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.
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.
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.
- All Hail the Rise of the Boundary Worker, Wyatt Urmey, Manager, IBM Collaboration Solutions introduces the term.
- Rise of Boundary Workers Infographic from IBM