have some attributes in common. These aren't terribly surprising, and they all follow from a few basic principles and observations, but they need to be stated. Most derive from the fact that knowledge work is less structured and perhaps less structurable than administrative or production work.

The basic principles and observations follow below:

1. Knowledge Workers like Autonomy
One important aspect of knowledge workers is that they don't like to be told what to do. Thinking for a living engenders thinking for oneself. Knowledge workers are paid for their education, experience, and expertise, so it is not surprising that they often take offense when someone else rides roughshod over their intellectual territory.

Of course, knowledge workers don't like for their work to be ignored, and there are some things they like to be told, such as the broader significance and implications of their tasks and jobs. But they'd generally like the details to be left to them.

This autonomy is in part a natural result of the nature of knowledge work. Since it's difficult to tell whether a knowledge worker is actually thinking at any given moment, supervisors pretty much have to take their word for it.

The knowledge worker also knows the circumstances in which he or she thinks best. If a computer programmer tells the boss that he is most productive working from 8PM to 4AM, smart bosses would try to facilitate that arrangement. The outputs of knowledge work are also difficult to specify in great detail, so that is generally left up to the worker.

2. Specifying the detailed steps and flow of knowledge-intensive processes is less valuable and more difficult than for other types of work.
This is a corollary of my first generalization about knowledge work.

Knowledge workers don't like to be told what to do, and they also don't like see their jobs reduced to a series of boxes and arrows.

Typically, when we want to improve performance we begin by breaking down the structure of the task into its constituent elements. This has been the case at least since Frederick Taylor's day, if not before. The idea is that when broken into piece-parts, knowledge work processes can be more easily followed and measured, and unnecessary steps eliminated altogether.

However, this approach often doesn't work very well for knowledge work and workers.

In my experience, knowledge workers will often resist describing the steps they follow in their work. The more complex and knowledge-intensive the work, the more likely this will be true. Perhaps there are so many variations that describing the typical flow of work is impossible. Knowledge work also often involves a high degree of iterative collaboration among knowledge workers, and this may be difficult to describe or model.

Even if you can get a knowledge worker to describe his or her work process, it may not be a very helpful description. First, the work flow may not be very similar to another worker's description of the supposedly same process.

Secondly, the steps may seem maddeningly inefficient: "First I come up with an idea. Then I think about it for a while. Then I talk to my lab partner about it. Then I think about the reactions she's given me." Such a process would be anathema to a stopwatch-packing Taylorist, but it's often how knowledge workers - particularly those involved in knowledge creation activities - work.

3. "You can observe a lot by watching." (Lawrence Peter Berra)
A natural follow-on to the previous attribute of knowledge workers is that if you can't get them to describe their work in detail, you have to observe it in detail. Systematic observation - also known as "shadowing" or "ethnography" - is often a way to better understand how knowledge workers do their work.

4. Knowledge workers usually have good reasons for doing what they do.
In the days of business process reengineering, we assumed that smart analysts could quickly figure out better ways of doing work. This was, in fact, often true. Nobody had ever thought about many administrative and operational processes before, and improvements were easily identified.

It's not so easy with knowledge work, which is one of the reasons why we have to observe it closely. Knowledge workers have typically thought about why and how they do their work, and have made many of the obvious improvements to it. There is probably a reason behind almost everything they undertake (or at minimum a logical rationalization).

If improvements are going to be identified, it's probably only after serious and deep study.

5. Commitment matters.
In the industrial economy, one could do a job with one's body even when the brain and heart weren't committed to the job.

But this isn't the case for knowledge work. It's unlikely that you'll get great performance out of a knowledge worker if he or she isn't mentally and emotionally committed to the job.

This fact has a number of ramifications. Chief among them is that knowledge workers need some say in what they work on and how they do it.

There is nothing that limits commitment like being told what to work on by someone else. This factor is behind, for example, the famous 3M approach of giving researchers 15% of their time to work on something they think is important to the company.

Obviously knowledge workers are generally willing to do some things that others ask (or even tell) them to do, but a degree of voluntarism helps a lot.

6. Knowledge workers value their knowledge, and don't share it easily.
Knowledge is all that knowledge workers have - it's the tool of their trade, the means of their production.

It's therefore natural that they would have difficulty relinquishing or sharing it in such a way that their own jobs might be threatened.

In the early days of knowledge management, when companies were beginning to talk about sharing knowledge within and across organizations, I used to say, "Sharing knowledge is an unnatural act."

I also mentioned that, "Of course, unnatural acts are committed every day."

Companies just needed to put the necessary incentives and assurances in place to ensure that people were willing to share their knowledge.

But that's the subject of another post, or you could read my book.

Posted by Tom Davenport on October 14, 2005 04:09 PM | Permalink

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This piece is a nice precis of a chapter in the book, and connected to research you've done on the characteristics of high-performing knowledge workers. Your experience squared with Danny O'Brien who was cited in a NYT Magazine article last week about Life hackers.

But will the next generation of knoweledge workers be the same? Will those characteristics as they relate to tech devices stay stable over time?

The following is from the Chronicle of Higher Ed via the Baird newsletter (which is publicly distributed) and should be taken with a large grain of salt, but it made me wonder about the stability of those characteristics:

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on how tech-savvy “Millennials” are faring
at college and how their learning style is better suited to blogs and podcast lectures
than more traditional methods. The article quotes Richard T. Sweeney, university
librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, who advises colleges to adapt
their approaches. Born between roughly 1980 and 1994, the Millennials have already
been pegged and defined by academics, trend spotters, and futurists according to the
Chronicle: “They are smart but impatient. They expect results immediately. They
carry an arsenal of electronic devices – the more portable the better. Raised amid a
barrage of information, they are able to juggle a conversation on Instant Messenger,
a Web-surfing session, and an iTunes playlist while reading Twelfth Night for
homework. Most important, Millennials expect to be able to choose what kind of
education they buy, and what, where, and how they learn.” According to Mr.
Sweeney, this could include classrooms that incorporate videos and even video
games, classes that meet electronically to fit students’ schedules, instruction that
comes from fellow students as often as from a professor, and courseware, search
engines, and library databases that are animated, image-based, and interactive. The
arrival and dominance of the Millennials bodes well for CMS providers, though
Sweeney says students would prefer to see online course management systems, like
WebCT and Blackboard, operate faster and be more interactive, presenting content
in video or audio formats.

My own take is that the tech characteristics of the newer group may be oversold.

Posted by: T.J. Elliott | October 20, 2005 04:50 PM

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