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Goodbye to the Knowledge Worker?

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Goodbye to the Knowledge Worker?

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It’s now almost five decades since Peter Drucker discussed the concept of the knowledge worker in his 1966 book The Effective Executive, as he emphasised the growing importance of the “team”, and encouraged recognition of the value of employees. The term was created as an antonym of the “manual worker”, as a way to describe those people within the organisation whose value is in the use of their intelligence, rather than their dexterity or ability to follow orders. In today’s society, this distinction sits rather uncomfortably in itself (and I have cringed while trying to explain it). More generously, you might interpret it as those individuals whose roles involve working with information, analysing and interpreting it, sharing it and manipulating it (whether honestly or dishonestly) so that it has the greatest value to the organisation (or the individual). OK, so I guess I ran out of generosity at the end there.

In the new world, however, where top-down, hierarchical organisation structures are quickly losing their cachet in idealistic business strategies in favour of more open, collaborative approaches, the concept of the “knowledge worker” seems defunct. If your organisation’s culture encourages everyone to have a voice, to share their views, experiences, concerns and opinions in order to create a unified, transparent and flattened structure, who isn’t a knowledge worker? With social collaboration tools providing a platform for discussions, cross-department communication, and broad and open access to information throughout an organisation, then a knowledge worker might include:

  • Anyone who participates in a process and therefore might have an opinion to offer in terms of how that process could be improved;
  • Anyone who has information that might be useful to someone else, somewhere in the organisation;
  • Anyone who has an opinion – from any perspective – on company policies, news, strategy etc.

These people might be “traditional” knowledge workers, but could just as easily be someone working on the factory floor, or in a front office or retail role. They might be an experienced senior manager or they might be a new joiner in a junior position.

The point is that everyone has knowledge, has information which could make a positive difference to the way the organisation works – they simply need a culture and environment in which they are able to share that knowledge. So if everyone is a “knowledge worker” in the new social economy, then the term becomes entirely worthless. Time to move on.

Register now! On May 14th 2014, MWD’s “Making Social Collaboration Work” conference is taking place in London. This will be a chance to hear from organisations who have already implemented social collaboration, to share ideas and best practices, and to network with others in the same position.

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