Wednesday, April 4, 2012

We are the Knowmads and Kworkers

Buzzwords and catchphrases this week: macroeconomic/social/business trends & subtrends, competitive intensity, innovation --> pace of change, lower price structures, emerging markets, multiple business models, long-term competitiveness, talent mismatch, knowledge workers, Web 3.0, interconnectedness, emerging-market-to-emerging-market transactions, "choke point" technologies, mobile networks <-> global economy, clean tech, resource commodity regulations, environmental "adaptation" businesses, fiscal stimulus, social safety nets, rate of tech adoption contributes to income inequality, structural unemployment, ad-hoc innovation management, tech-enabled business trend, distributed cocreation (crowd-sourcing), networks in/as organizations, collaboration tech, 'Internet of Things' (i.e. RFID chips), data mining, sustainable IT, product as service, multisided business model/cross-subsidization, innovation for the BOP, IT public goods/policies, competitor analysis, positioning, strengths & weaknesses, aggression factor, risk propagation/cascading/chain reactions, hedging for risk, comprehensive risk profiling, competitive dynamics, "rooted map", reference/perspective map, distance and culture, geographic sensitivity

Innovation will not come from software and new technologies. It’s about mindware. That is our imagination, our creativity

This week I came across a term that I knew existed but that I had never before seen in writing: "knowledge worker". I stumbled across this term in "What happens next? Five crucibles of innovation that will shape the coming decade." This forward-looking McKinsey report on innovation highlighted "the productivity imperative" as one of the five crucibles. In order to generate lasting employment gains, US firms have to remain productive by boosting productivity. They must do this by relying less on the traditional "manual" worker and more on the 21st century "knowledge worker". A knowledge worker analyzes complex information, solves problems, renders judgment and, most importantly, thinks creatively and innovatively.

When I decided to search for the origin of the term, I was surprised to find that as far back as 1959, management guru Peter Drucker was already describing the emerging knowledge economy. In 1999, Drucker wrote that while "the contribution of management in 20th Century was the fifty-fold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing . . . the most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st Century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker."

Here are more characteristics of the knowledge worker:

  1. Productivity of the knowledge worker is not - at least not primarily - a matter of the quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.
  2. Knowledge workers need to learn to manage themselves. Because they own the assets (the knowledge), they need to keep it up to date and use it to deliver the greatest contributions to their employers.
  3. A typical example of a "knowmad" is that they work for a company, start a business two months later and after a while choose to go back to school. Knowmads sell themselves by their individual expertise.
  4. Knowmads are highly engaged, creative, innovative, collaborative and highly motivated. They adapt fast in new situations and contextualize ideas due to situations.
  5. They can engage people all over the world in open and flat knowledge networks. 
  6. Research shows that knowledge workers actually have fewer good hours in a day than manual laborers do - on average, about six hours, as opposed to eight.  
  7. They are sensitive to even minor sleep loss (Research by US military has shown that losing just one hour of sleep per night for a week will cause a level of cognitive degradation equivalent to a 0.10 blood alcohol level.)  
In a Bloomberg Businessweek article, Evan Rosen claims that knowledge workers and manual workers are no longer mutually exclusive terms.  Indeed, a manual worker at an assembly chain can be mined for crucial knowledge regarding assembly line efficiency.

Given all the above, do you think it is good company strategy to hire more knowledge workers? Given points 6 and 7 specifically in the list above, do you think the US should move back to a 40 hour work week (rather than the 50-60 hours most people work currently)?

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