The nature of information work has changed, and with it a subttle and unannounced change in the job description for information workers has been made.
I first noticed the change when reading a hyperbolic analysis of a Lexis-Nexis study on information work (see my posting Information Rage for a deeper dive). The article about the study contained the made-to-shock observation that:
… the average Australian employee spends less than two-and-a-half days per week actually doing their job. The rest of the time is spent navigating a virtual forest of information. What’s more, only about half of that information is relevant to getting the job done.
Here’s what that made me realize: In the information age, navigating a virtual forest of information IS your job, not the thing that prevents you from doing your job. The job of information workers is to find the gold nuggets in all the silt and turn it into something usable.
What was the old knowledge worker job description?
Wikipedia defines knowledge workers this way (information worker redirects to knowledge worker):
Knowledge workers in today’s workforce are individuals who are valued for their ability to act and communicate with knowledge within a specific subject area. They will often advance the overall understanding of that subject through focused analysis, design and/or development. They use research skills to define problems and to identify alternatives.
Yes, that sounds like what I thought my job was ten years ago. Note the old-fashioned assumption that time is mostly spent assuming you already have the gold nuggets of valuable information at hand, and now your “real” job is to define problems, analyze the information, find alternatives, etc.
What is the new knowledge worker job description?
The tasks listed in the old job description still apply. I believe the deliverable of information workers is unchanged, which is making or enabling high quality, timely decisions. Just as the job of executives is to implement and execute those decisions. But the information worker’s job description now starts with their skill at sifting through fast-running streams of data to find the gold nuggets of information. It’s not just sifting, but monitoring. And it involves active, conscious effort at subscribing to the right sources, setting filters, creating watch lists, setting bookmarks, tagging, friending, and developing the right social networks to get and analyze information. Their work processes – such as how they juggle long-running tasks, monitoring and reacting to fast-changing data streams, how they interrupt others and how they are interruptible or distractible – impact their effectiveness in this new job.
And no, digging through all the junk to find the valuable information is not menial or mindless work. It may sound like one should hire interns to pick through all the garbage so the high priced brains can then analyze the findings, as law firms do for discovery. But the worker’s subscriptions, filters, watch lists, bookmarks, tags, intuition about what is of value, and applying years of accumulated knowledge about where to look and (more importantly) who to pay attention to is of tremendous value in a knowledge economy.
In fact, I could argue that once all the valuable bits of information are isolated and cleaned up, the analysis may be the menial part. This is how MBA case studies work – distilling complex situations into easily digestible decision factors for discussion. But as I’ve commented before (What Business School Case Studies are Not Preparing Students For: Information Overload), this isn’t how the real world works and MBAs are not being trained for these new skills. And they probably won’t be as long as the importance of attention management is treated as an annoyance rather than a new part of the information worker’s job description.