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The value of work and knowledge workers


The nature of work has changed

A large percentage of the active population in developed countries are currently what Peter Drucker calls “knowledge workers”. The internet, the latest advances in robotics and technology development generally makes us think that this trend is not only here to stay but also to continue upwards over the next few years.

The emergence of this new kind of work activity, profoundly different from the traditional one and almost nonexistent until just a few decades ago, brought on a revolution of the first order on the nature of work, as it completely changes the meaning of the word “work”. Work is no longer what it was and this change affects not only the way of working and its content, but also its relationship with value generation.

Despite all these changes, the people who undertake their activity in this new kind of work mostly are not aware that they are knowledge workers. This raises the next question: can a person optimally contribute to value generation at work without really knowing what this work is about?

Knowledge work is not so obvious

Traditionally work was something obvious. A shepherd for instance did not have to ask himself the question, “What do I have to do today?” Neither did a farmer or a blacksmith have to consider it. The options were well delimited and which one to do was marked by the needs or the circumstances of the moment. The same happens today with manual labour which is still carried out in production lines.

Another feature of such manual jobs was that it was obvious as to when the task was finished, as the result could be observed. The shepherd knew when sheering had finished, the same for the farmer when he had brought in the wheat harvest.

Drucker says that, unlike what happens in manual labour, in knowledge work the task is not quite so obvious, nor when it is completed. Let’s take for example, the typical email we open again and again without ever deciding to work on it. Usually this is because we know that there is something to be done, but we are not quite sure what exactly, nor when it will be done. This lack of definition characterises this new way of working. For instance, when is a sales proposal finished? A presentation? Or even an email to a client?

From the above, it can be deduced that in knowledge work, to be able to undertake the work, it must be defined beforehand, that is to say, identify what exactly must be done and what must occur before it can be said to be completed. Once the work and when it is deemed complete have been defined clearly, performing the tasks or tasks ensuing is little different from any other manual labour.

For example, if I have to prepare a sales presentation for a client, I will have to decide what to include in the presentation, what data, what graphics, in which order and more. What product data will cause a greater impact? What should I tell the client about the competition? How do I audiovisually support the message I want to transmit? Once all this is decided, typing text and inserting photos is a manual task of little value, anyone can do it. In fact not so far off in the future, this job will probably be done by machines. The value of the presentation resides in the knowledge we applied when deciding on what to do and how to do it, not in the actual manual task of doing it.

In contrast with everything so far, the educational system still does not teach us how to perform in this new kind of work. Nobody explains to us that our work now consists of defining the work. To do this work effectively and efficiently, time and effort must be invested beforehand into thinking and deciding what to do and what to leave alone, what we have to think about and also decide in which order, with which tools and under what circumstances.

Productivity in knowledge work

As a result of the above, individuals and organizations are suffering from growing levels of stress, without this leading into significant improvements in productivity. Ignorance among some individuals in managerial positions continues to confuse productivity with more hours of work, more presence in the office and greater wage moderation. The recipe of more work and less salary undeniably succeeds in boosting productivity when we are talking of manual labour, but fails drastically when applied to knowledge work.

The solution to problems rarely comes from doing more of the same. Instead, new things must be tried out. The senseless frenzy organizations are subject to in an absurd rat race to “do for the sake of doing”, should give way to “do less to do better”. Obsession should be substituted for results, since in knowledge work, as Peter Drucker points out, productivity is rarely the outcome of quantity. In contrast the value of work in knowledge work comes from thinking and deciding better, not from doing more. Said differently, if you are a knowledge worker, you are basically paid to think.


2015 José Miguel Bolívar – Some rights reserved

José Miguel Bolívar

José Miguel Bolívar es consultor artesano y nodo de OPTIMA LAB, una red productiva que ayuda a personas y organizaciones a ser más efectivas para lograr sus resultados por medio del aprendizaje basado en la experiencia y nuevas metodologías centradas en las personas. Licenciado en Psicología Social y Análisis Político por la U.C.M. y máster en RRHH por el Centro de Estudios Garrigues, José Miguel acumula una amplia experiencia como directivo en entornos profesionales altamente competitivos como HP o Life Technologies.

José Miguel Bolívar (@jmbolivar) is a craft consultant, ICF coach, lecturer, researcher and speaker and author of the blog Óptima Infinito, which he has been writing since 2008 on innovation in productivity and GTD methodology. Graduated in Social Psychology and Political Analysis from the Complutense University in Madrid, and holds a master’s degree in HR from the Centro de Estudios Garrigues in Spain. Jose Miguel has broad management experience in highly competitive environments like HP or Life Technologies. Currently as a craft consultant and coach, he continues to work to increase competiveness in organizations by improving individual and collective productivity among the workforce.

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