Thoughts on knowledge work as craft

From Knowledge Jolt with Jack: KMPro with Jim McGee:

What does it mean to be responsible for one’s own knowledge management? How does one go about doing this? How do we approach this question knowing that we will move from position to position in the work world? How do we manage if our organizations do not formally support this knowledge craft?

and Knowledge Work as Craft Work:

One useful direction for some additional poking around would be to investigate how to apply the lessons learned in software development around version control and source code library management to more general forms of knowledge work. Wouldn’t you like to have that level of tracing over your powerpoint presentations or correspondence files? Doing that today takes a level of sophistication that the average knowledge worker or knowledge work group doesn’t have.

Like many (most?) knowledge workers, I take great pride in my work. Though I’d never really thought of it in the terms of a “craft” before, it does make sense. As knowledge workers, we take raw materials and use our skill, knowledge, and experience to transform them into something of value. Or we take a problem and figure it out to provide a solution. There is no one right answer, though some answers are better than others.

Just as in the “physical” crafts, such as carpentry, etc., you can categorize knowledge workers at different levels, from apprentice through journeyman up to master. As you start in the trade, you are in a learning mode, primarily focused on figuring out how to do things while also “getting the job done.” For the most part, you are told what to do and how to do it, with some feedback from the more experienced craftsman on the process you used and the quality of the end product.

If you are a union craftsman or tradesman (carpentry, electrician, plumber), chances are there is also a formal education process where you get the “book” learning you need to improve. Even so, it is your responsibility to learn what you need and to apply it.

As you advance in skill, knowledge, and experience to the Journeyman level you become more responsible for your work. You may still be told what to do, in terms of assignments and tasks, but how you accomplish the assignment is more up to you. At this point, you may also be responsible for supervising an apprentice’s day to day performance, imparting some of your skills, knowledge, and experience to the “new” guy. And then on to Master.

Craftsman in the physical crafts are responsible for their own knowledge and, importantly for this discussion, their own tools. While I took the “knowledge worker” route, my brothers are both tradesman/craftsman. One thing I learned from them, which I never would have guessed myself, is that for the most part they are responsible for owning, maintaining, and knowing how to use their own tools. Obviously, the company they are working for will provide the big, infrastructure things, but when it comes down to the actual tools needed to get the job done, each individual will have their own tools and their own way of using them. A craftsman with mediocre tools may have the skill needed to get the job done, but may be limited by the tools. A craftsman with the best tools and mediocre skills may look good getting the job done, but will likely produce a mediocre result.

It seems to me that it is much the same in the world of knowledge work – workers can be limited by both their tools and their skills. It is up to the individual worker to find the best tools for the job and to understand how to use them. Some organizations will see the value in building an in-house knowledge work-force and encourage and provide access to training and allow individual workers to use the tools that best suits them. Other organizations will not see the value in nurturing this type of environment, but will still expect the individual knowledge workers to be able to perform at high levels. As in the trades/crafts, in many ways it depends on where you work and what you want out of your professional life.

As in anything else, once you’ve figured out where you want to go you need to make a plan on getting there (allowing, of course, for detours and unexpected opportunities, along the way).

Unfortunately, this doesn’t address Jim McGee’s bigger question of “visibility” in knowledge work and how to establish an effective training program along the lines of “apprentice – journeyman – master.” Definitely something to think about….

Leave a Reply