The challenge of being a knowledge worker

The challenges of being a knowledge worker are explored in this post by Diane Lee.In the 21st century, the workforce of the western world is supposed to be forged around knowledge. You can see this trend very clearly, with the slow, strangled death of manufacturing (despite being propped up by handouts from the government) and the rise and rise of digital work. Who knew coding apps would have been a job five years ago? Ditto social media, and the multitudes of jobs that has been spawned around this hive of industry?

The “supply and demand” of knowledge has had a major effect on our workplaces, particularly ones I have found myself in. I think it’s fair to say that a major side effect of knowledge “production” is that workplaces have increased in complexity. We are forced to work together in increasingly complex environments on quite complex tasks. There are grey areas about who does what, which project management principles, Six Sigma, TQM and the like attempt to sort out. But in many respects, we don’t actually “produce” anything. Nothing overtly tangible anyway.

I have never worked in manufacturing, but I imagine that each person who works on building something, or producing something, has an overwhelming sense of achievement. Call me a romantic, but there is something honest about being able to say “I built that” or “I contributed to the building or making of that”. In my own working day, I might write a plan, a brief, some copy. I may do something semi-tangible like update a website, create a Prezi, or produce a booklet or a pamphlet, but these things are ephemeral, and the sense of achievement is only fleeting.

For the average knowledge worker, this also means that despite workplaces being underwritten with employer branding messages, workplace safety legislation, competency frameworks, continuous improvement, management training, team building initiatives, value statements, and performance management and development plans, the horse-trading of information, power games and office politicking are daily activities that have to be navigated with care. Being a knowledge worker is not unlike being back in court in 16th Century England. There are factions, sabotage and behind-the-scenes power plays that would chill even the Tudors. Manoeuvering through this quagmire is akin to walking through a swamp filled with landmines. A foot wrong, and the whole thing is likely to blow up in your face. And take your career with it.

Or maybe it’s just many of the workplaces I’ve been “lucky” enough to work in that are like this?


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0 thoughts on “The challenge of being a knowledge worker

  1. I attended an ‘Ethics in the Workplace’ forum this morning, coordinated by the Institute of Public Administration Australia and held at the Adelaide Convention Centre.
    The MC was Warren McCann, Commissioner of Public Employment and former Chief Executive of the Department for the Premier and Cabibet. Guest speakers and panellists included senior executives of various agencies across the public sector, each an acknowledged leader in their particular area of expertise.
    As each speaker held forth at the lectern, I noticed that despite disparity of delivery style, tone, terminology and variances in conceptualisation and interpretation, there was a common theme. Knowledge is power, and appropriate management and dissemination of knowledge, ergo exercise of that power, is codified in legislative and whole of government policy.
    But on a day to day, nitty gritty level, it is not a formal code that governs the interaction and conduct of knowledge workers (although it should be). Rather, it is the age old, covert Tudor-esque survival tactics and ruthless cut and thrust of the corporate game of thrones that shapes the behavior of knowledge workers.
    Without detracting from people’s autonomy and steering clear of a big brother, black and white, rule based mentality, I suggest knowledge be treated as a potentially hazardous substance that all employees are trained to manage and distribute in a safe manner. Less of an overaching code with broadly stated principles and more akin to a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS).
    Perhaps your next blog could dot point a few pertinent safety regulations that will protect knowledge workers from a Career Limiting Move spillage?

    1. You are so right. In many workplaces, there is general lip-service and a tokenistic approach to ethics. We expect our workplaces to be value-driven; the information we receive about the organisations we aspire to work for and the position/roles descriptions BEFORE we are hired tells us that this is so. It is only when we see what’s behind closed doors that we can fully come to grips with the reality in which we find ourselves. Managing the culture of any organisation should be the main concern for our current crop of leaders.

  2. That lack of tangibility – as you said – allows the players to shift the goalposts. And home ground advantage is key. So a person who understands the quirks of the place tend to be able to manipulate perceptions of their own performance and that of others, such that reality counts for little. So the forces of status quo prevail, making the particular business less and less relevant, until some great external change destroys the whole thing. (Ansett gets virginned, Music industry gets iTuned)

    In contrast I’ve seen some lean, mean entrepreneurs have the courage to attack themselves. A successful guy recently told me “I just had to put off a salesperson and two production people, and am going back out on the road myself. Heart wrenching, but you can only bleed from the neck for so long.”

    Just a different style of crap, I suppose. It shows me that the greener pastures aren’t so green, ever.

    1. You are absolutely right, Cullen. The lack of tangibility, the shifting goal posts and reality massaging by those in the know make for a less than healthy workplace for those employees committed to working with integrity. It seems that an excellent workplace – in all senses of the word – is the exception rather than the rule.

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