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11/30/2006
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Struggling to Define the Knowledge Worker

A reporter/associate editor (we'll call her Jane) from a major business publication called to discuss what she was writing about our research on knowledge work and knowledge workers (including our current survey The New Workplace) in an upcoming piece.  But she hesitates to use the term "knowledge worker" worrying that readers won't know exactly what that means.

My first thought harkens to something President Josiah Bartlett once said when aides told him that his audience would not understand a word he was about to use in a campaign speech.  "Let them look it up in a dictionary" he told the aides.

Jane e-mailed me, asking "what is a knowledge worker exactly?"
I replied with a two-part definition from my book, Managing the Knowledge Workforce .  "A knowledge worker is a participant in the knowledge economy.  The knowledge economy is an economic environment where information and its manipulation are the commodity and the activity (in contrast to the industrial economy, where the worker produced a tangible object with raw production materials and physical goods)."

Jane then asked: "Instead of knowledge worker can we say 'office professional'?  I think this will be easier for our readers."

My reply:  "That opens up a can of worms.  People see "office workers" (I've not run across the term "office professional" before) as administrative in-office workers.  Knowledge workers (sometimes called information workers, just to make it even more confusing) are a distinct breed, having a depth and breadth beyond office workers and very distinct from factory and field workers.  They could be in a laboratory, at a construction site, at a museum.

I knew that my reply didn't exactly help but it does shed light on just what we are up against.  I understand Jane's desire to make this "easier" but isn't an easy subject.  Perhaps you could explain knowledge workers parenthetically, I wrote to Jane.

She replied:  "Would executives work?"

Jane is not alone in struggling to define the knowledge worker.  Many managers and even knowledge workers themselves are unaware of the term and that they are indeed knowledge workers.  This is, in fact, the raison d'etre behind the New Workplace survey.  If you haven't yet taken the survey, please do click here and take it. 

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