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Are All Employees Knowledge Workers?

110-BrownJ-DavisonL-HagelJ.jpgWe live in a world of haves and have nots. No, not the kind you might imagine. These people reside within our companies. We increasingly group the people in our firms into two classes: those who have knowledge and talent and, by implication, those who do not. This segmentation is misleading and damaging to firms in the long run.

Ask executives to identify the talent within their firm and many will focus on the top tiers of management. Often, they will include in this august group the "high potentials" being groomed for leadership roles. Sometimes, they will extend the boundaries to include "creative talent" or "knowledge workers". But then there is the rest of the workforce.

When talking about talent, many executives focus on what Richard Florida calls the "creative class": engineers, scientists, architects, educators, researchers, coders, artists and, more broadly, knowledge workers. Richard's pioneering work has gone a long way towards helping us understand the differing roles workers inhabit and how they contribute to economic growth and the evolution of culture. But his focus on the creative class unintentionally diminishes the potential contributions from other parts of the workforce.

When executives focus on "knowledge workers", they lose sight of the fact that even highly routinized jobs require improvisation and the use of judgment in ambiguous situations, especially if the goal is to drive performance to new levels. Many of these improvisations require interactions with one's fellow humans. Consider the company receptionist. When people walk in the door, or "dial 0 to reach an operator," the receptionist has to engage in a delicate and sophisticated "improvisational choreography," one in which professional competence has to come across through "interactional proficiency."

One recent research effort divided workers into "tacit" roles in which judgment is necessary to deal with ambiguity and "transactional" roles that are more transactional and routinized. But these efforts to categorize offer a deceptive simplicity and reinforce our tendency to diminish one group and focus on another. Even the most "routine" work is becoming far less so while our mindsets about our workforce continue to hold on to comfortable categories.

Daniel Pink, a writer on economy and society, recently wrote a provocative new book, A Whole New Mind. Among many other topics, Pink seeks to explain off-shoring and outsourcing trends over the past several decades. Through his lens, Western companies have been systematically stripping out routine "left brain" jobs and sending them offshore. His message was clear: we need to focus on more creative "right brain" jobs. While his emphasis on the growing importance of creative "right brain" work is spot on, Pink's perspective again reinforces an artificial distinction. The significant talent development and rapid performance improvement occurring in call centers and manufacturing facilities in India and China suggests that we may have been premature in dismissing this work as mindless and routine. When these workers are not part of organizations that dismiss them as second-class citizens and instead are part of firms that view them as core to creating growing value, they seem capable of very creative problem solving.

Perhaps the single greatest lesson from Japanese auto manufacturers is that all employees are ultimately knowledge workers and that the role of the firm is to both encourage and support problem-solving by all employees. The companies recognized that front line assembly workers on the factory floor - the antithesis of a conventional view of "knowledge workers"--were in fact essential to performance improvement for the broader firm. In encouraging and supporting problem-solving by these employees, the Japanese auto makers were able to give their work new meaning and unleashed much more passion on the factory floor. The lesson is clear: we undermine our potential for performance improvement with labels that draw artificial boundaries through our workforce.

If institutions and, indeed, nations are going to mobilize their entire workforce--a desirable goal considering the increasing returns effects that characterize collaboration curves — we need to abandon this artificial distinction and look to redefine even jobs that appear highly routine to embrace and extend their creative aspects. As we begin to realize that scalable efficiency cannot see us through a shift to near-constant disruption, we will begin to see that performance improvement by everyone counts, not just performance improvement for "knowledge workers." We will begin to redefine all jobs, especially those performed at the front line (or, in an image, that reveals our prevalent management mindset, the "bottom" of the institutional pyramid), in ways that facilitate problem solving, experimentation, and tinkering. This will foster more widespread performance improvement. Everyone, even the most unskilled worker, will be viewed as a critical problem-solver and knowledge-worker contributing to performance improvement.

But, there is another kind of boundary that inhibits talent development. With few exceptions, executives immediately narrow the scope of discussion to their own employees. Yet, if we take talent development seriously, we begin to realize that, in the words of Bill Joy, "There are always more smart people outside your company than within it." If we are serious about developing our own talent, we must find more ways to connect with and collaborate with all of those smart people outside our organization. We should aggressively create opportunities for people within our organization to work together with leading edge talent outside our organization so that both sides can develop their talent even more rapidly. In driving scalable learning, we must expand our horizons far beyond the boundaries of our own firm.

What about your own role? Does it have creative aspects that are less than fully recognized or acknowledged? In what ways could your employer help you develop the creative aspects of your job? Where would you draw the line in your company between creative talent and the rest of the workforce?

Lang Davison is the former executive director of the Deloitte Center for the Edge and was previously editor-in-chief of The McKinsey Quarterly. He is co-author of The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Set Big Things in Motion.

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