But maybe I’m a knowledge labourer after all

For some time I’ve been one of those accounting/ICT people who delves into the world of knowledge management every now and then.  This is an area of practice where buzz words abound – communities of practice, centres of excellence, and the venerable ‘knowledge worker’ to name a few.

In the past week I’ve had cause to think of these terms, particularly ‘knowledge worker’.  It sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it?  After all, you work with knowledge to create all sorts of good things of value for the business.  However recently I’ve been swotting up on the ‘theory of technology dominance’ and a presentation by Steve Sutton in 2006 implied another term for when you work with ephemeral ‘knowledge-based’ stuff but with little latitude for exercising professional judgment due to the constraints of technology:  ‘knowledge labourer’.

And then there was the video recently relating to the ‘mother of all demos’ where Doug Engelbart referred to ‘intellectual workers’ in 1968.  Clearly that term didn’t much catch on – possibly there are elitist overtones.

It seems that we have as a result three terms here that apply – I’ve tried to put my twist into the definition:

  • knowledge labourer:  works to rule creating and storing information and data within the rules set by an information system, and as a result getting little opportunity to develop or exercise professional judgment.  Such people can be recognised by a bureaucratic insistence upon rules and an oft-stated desire to unplug the computer.
  • knowledge worker:  has more freedom to create ‘knowledge’ such as documents, strategies, and developed information, but in response to a business need and with a commercial imperative.  These people spend a great deal of time trying to explain the value they provide to the business, and generally look nervous in recessions.
  • intellectual worker:  tends to be working on several high-brow things at once, mainly because it interests them rather than out of any commercial necessity.  These people use their intellectual smarts to advance the body of knowledge rather than their bank balance.  Such people can usually be recognised as frustrated PhD students who used to have higher-paying jobs as knowledge labourers or workers before becoming ‘bored’.

By my definition I’m at risk of being an ‘intellectual worker’.  Although @sjjoyner probably put it best when describing a ‘knowledge labourer’: "@maxelsen Here I was thinking you were being witty. Now it sounds serious and a deeply awful occupational class."

I wonder how many people are more knowledge labourers than knowledge workers…

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