What’s So Special About Knowledge Work?

January 23, 2017

The way we work these days is very different from the past, and we produce value in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago.

Early in my career I worked for a large mid-western textbook publishing firm. I have never forgotten a conversation with one editor, a brilliant, well-educated woman, who told me in tears that she had just been docked a full week’s vacation.

My friend was supposed to be at her desk and at work every morning at 8:30 AM; her supervisor had been tracking her arrivals and had documented that over the past twelve months she had accumulated almost 40 hours of tardiness (10 minutes one day, 5 minutes another, and so on).

It apparently made no difference that she almost never joined the parade out the door at precisely 5 PM; in fact she regularly worked an hour or two beyond 5 PM to meet her deadlines. And she often took work home at night.

Docking her vacation time might have been an appropriate disciplinary action if my friend had been working on an assembly line somewhere and was being paid by the hour. But she was a former secondary school teacher with a master’s degree who was being paid a decent salary to collaborate with a college professor on a high-school math book.

Knowledge workers are different, and they work differently from assembly line workers. If you think about it, that’s obvious. But in my experience an incredible number of supposedly intelligent organizational leaders don’t seem to realize how different knowledge-based work is.

Knowledge is not a “thing” that you can hold in your hand, or even describe. It doesn’t have weight, or color, or smell. There are all kinds of knowledge. There is information, or data, and “facts” about the physical world. There is an understanding of how physical objects behave, or interact with each other; how one thing can cause another, or how one chemical interacts with another (for example, how detergent neutralizes acidic juices).

There is also knowledge about patterns in nature, and in human relationships. The sun rises and sets on a predictable cycle; summer follows spring; water freezes at thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit. Some so-called “knowledge” is more tenuous; and when it is based on opinions or beliefs that do not have any basis in reality it can be downright dangerous (just think about the kerfuffle these days about “fake news” and “alternative facts”).

But what makes knowledge really different from physical things is what you can do with it (and what you can’t). For example, if I have $100 and give you half of it, you now have $50 and I have $50. But if I have a special recipe for roasting a chicken and I share it with you, now we both know how to cook a delicious meal. I haven’t given up anything, but now there are two of us who have the same knowledge (in fact, I probably gained some credibility and gratitude for sharing my special recipe so willingly).

Furthermore, once information has been shared it can’t be taken back. Once I’ve told you that recipe I can’t “untell” you.

Our economy’s growing dependence on information and knowledge as the source of value has profound implications for how we form teams, collaborate, and manage both work and workers.

We bring our individual experiences, expectations, and learning and communication styles to the work we do; work is now an expression of who we are and what we care about. It’s no longer about putting in eight hours on the assembly line and doing the exact same things your peers are doing (over and over and over again).

In the industrial era most organizations were seeking workers who had mastered a common core of skills and who were capable of “tending” the machines on the assembly line; workers were essentially replaceable because each station on that assembly line required the same skills and the same behaviors no matter who the individual worker was.

But when a knowledge worker joins a team the very nature of the team changes – its capabilities, its collective mindset, even its norms and expectations. Each of us is a unique individual who brings a unique combination of experiences, knowledge, and skills to work.

But even that isn’t the most important aspect of knowledge work. In 2017 most knowledge work is embedded in digital technology; it is stored in digital media, it is processed, augmented, and displayed digitally.

Image: Amazon.com

And that digital technology is not just a neutral tool or medium; it has a profound impact not only on what we know but also on how we know what we know, and how we learn and experience that knowledge.

Last week I mentioned Kevin Kelly’s recent book The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future.

I’ve gained several powerful new insights from that book already, and I’m only half-way through it. Next week I’ll share some ideas about how absorbing knowledge digitally is unlike anything we grew up with.


Don’t face the future alone. Jim Ware is a workplace futurist, author, and meeting design strategist who has invested his entire career equipping organizations to build actionable knowledge about the future. Contact Jim today  (or call +1 510.558.1434) to learn how his workshops, keynote presentations, and advisory insights can put the future to work for you.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Paul Carder January 24, 2017 at 4:26 am

Jim, reflecting on the paragraph which starts “In the industrial era…”
I cannot help but reflect on the recent speeches by Donald J Trump, and question to what extent he understands the remainder of your article?
Whereas the UK government is promoting (and promising to invest in) new knowledge work such as aerospace, biotech, clean energy, and the like…it seems that when Trump talks about “bringing jobs back to America” he is reminiscing about the great “industrial era” of America’s past – not the future?
Does Trump understand that, with knowledge work, 1+1=3? That collaboration adds economic value?

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