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What is a knowledge worker?

March 23rd, 2012 by Graham Attwell

I was at a meeting earlier this week discussing our ideas for a project using mobile devices for work based learning in the construction industry (see previous blog entry). We have emphasised the importance of interaction with physical objects in the workplace, which I think has generally been underestimated or even ignored in most elearning research and applications, at least outside the e-science domain.

We were asked whether the ideas we were putting forward were applicable to knowledge workers.

According to Wikipedia:

Knowledge workers in today’s workforceare individuals who are valued for their ability to act and communicate with knowledge within a specific subject area. They will often advance the overall understanding of that subject through focused analysis, design and/or development. They use research skills to define problems and to identify alternatives. Fueled by their expertise and insight, they work to solve those problems, in an effort to influence company decisions, priorities and strategies. What differentiates knowledge work from other forms of work is its primary task of “non-routine” problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent, and creative thinking (Reinhardt et al., 2011).[1] Also, despite the amount of research and literature on knowledge work there is yet to be a succinct definition of the term (Pyöriä, 2005)

I am not sure that the concept of knowledge workers is very helpful. In reality many jobs today are requiring research skills and non routine problem solving as well as creative thinking. And that goes well beyond people who spend most of their days working in front of a computer or what used to be called ‘white collar’ jobs.

Indeed one of the big issues in the building and construction industry appears to be rapidly increasing needs for higher levels of skills and knowledge, driven largely by new (and especially green) technologies and work processes. Traditional course based further training does not scale well – and may not be particularly effective when not linked to workplace practice.

Proving this ‘hypothesis’ is not so easy and of course leads us back to the issue of what constitutes knowledge in a work based context. But in November last year I attended a fascinating (at least to me 🙂 ) seminar hosted by the LLAKES project at the Institute of Education in London where Any Dickerson  discussed work undertaken for the UKCES on:

the development of a new and comprehensive set of detailed, multi-dimensional occupational skills profiles for the UK by combining the US-based Occupational Information Network (O*NET) system with the UK Standard Occupational Classification (SOC2010). This enables the multi-dimensional O*NET system to be used to generate comprehensive occupational skills profiles for the UK, providing a much more detailed depiction of skills utilisation, and changes in utilisation, than is currently available for the UK.

The project report “Developing occupational skills profiles for the UK : a feasibility study” provides detailed information about the methodology and findings. And I suspect, with a little more detailed analysis, it should be possible to draw some conclusions about changing skills and knowledge components in different occupations.

Why is this important? Obviously it has implications for economies and employment. But from the point of view of teaching and learning – and especially developing learning opportunities – we should be training for the future not the past or even the present. To do this we need a detailed understanding of what is happening in different occupations. And we need to get beyond policy rhetoric about the knowledge economy and knowledge workers.

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