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Knowledge Workers: Implications for HR Practices

As we enter the knowledge-era, one of the critical challenges for HR professionals would be to design practices and systems for managing the “Knowledge Workers.” However, even after forty years when Peter Drucker had coined the term, the definition of knowledge worker – and the understanding of the professionals it describes – remains far from clear. More so, because it is loosely used to describe a wide array of people ranging from a software professional to the operator who works with a CNC machine. It is not surprising that many consider it just another buzz word popularized by the skilled and tech-savvy, upward mobile professionals to enhance their own market value.

So who are the knowledge workers? To equate the terms with specific professions like IT professionals or consultants is too limiting and narrow a definition. On the other hand, using it to describe anyone who uses brain instead of muscles to do work – as Drucker did – is too general (obviously, a software programmer or an investment analyst cannot be put in the same basket as an accountant who only totals up the ledger).

What is Knowledge-work?

It may be more appropriate to first define and understand what “knowledge-work” is all about in order to understand those who do it, and the implications for managing them. There are three key features which differentiate knowledge-work from other forms of conventional work.

Firstly, while all jobs entail a mix of physical, social and mental work, the basic task in knowledge-work is thinking – it is mental work which adds value to work. Unlike the salesman who interacts, negotiates and persuades to achieve his targets, or the shop floor operator who performs physical operations (does things), the knowledge worker adds value to work through mental activities. Knowledge-work involves activities such as analyzing and solving problems, deriving conclusions, and applying these conclusions to other situations. Naturally, the effectiveness of the knowledge worker would depend on the mental skills and mastery of certain intellectual discipline and expertise (e.g., knowledge of theoretical frameworks, model-building, problem-solving techniques, etc.). This is a key factor which distinguishes a punch-key operator sitting in front of a PC terminal from a software programmer.

Secondly, the kind of thinking involved in knowledge-work is not a step-by-step linear mental work. For instance, the accountant who calculates the payroll knows the exact mental steps to follow to achieve the desired results. Payroll calculation involves thinking, but only to the extent of processing information; it is not knowledge-work. But this may not be true of the work of a consultant, who has to be creative and non-linear in his thinking (i.e., work out how to think) to develop solutions for the client.

Implications for HR Concept of controls: How does one control work (or thinking) which is both invisible and can not be described in a step-by-step manner? The conventional work-activities could be controlled because work was tangible and could be tracked – the organization knew and decided what has to be done and how it has to be done. One knew, for instance, that the employee is not working if s/he is not present on the machine; therefore it was easy to implement controls and checks (e.g., attendance norms, work-schedules, etc.) on his/her activities.

But there is no way to ascertain – and therefore control: - whether or not the knowledge worker is working/thinking. The indication of having put in work comes only after the work is over, i.e. when s/he delivers results. Therefore, for managing the knowledge workers, organizations need to replace systems for controlling the activities with those which create accountability for the outputs. That is, instead of implementing top-down systems for controlling activities, organizations will have to develop feedback loops which make the knowledge workers accountable to their peers and customers.

Concept of work: The conventional definition of work was what one does in the organization one works for. But when the basic work involves thinking, it becomes independent of the organization: work becomes a personal and private activity, unconstrained by organizational boundaries. This anywhere-anytime nature of work erases the conventional boundary between the private and professional life of the knowledge worker. That is why, for the knowledge workers, work is not longer just a means of maintain a life-style; rather it is the life-style itself!

In many ways this is a rather happy state of affairs, something akin to achievement of self-actualization in Maslow’s need hierarchy. Knowledge workers get involved in their work – not because they are supposed to do it – but because it becomes a source of personal fulfillment.

Concept of personal effectiveness: The absence of routine organizational controls over one’s activates, and the all-involving nature of work has a flip side as well. Conventionally, organizational routines, while constraining personal freedom, also provide an external structure and balance to life. For the conventional organizational employee, routines and systems decide a significant part of the day’s activities, and after the day’s work, s/he can devote time to personal agenda such as family and leisure. In contrast, work as a life-style can also make knowledge workers more vulnerable to imbalances in life. It is quite possible for them to get seduced and submerged into an interesting work-assignment, often at the expense of other priorities of life, including health and family. Thus, the effectiveness of knowledge workers would depend not just on their mental skills, but also – and perhaps, more so – on their ability to maintain balance between different domains of life – work, leisure, relationships, family, etc. HR interventions which help them develop self- and time-management skills would become critical for effective utilization of the knowledge workers.

Madhukar Shukla

Knowledge Inc.

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