Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Do you know what knowledge work is?

Challenges and even major failures in large knowledge management initiatives prompt us to move the focus on individual level and to ask: What is knowledge work, really?

A master’s thesis was conducted in co-operation with Webropol with the aim at defining what knowledge work is, since that’s imperative for an in-depth and holistic understanding of knowledge economy.

Problem solving at the center
The thesis, done by Mr. Lauri Nurmilaukas at Aalto University School of Economics, Helsinki, Finland, defines problem solving as the most important task for any knowledge worker.

Peter F. Drucker and Fritz Machlup are the two major and influential thinkers who originally coined the term knowledge work in the US back in the 50’s, but conceptual development has been unsatisfactory.

In addition and in line with the basic function of problem solving, knowledge work requires a set of individual skills.

As the amount of information and knowledge has risen dramatically, practitioners have listed tools and ways to control and manage that. But from a more holistic perspective, this tool-driven view is too narrow. Instead, we must craft the skills from a cognitive and social basis.

One interesting concept is crowdsourcing or wisdom of the crowd, where the collective mind is wiser than the individual. There are intriguing studies showing that, for example, sales forecasting is more accurate made by group of independent people instead of conventional forecasting. But to leverage this, company needs both cognitive and social skills but also the right technological tools to make it.

The importance of attitude
Finally, certain attitudes are important to knowledge work and they are the last component of the definition of knowledge work.

In short, it is crucial to both have the attitude to learn, and the attitude to share knowledge. These attitudes are crucial and they should not be neglected as trivial. Especially knowledge sharing is something that we automatically assume to happen even too much, but this misconception is the source of failures of many corporate knowledge management initiatives.

To sum up, knowledge work is about solving problems with acquired and analysed information. A set of cognitive and social skills support in that, and attitudes of learning and sharing are the basis of all knowledge work. If companies are to leverage knowledge properly, they should not forget the most fundamental level of knowledge economy, the knowledge workers themselves.

Full thesis available (in Finnish) at http://hsepubl.lib.hse.fi/FI/ethesis/id/12558.

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