The information revolution, allied with the continuous automation of low-skilled work, has meant two things – knowledge workers are now a more significant proportion of the workforce, and knowledge and knowledge workers are now a mainstream resource and a basis for competitive differentiation. The term “knowledge worker” was coined by Peter Drucker some thirty years ago to describe someone, who adds value by processing existing information to create new information which could be used to define and solve problems, and they are not labour, they are capital.
Generally defined, knowledge work is dominated by cognitive effort to use, generate, and extract value from knowledge (Mosco & McKercher 2008). Conceptual definitions of knowledge work Several experts have outlined different definitions of knowledge work. For example, Drucker focused on the differences between ‘manual worker productivity’ and ‘knowledge worker productivity.
‘ The key enablers of the latter include abstractly defined tasks, flexible application of knowledge, workers’ autonomy, continuous innovation and learning into job roles, assessment based on quality of output and perceiving workers as organisational assets (Drucker 2007a). As for the manual worker, efficiency is key, that is, the ability to do things right rather than the ability to get the right things done. The manual worker can be judged in terms of the quantity and quality of a definable and discrete output.
While Frenkel, Korczynski and Tam (2002) state that knowledge workers can be distinguished from professional workers, Reed (Noon ; Blyton 2007) defines them as a new type of professional, typically financial and business consultants, project engineers, computer analysts and media experts. These people he calls ‘entrepreneurial professionals’, are well suited to globalised capitalism and the commercialisation of the public sector (Reed 1996).
Additionally, Frenkel, Korczynski and Tam (2002) emphasized the uniqueness of knowledge workers in their ability to solve complex problems based on their multi-skills and acquaintance with different discipline and bodies of knowledge as compared with professionals. Scarborough develops Reed’s work further. Unlike traditional professionals he says they have not got a body of knowledge to draw upon, but instead have scarcity value.
They are more dependent on employers because to create knowledge they must interact within the firm using its information and communications technology (ICT) networks. Lastly they are more instrumental than traditional professional workers, emphasising knowledge related to its commercial value rather than its intrinsic value (Alvesson 2004). Knowledge can be divided into tacit and explicit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is tied to an individual and is very difficult if not impossible to articulate.
As knowledge is explored, put into action, and socially justified, tacit knowledge is being made explicit through codification resulting in it being converted into messages that can be processed as information. Cortada (1998) identified tacit knowledge as the most strategic resource of firms since tacit knowledge is difficult to imitate and immobile. Thus, it can constitute the basis of competitive advantage.
In differentiating knowledge workers from professionals, stated that in addition to tacit knowledge and its formal body, knowledge workers encompass the strategic power of marketization. The knowledge work paradigm implies that the share of jobs involving autonomy and external contacts will increase as an economy becomes more knowledge-intensive. This applies to knowledge work as the term is commonly understood, referring to workers who have a high level of education and, very importantly, who own the means of production in a knowledge-based organisation (Drucker 2007b).
Not only is the proportion of knowledge workers larger in a knowledge-based economy (KBE) than in the economy that preceded it, but the knowledge requirements to be met by other, non-knowledge workers are larger as well. The comparison of knowledge work with established professions is frequently made. Typically, the established professions are seen as either constituting one of the categories of knowledge workers or as a related category that distinguishes itself from other knowledge-intensive work categories because of its officially recognized practices.
In both cases, it is possible to compare the established professions with other categories of knowledge-intensive work – a comparison that leads to some noticeable observations: knowledge-based occupations are expanding employment categories, while professions, as a category, are experiencing a reduction in autonomy or a weakening of their abilities to act as self-regulating occupational groups (Frenkel, Korczynski & Tam 2003). Implications of knowledge workers Drucker (2007a) has also raised an issue regarding the management control of knowledge workers.
He suggests that knowledge workers, who are mostly external specialists and experts, are more likely to be contingent workers. Although this does not equate to organisational commitment and loyalty, such flexibility does deliver performance. The contingent workforce acts as a variable workforce for companies to select from to perform specific projects or complete specialized projects. Also as organisations make efforts to be more agile and to quickly respond to change in order to be more competitive, they turn to the contingent workforce to have on-demand access to professionals and experts (McFarlane 2008).
Generally, contingent work is associated with employment relationships that are transactional thus limiting employee engagement to the firm for which they are working. They provide their skills for a monetary reward, but do not become attached to the organization because their tenure is temporary, also their level of engagement may be limited, thus resulting in less discretionary effort provided to a position (Noon & Blyton 2007).
Another implication is that contingent knowledge workers typically receive no benefits or training, as the relationship is transactional, the organization has no duty or commitment to such employees, thus contingent knowledge workers may not all necessarily be as current as they should be. Another implication is that at present, statistics on managerial and professional occupations are the best proxy we have to illustrate the rise of the knowledge worker, but we have to be mindful that not all technical, managerial and professional workers are knowledge workers (McFarlane 2008).
A key defining characteristic of knowledge work is that it is complex. This complexity may be related to the amount or depth of knowledge involved – such as theoretical knowledge in the specialist medicinal field; or the level of interdependence between work components that make it difficult to predict how change in one area will affect other areas (Salisbury 2003). For instance, in the routine work setting of an assembly line, it is easy to foresee the impacts of changes in one sub-assembly area on another.
In a more complex work situation, such as designing new rocket systems, the complicated and compound interdependencies can mean that ramifications may not be readily apparent. The need for knowledge workers Organisations are now harnessing knowledge as their main driver of growth, selling knowledge as their primary commodity. Any firm trying to bypass this trend, risks extinction. In order to survive, let alone thrive, firms need to ensure that they are effectively developing and managing their knowledge-oriented employees.
In recession-hit Asia in particular, knowledge workers are essential as companies, battle to survive in shrinking markets and unpredictable business environments (Anderson Consulting 1998). Experience has shown that companies who emerge the strongest from severe economies crises are those who not only implement defensive actions, but also use the time of crisis to adopt and implement new forward thinking strategies.
Companies therefore need to position themselves for long-term success by adopting appropriate systems to garner the power of their knowledge workers and to strengthen the organisation’s ability to cope with rapid changes in the world of work (Horibe 1999). The immense value of knowledge workers is in their ability to handle uncertainty. The crisis in Asia and its spread to other economies make knowledge workers even more important to achieving competitive advantage and solid growth. Such people have the skills and adaptability needed to cope and thrive in dynamic environments.
The work of professionals and highly-skilled workers is characterised by complex tasks and a high level of uncertainty. The result is not always clear beforehand and the search for new solutions to particular problems makes it difficult to directly control the labour process. Creativity and co-operation are crucial virtues when it comes to finding innovative solutions or ‘translating’ unclear customer requirements into clear product specifications. This makes creativity and co-operation particularly important qualities of knowledge work.
The greater the value of the employee’s tacit knowledge in maintaining the firm’s operations and creating new processes, the greater the loss to the firm when employees leave. Employee turnover translates into lost value to the firm relative to tacit knowledge unless that knowledge had been captured through codification into a new product or process improvement or transmitted to others with whom the employee had worked. Knowledge is becoming a firm’s primary resource and because knowledge is stored in the minds of the individuals who possess it, employee turnover can decrease a firm’s tacit knowledge stores (Horibe 1999).
The economy and competitiveness of the companies will much depend on the skills of its workforce. It is mainly in the mind of high skilled workers that we can find innovative solution and competitive advantage. The knowledge worker is normally grounded in formal education, has a mental and emotional commitment to the job and acts as a ‘knowledge entrepreneur’, being responsible for his own learning and being a leader in the modern knowledge society (Cortada 1998). Hence, the privileged position of the knowledge worker.