How Relevant is the ‘Boundary Worker’ Idea?

IBM has suggested this new term, the Boundary Worker, as a middle point between a service worker and a knowledge worker.  Is this really something new, or just the natural progress of a all workers in today’s hyper connected world?

The Boundary Worker


The boundary is between knowledge workers, and (presumably un-knowledgeable) service workers.  The example is the IT-enhanced service person who can look things up for you and get you an answer real quick.  Imagine a person wandering the store floor ready to answer questions, carrying a tablet or glasses, and prepared to respond to your queries.

The idea is that these people a “not really knowledge workers” — but they don’t have to be.  They just need to be good at looking stuff up.  The idea is that this new technology can take a routine job, and make it more knowledge-like.  It can also take an unskilled person, and allow them to act somewhat in a knowledge worker way.

Is That Really Knowledge Work?

The misguided stereotype is that knowledge workers are people with a tremendous pile of knowledge, like a university professor, or a librarian.  Knowledge work is not about being knowledgeable.  Knowledge workers may not have extensive knowledge at all.  Instead, they have expertise in the particular thing they do.  So it is a mistake to think that access to knowledge is the essence of what makes a knowledge worker.

Knowledge work has always been about tacit knowledge, also known as skill or expertise.  These are things that are not made explicit.  For example, learning the best judge to submit a particular kind of legal case to, is not the kind of thing that anyone would write down, even if you could be sure of exactly how to formulate the statement.  How to capture the best emotion in a line of text is something that a good writer/editor might be able to do, but you could never look this up on the web.  Knowledge workers internalize their experience, and use that to make decisions that an inexperienced person can not.

Another way to think about this is the difference between “book learning” and experience.  Someone with book learning may have the knowledge, but has not internalized the meaning of that knowledge.  The best a boundary worker could hope for is rapid book learning.  Connectivity to information, might make you informed, but will not make you any more like a knowledge worker.

Attractive Idea

You can see the attraction:  you don’t need to get someone who is actually knowledgeable about your products.  Just hire anyone who is friendly, give them a tablet to walk around with, and you have an inexpensive replacement.

I completely agree that providing connectivity to workers allows them to do more with less training.  My contention is with the inflated concept that this somehow transforms the job into a new category, and thinking that communications can somehow make you into a kind of knowledge worker.  This confuses the idea of a “knowledgeable worker” with a knowledge worker.

My Take

Service people on the floor a store ready to help with whatever might come are, and have always been, knowledge workers.  Being constantly connected will make them better at what they do.  The transformation is something that all knowledge workers are doing.  In a meeting, need to know what the market size for a product is, someone looks it up.   Need to know where a particular person worked in the past: look it up.  Today, I was not sure how to spell a particular associate’s name, so I looked him up on Google.  We are all becomeing more connected.

It is only natural that professionals will want to leverage the latest information and communications technology (ICT) to expand their reach.  Knowledge workers everywhere are become more attached to the web:  for looking up explicit knowledge, but also for communicating to other experts the maintain a relationship with.

The same is true with routine workers.  Even the most routine jobs (for example factor floor workers) are being enhanced with ICT to monitor and respond to a greater variety of inputs.  Being more knowledgeable does not make you a knowledge worker.

The boundary worker is not a new category, but instead just a reflection of the trend to actually use connectivity on the job.  It is a natural progression in all fields of work.   It is internalized expertise that qualifies you as a knowledge worker, and wearing Google Glass will not in any way change that.


4 thoughts on “How Relevant is the ‘Boundary Worker’ Idea?

  1. Keith, I agree with you in general. I see a knowledge worker as applying some judgment and making decisions that cannot be reduced to a formal logic expression. Access to information improves their performance.
    There may be a place for a “boundary worker” as an aid to an executive who wants answers but doesn’t want to take the time to find them. These have always existed as executive staff persons–that has little to do with the Internet except that it is a new tool.

    • Fred, good to hear from you. Thanks for comment! Your mention of the executive assistant brings to mind the British comedy “Yes, Prime Minister”. I can imagine it now — an updated version with Nigel Hawthorn wearing Google Glass and carrying a tablet. 🙂

  2. Keith: thank you for the great feedback and commentary on the idea I and my colleagues were thinking about at IBM.

    Your point about the difference between domain knowledge (expertise) vs. information knowledge (quick learning and searching) is important and perhaps one that we considered but perhaps didn’t outline as much as we should have. The idea in the back of my mind was the recent innovations by retailers like AMC, Zappos, Apple, who use mobile, social and real-time communications tools to rapidly find not just the right information to help a customer in need (whether in person or over the phone) but to ALSO (a) find the right expert, and (b) build their own expertise over time. By doing so, customers and prospects get better service, and service personnel feel more engaged with the customer as well as their company (and not some faceless, fake-named call center drone). It doesn’t necessarily make them domain experts but it does make them more than a smiley face: truly knowledgeable, as you say 🙂 The promise of this increased engagement is not just improved customer service, but a virtuous circle of reduced turnover which leads to increased internalization of their knowledge, which leads to a higher percentage of associates becoming concierges. Anyone who visits a high-end hotel like Fairmont can attest that concierges truly are domain experts.

    The concept of “boundary worker” can also apply to those at the boundary between the company and it’s customers: customer service, store representatives, sales, etc. Or any boundary, really, internal or otherwise. In this particular case we focused on customer service and in-store associates, but it can apply to any boundary between domains of expertise. Even factory floor workers, as you also indicated. But that’s for another blog post.

    • Excellent. You guys are really on the ball to detect and comment on my post! My apologies if this post came off as negative – not intentional, but I could not see another way to make the point. I believe your point is that workers can be so much more effective with these new kinds of always-connected technologies. I agree. I go further, and state they are a requirement: if you don’t learn how to use your smart phone to achieve this, you will be left behind. In that way, I don’t see it as a new category, but rather simply raising the table stakes for the existing categories. Routine workers must be enhanced, and knowledge workers must be enhanced. At the risk of sounding defensive, I spend a lot of time exploring the needs of the knowledge worker, and how those needs are quite distinct from routine workers. Adding a third category raises questions whether there is a third set of requirements. My answer is that there is not. There is predictable work, and unpredictable work. The boundary worker does not form a new category that is half-way predictable. This is all probably a bit more philosophical than practical, but to the people who follow my posts on knowledge work, this distinction is important.

      So, thanks for the comment! I like the infographic. I can agree that it is important that companies realize that using this always-connected technology can make dramatic improvement in certain job areas, and they need to start planning now how to roll out tablets and, yes, maybe Google Glass to information service personnel.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s