From knowledge work to concept work

The nature of knowledge work, and the value of the term itself, is a much discussed question.  See, for instance, this conversation on the nature of knowledge work from earlier this year.  Although I don’t believe that the term “knowledge worker” is irrelevant, I do share Tony Karrers’s unease with the almost generic application of the term:

I’ve often been a little bothered by the fact that we categorize the a person working in a call center handling customer service requests in the same category as an engineer working in R&D – they are both called knowledge workers. That’s not as helpful as it should be.

To make the distinction more useful, Tony prefers the term “Concept Worker”.

That’s why I’m liking the idea of referring to work that involves figuring out unknowns as concept work and the people doing this work as concept workers. This more succinctly and clearly differentiates the issue for me.

I like it, too.  (Except for the “worker” part, of course, but I think we are stuck with that for now.)

The evolution of the employee-employer relationship

Here’s another piece from the archives, this one from April 2004. I’ve pulled this one out as part of a response to a discussion between Bill Brantley and Harold Jarche on the question of the work literacy gap and its impact on, and the role of, the organization.

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Employee-employer relations in a knowledge based economy

I’ve long believed that the prevelance of knowledge work in organizations today will (eventually) fundamentally shift the employee – employer relationship. In many ways, knowledge workers will come to be “self-employed” in the sense that they are working to improve themselves and to make an impact on the world at large and not just within the company they happen to be “working for” at the time.

With 401k plans allowing for retirement planning independent of a specific job or pension plan, and for various other reasons that are well documented elsewhere, knowledge workers don’t seem to be staying in the same place for their entire careers anymore. With retirement taken care of, other things today’s employees need to consider include health/life insurance, etc. A truly self-employed knowledge worker also has to worry about the business end of things, such as billing’invoicing, taxes, payroll, etc. etc.

By working “for” a company, knowledge workers are in many ways simply out-sourcing the business end of being self-employed so they can focus on the job itself.

This obviously raises some interesting questions for organizations….

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The emergence of Web 2.0 has definitely had an impact here, since individuals can be more “independent” than ever, even within the confines of being an employee of a company. As Bill writes:

In fact, as the rise of social network-based learning has demonstrated, employees no longer need the company to develop their knowledge, skills, and abilities. In many professions, communities of practice and professional organizations have replaced the shop floor and company mentors as the source of employee training.

The challenge for organizations in this situation becomes not providing employees the training they need to carry out the company’s goals and projects, but rather providing employees with goals and projects that engage the employees and effectively use what they are learning for themselves.

Updated [27 Jun]:  Although this post is primarily targeted at the changing role of the organization, it also addresses Michele Martin’s questions concerning changing knowledge workers’ attitudes about learning and training.