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Managing the Knowledge Workforce - Book Review

1 July 2008
Dr. Moria Levy
book cover

Gain insights into how the information revolution is reshaping the business landscape. We currently find ourselves immersed in the information and knowledge revolution, observing the rise of a knowledge-based economy and integrating knowledge workers, a term popularized by Peter Drucker in "The Challenges of Management in the 21st Century," into our daily reality. This book examines the dynamics of management in the era of information and knowledge, focusing on knowledge management as a crucial tool supporting these knowledge workers and enhancing productivity. Significant sections are dedicated to technology-driven knowledge management solutions.

The book explores various topics, such as:

  • Identifying the knowledge worker

  • Overcoming barriers encountered by knowledge workers

  • Factors contributing to the success of knowledge workers

  • Technologies providing support

  • The role of mobile knowledge workers

  • Effectively managing knowledge workers

This summary provides only a glimpse of the book's content. It is recommended for those seeking a deeper understanding of knowledge management, exploring additional examples of supporting technologies, or delving into the evolution of information and knowledge technologies. Enjoy your reading!

Identifying the knowledge worker

Knowledge workers are pivotal in the knowledge economy, where information is the product and primary activity. Coined by Peter Drucker, the term "knowledge worker" distinguishes individuals in several crucial aspects:

  • Possessing unique knowledge specific to their roles, which is challenging to transfer.

  • Collaborating with other knowledge workers in group settings.

  • Having ownership of the products they contribute to, unlike blue-collar workers whose products are owned by factory operators.

Understanding the significance of the shift to a knowledge economy and recognizing the role of knowledge workers is imperative, akin to the magnitude of the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy. The author draws distinctions between information and knowledge, contending that a proper separation between the two is nonexistent. The author explores the evolution of knowledge and endeavors to define and construct it. Knowledge, described as elusive and continually breaking new boundaries, derives its value from its reflection of the world and its inability to grasp it fully.

Regarding the activities of knowledge workers, an average day encompasses:

  • Search: Locating necessary data and documents to generate knowledge.

  • Creation: Developing new and original knowledge.

  • Recreation: Adapting existing knowledge to suit current circumstances.

  • Communication: Channeling what is created or learned.

  • Social networks: Sharing and interacting with partners and colleagues.

Knowledge workers engage in numerous meetings, document their thoughts, and undertake various tasks. Beyond these activities, defining their specific function or measuring their effectiveness proves challenging.

A proficient knowledge worker embodies the following qualities:

  1. Maintains focus on work.

  2. Adapt work according to the context.

  3. Utilizes appropriate media (with paper serving as an alternative at times).

  4. Incorporates technology judiciously, avoiding unnecessary excess.

  5. Employs a select few tools but uses them effectively.

  6. Acquires proficiency in the capabilities of the tools used.

  7. Stays informed about the knowledge possessed by others, avoiding isolation.

Overcoming barriers encountered by knowledge workers

Several factors hinder the productivity of knowledge workers, with three primary obstacles identified:

  • Waiting for external factors: Studies reveal that a significant portion, 90%, of task time involves waiting for various external factors that impact the knowledge worker's operations.

  • Searching for Information: This includes searching for task-specific information, general information (e.g., news), personal information (e.g., rights), details about contacts, and instructional information on task execution. Studies indicate that 15% of task time is devoted to information retrieval.

  • Incorrect use of email: This encompasses the inundation of emails within the organization and in the form of spam.

Factors contributing to the success of knowledge workers

Several factors can enhance the effectiveness of knowledge workers. The primary focus involves improving the information flow within the organization to reduce waiting time. Though challenging, this task necessitates a supportive technological environment at its core—the Collaborative Business Knowledge tool. However, ensuring proper support and usage of this environment is crucial, as mishandling can transform it from an advantage into a disruption.

A collaborative business knowledge communication tool, as per Siemens' experience, can assist in four key ways:

  1. Ensuring consistency and uniformity in accessing available experts.

  2. Facilitating smoother information flows.

  3. Integrating work methods effectively.

  4. Minimizing the need for unnecessary travel.

Several tools play a significant role in advancing the capabilities of knowledge workers:

  1. Email

  2. Memo

  3. Instant Messaging

Educating knowledge workers on the judicious use of these tools, emphasizing when and how to use them, is imperative. Despite being an excellent tool, the overuse of email impedes knowledge workers on a daily and hourly basis.

Tips for promoting effective email use include:

  • Utilizing a significant header to provide crucial information before opening the email.

  • Using a different title when responding ensures maximum relevance to the reply.

  • Adding context when progressing to avoid unnecessary communication.

  • Separating different treatment topics into distinct emails for easier management.

  • Writing clearly and concisely.

  • Exercising caution to prevent sending emails to the wrong person, as mail software may only sometimes provide accurate suggestions.

  • Minimizing the use of the Reply to All function.

  • Consider what is better communicated orally than in writing and discern between email and instant messaging for different types of communication.

Technologies providing support

First, it's essential to note that many foundational technologies around us were initially developed for individuals, not groups (e.g., the PC). Unfortunately, technological advancements have often prioritized technical considerations over human-centric design. Nevertheless, numerous technologies can significantly enhance the work of knowledge workers. These include:

  1. Knowledge-enabled CRM applications, providing a potential business advantage.

  2. Content-related tools that facilitate the highlighting and marking of crucial knowledge and information, aiding in prioritization to manage information overload.

  3. Applications allow adding notes on content, reflecting the essence of blogs, and capturing actual knowledge.

  4. Business Intelligence (BI) tools.

  5. Business Process Management (BPM) tools and tools for managing workflows.

  6. Collaboration tools for team task completion.

  7. Media outlets.

  8. Comprehensive content management tools and targeted document management tools.

  9. Tools enabling decentralized activity between individuals are not working in common and only sometimes simultaneously.

  10. Tools for managing distance learning.

  11. Mail management tools.

  12. Tools for expert management.

  13. Tools for managing ideas and innovation.

  14. Knowledge management tools ensure the proper knowledge reaches the right person at the right time and context.

  15. Portals.

  16. Search and categorization tools.

  17. Tools for social sharing.

  18. Wikis are considered the most democratic sharing tool.

  19. RSS tools.

  20. Instant Messaging.

  21. Knowledge communities and communities of interest are often implemented on the ML portal.

  22. Massively Parallel Conferences (MPC), used for brainstorming and involving employees in critical cross-organizational processes, such as strategy, serve as a tool for sharing knowledge from the field.

The role of mobile knowledge workers

There are two primary categories of employees: those who work in the office daily and those who are mobile. Mobile employees can include those working from home, occasionally coming to the office, frequently moving, and stationed with customers. Various technologies support mobility, including cell phones, laptops, BlackBerrys, Palms, and various sharing tools. The internet has significantly enhanced the flexibility of mobile workers, revolutionizing their capabilities. Establishing an infrastructure for employee mobility can be instrumental in effectively managing knowledge workers.

This infrastructure should address the following aspects:

  1. Recognizing mobile employees as individuals deserving equal treatment to office workers.

  2. Organizational support and handling of mobile phones (with potential differences in acceptability in the US - ML).

  3. Broader IT support for addressing mobile malfunctions, such as remotely taking over a computer.

  4. Developing infrastructure for effective communication between managers and mobile workers.

  5. Creating IT procedures for the care of mobile workers and developing protocols for maintaining their devices.

  6. Establishing an information security infrastructure.

  7. Enhancing training for both mobile workers and their support personnel.

  8. Budgeting or assisting in a supplementary computing environment in private homes, including suitable lighting and chairs.

  9. Fostering management support for a remote and mobile worker culture, emphasizing that this is a strategic approach, not just a perk.

Working from home presents two significant advantages:

  • Improved efficiency.

  • Reduction of asset costs.

Effectively managing knowledge workers

Managing knowledge workers presents a challenging task beyond the implementation of supporting technologies. In many instances, employees are not physically present daily, a common scenario even in global companies. Managers of knowledge workers are entrusted with a set of responsibilities, tasks that traditional business schools may not have adequately prepared them for:

  1. Encouraging employees, who have historically kept the knowledge to themselves, to share and value collaboration.

  2. Evaluating and promoting employees not solely based on knowledge but also on their willingness to share knowledge, as exemplified by Duane Morris, one of the largest law firms in the United States.

  3. Setting a personal example for managers in establishing knowledge management systems and contributing content to them.

  4. Knowing when to talk and listen teaches this discernment to others.

  5. Adapting communication styles, being formal or informal as needed, demonstrating wisdom in choosing the appropriate approach.

  6. Establishing knowledge communities where employees trust each other, even if they infrequently engage with and use the community. These communities may involve different roles that complement each other.

  7. Emphasizing process focus.

  8. Valuing field experience.

  9. Practicing gentle management.

  10. Encouraging the use of supporting technologies where applicable.

  11. Cultivating a learning environment.

  12. Understanding the knowledge possessed by others.

Managers adept at handling knowledge and knowledge workers are the sought-after leaders of the future. Efforts should be directed toward advancing in this direction, recognizing that this is a forward-looking endeavor, not a reflection of the present. The first ones to embrace these approaches will succeed in the evolving landscape.

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