The new knowledge worker

What are knowledge workers? Are they a new breed or just a variation of the 20th century professional class? Neal Gorenflo, co-founder and publisher of Shareable Magazine, has identified (a very preliminary idea) a certain type of knowledge worker:

  • Knowledge workers understand information as currency. Sharing is a core strategy for success even in a corporate context. This can bring knowledge workers to the commons. 
  • Their worldview is informed by systems thinking or is polyglot. It’s not informed by a single political ideology.
  • They understand that influence depends on the ability to persuade, and that choice of language is important. They will not use political language that has been marginalized. They’re all in this sense salespeople.
  • Knowledge workers can become moderate radicals, meaning they believe that fundamental change is needed but are politically a mixed bag, they borrow ideas from left and right, from religion, from science. And they have friends and relatives on both side of the political spectrum.
  • They do not have stable identities or their identities are not wrapped up in a single belief system. They are always wondering who they are. This is a source of angst.  But what they lack in identity, they make up for in opportunity. They have options.

My first reaction to this list was how obvious it is that these knowledge workers practice critical thinking; questioning all assumptions, including their own. These knowledge workers are united by networked and social learning and connected more so to the external environment than whatever internal team they happen to be working with. They have the long view, often unencumbered by dogma, but also short on quick, simple answers. They see the humour in H.L. Mencken’s comment that, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

If this is the new knowledge worker, what could that mean for the 21st century workplace?

  • We are already seeing the knowledge worker (creative, passionate, innovative) marketplace becoming more competitive.
  • Organizations may have to become more flexible and caring to attract good talent.
  • Organizations & corporations may have to become more ethical and less politicized.
In the long run, this should be a good thing; but what about the rest of the workforce? Stories from the economic edge indicate frustration and desperation with a broken system. How do we get to a state of enlightened organizations in a transparent environment providing meaningful ways for people to contribute to society? The new knowledge workers may have some of the answers, if they decide to flex their minds and their networks. As a knowledge worker, with the luck and skill to be in this situation, there are some big responsibilities to shoulder very soon. Is it time to lead, follow, or get out of the way?

9 Responses to “The new knowledge worker”

  1. Dan Pontefract

    It is time to lead.

    Organizations, to be fair, have been handcuffed by decades of hierarchical rule. The organization of 21c thinking is having to reinvent itself on the fly; akin to flying a plane in midair, and suddenly being forced to install a new engine.

    Those organizations that leave the evolution to occur naturally or serendipitously will fail, in my opinion.

    It is the responsibility of those that helped to reinforce the previous hierarchical archetype to re-engage and to ultimately reignite the new organizational ethos.

    Sure, the mode in which the 21c organization is redesigned must include (transparently) all employees. But, it requires leadership from above to empower the organization to actually get it going in the first place. 

  2. Will

    You are right about salesmanship. Clients often look to me for suggestions and I have to sell them on the ‘why’. I just lost a battle on friday (“let’s stick to the status quo”, “too risky”, “will take too much time”, “we don’t have the resources” were often heard refrains).

    As a knowledge worker I can barely stand to work in any corporation. After a few months I need to leave and take a break from the aggravation.

    I know an employee who is teaching others (sharing) and is worried that it will lead to losing his job soon as two companies merge. So there may be an internal and unspoken resistance to sharing for self-preservation. I’ve even seen it with contractors as well who sense the competitive environment we work in and aren’t will to ‘train my competition’. We can’t underestimate the Darwinian nature of the work environment.

  3. Jon Husband

    It is the responsibility of those that helped to reinforce the previous hierarchical archetype to re-engage and to ultimately reignite the new organizational ethos.

    Why I quit a nominally great international career with a major global HR consulting company.

    Question: should I feel guilty & stupid for leaving that success behind, or chastened by my following lack of success ? (can’t answer “both” 😉

  4. Jon Husband

    you saw the signs earlier than most.

    Doesn’t pay 😉 .. and the arrows in the back can leave scars.

    That said .. the issues aren’t going away (as you and I have discussed often), and there’s much work to be done, more than enough for everyone involved.

    Transitions from one era to another involve much disruption and messiness, lack of comprehension (or unwillingness to comprehend), resistance and struggle.

    Taylorism took plus-or-minus 50 years to fully embed .. networked life and work is more complex, involves a new set of (overwhelming) conditions, and will require
    sherpas like you and the many connected colleagues you have around the world to guide along the path, with mammy stumbles along the way.

    • Harold Jarche

      I’m finding very little resistance to the need for change. Most people I meet in various organizations know they need to change the way they do business, internally & externally. The main stumbling block is figuring out what to do first.

  5. Jon Husband

    Good point.

    It no longer is news that something sep and important needs to be changed.

  6. jay cross

    Righteous thinking, wrong vocabulary.

    When Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker,” he had in mind people who worked with intangibles. However, many of those people applied an industrial mindset to doing that. They set up factories that pushed paper.

    I like Dan Pink’s terminology for the new breed: concept workers. That’s the next step in the evolution that’s taken us from agricultural to industrial to knowledge work thus far.

  7. Jon Husband

    Jay’s point about the application of an industrial mindset to the use of knowledge is right, I think.

    When I think of concept workers, it “feels” like it’s missing the scaffolding & building up of responses that come from interaction, exchange and development.

    The next step involves that interaction and exchange by definition, no ? This term won’t work (for sure) but I found myself thinking of accretive workers (or to goof around, “accreative” workers).


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