23. September 2004

[ English , Wissensmanagement ]

Terminology: "Knowledge Worker"

In a comment on his weblog, Geoffrey Rockwell explains to me why he does not like the term "knowledge worker":

"The problem with [the term 'knowledge worker' in the sense of 'someone who has knowledge and uses it to work'] is that in some sense all work is done WITH knowledge. A carpenter or plumber has knowledge and does work that exploits that knowledge. What they mean is a particular domain of knowledge."

He is very right. I was never completely happy with the term "knowledge worker". Although I can explain the difference between "my" knowledge worker to workers like the carpenter or the plumber, it is clear that the term "knowledge worker" does not convey that meaning by itself. Many people mean very different types of workers when they talk about "knowledge workers" and different types of work when they say "knowledge work". Is there a better term? Or a very good definition that one could refer to when talking about knowledge workers? (Stupid question. Obviously there are many "good" definitions - good for some people. But I need one that is "good" for me _and_ for many other people. And if you don't know me well it will be difficult for you to suggest one that is good for me. Anyway... if you want to share your favourites, I am all ears.)

Reading in Lilia Efimova's archive (she suggested the link to Florian Heidecke), I think that when I say "knowledge work" I nearly always only focus on workers who are not in operative processes. That means their job is "different every day" - they don't have taks that are the same every day. They innovate their own work and usually work on innovating other people's work too. They need to manage complexity. In Dave Snowden's Cynefin Model they would work in the Complex and Knowable fields most of the time. However I am not sure that this is really the core of my view. I can see many "knowledge workers" that do have repetitive tasks. Maybe this part is just "information work"?

Florian Heidecke want to separate between "knowledge work" and "information work". I have an idea about what he means by that, and I really look forward to reading about that.

Having said that: Most organisations don't care about the differences between different "knowledge workers" or "knowledge work" and "information work": They want to solve business problems. They want to improve the bottom line. So for me, who is mainly a business person and not an academic, this distinction is mainly important to focus my work on the right spots and to be able to communicate clearly to clients. I am not interested in very abstract definitions that work well in academic literature but cannot be understood by managers. (I know that makes it hard. It's hard for me too.)

I owe thanks to Celso Flores and Paul Nutto for our conversations at the KM Summer Camp 04 and to Jim McGee for his piece Knowledge work as craft work which influenced my thinking a lot.

[14:12] I am currently sitting in a workshop at Informatik 2004 in Ulm (which I am blogging live) where the speaker is making a disctinction between "knowledge" and "expertise". Interesting. Knowledge != Expertise.

[Update 01. Oct 2004] These thoughts also connect to Jeremy Aarons thoughts in: Dubbings and Diversions: Why the fuss about Personal KM?

[Update 07. Oct 2004] See also Ton Zijlstra: Ton's Interdependent Thoughts: Defining the Knowledge Worker II