The recognition of knowledge work is one of the many foundational contributions to management made by Peter Drucker and others. They pointed the evolution of work from handling physical objects to handling knowledge paved the way for the creation of the modern information based economy. In such an economy knowledge workers are seen as the alpha-professional responsible for creating value, determining direction, and realizing their personal and professional potential.
It sounds like a great job. But now more than 50 years since its identification you have to ask, where are those kinds of knowledge jobs. Sure we work with knowledge but I treat it more like an input/asset/resource that is subjected to business rules and policy than the creative resource that we mold and use to create new things. So when you ask the question
Are we not knowledge workers?
We are people who work with knowledge.
Simple substitution is not what Drucker and others had in mind when they wrote about a knowledge worker. Replacing raw materials with knowledge or using computer-based tools instead of hammers and wrenches does not capture the potential of a true knowledge worker.
Knowledge Maker versus Knowledge Worker
The transformational nature of classic ‘knowledge work’ rests with knowledge makers rather than knowledge workers. While knowledge workers manipulate knowledge, adding bits here and moving information down a workflow, knowledge makers create the knowledge that we all work with.
A ‘maker’ turns something meaningful out of nothing. They are what Richard Florida calls the “Creative Class” as they create, answer, take the initiative initiative, and drive ideas and ways of thinking into your organization. Knowledge makers bring meaning data in the process of ‘making’.
Knowledge makers exist throughout your organization and society in general. They occupy positions at all levels of the formal organizational hierarchy and hold just about any job. Knowledge makers are the originating nodes in your social network.
Anyone who leads is a knowledge maker. They create context that mobilizes people and convert ideas into action.
Knowledge makers can be at the executive level, although surprisingly few executives are knowledge makers. They can be on the front lines creating proven practices for handling daily challenges. They can be in R&D where they develop new ideas, processes and products. They can be in the factory where they make things work in ways in which they were not originally intended. They exist in IT, but they are not exclusive to it.
The difference between ‘maker’ and ‘worker’ matters in terms of forming teams, designing jobs and improving business processes. Too many ‘makers’ and the work becomes theoretical, prone to analysis paralysis and a desire figuring out who is right before moving to take action. That works to an extent in creative work, but you need workers or people to take on working roles to get things done. Just think about an enterprise architecture team that produces great ideas that never seem to get traction. The opposite is true for teams that have too many workers and tasks that require creativity.
So, are we not knowledge workers?
Yes, but not in the sense that we would like to think.
Most of us work with knowledge to create value, rather than the knowledge making work most of us think about when we think of knowledge work.