Educating the Knowledge Worker

A systems view of knowledge workers as doers, problem solvers, designers by Susan Leddick

Make no mistake," Iowa's Chief State School Officer Ted Stilwill told 200 administrators in Cedar Rapids last year, "the contract for public education has changed. Workforce development for the new economy is no longer an option but a requirement."

Stilwill's point captured the thinking of management guru Peter Drucker, who coined the term "knowledge worker" in his 1959 book Landmarks of Tomorrow. In a sweeping article for Atlantic Monthly in 1994, Drucker wrote: "[Knowledge workers] require a good deal of formal education and the ability to acquire and to apply theoretical and analytical knowledge. … they require a habit of continuous learning. … Education will become the center of the knowledge society, and the school its key institution."

But what do terms like "new economy" and "knowledge worker" really mean for practicing and prospective education leaders?

New Rules

Wall Street Journal editor Alan Murray, in his new book The Wealth of Choices, explains: "The new economy is one in which competition and choice have permeated every aspect of American life, including education. It is overwhelmingly about information: its creation, access to it, and its use to make informed choices."

Among several of his rules of the new economy, Murray offers this: "In the new economy you need to keep your mind active, open and engaged because, in the end, it's your best investment."

That statement doesn't seem to be anything new to educators, who have been talking about lifelong learning and writing it into their mission statements for years.

However, Murray is talking about something new when you consider the definition of knowledge worker we will develop here. In the new economy, knowledge—not labor, raw material or capital—is the key resource to be converted to goods and services. And public education plays a role in that new economic system.

Levels of Knowledge

When Drucker wrote about the knowledge worker, he emphasized specialized skills, manipulation of symbols and ideas, ability to acquire multiple "knowledges" that can be transferred from job to job, and utility or usefulness of the knowledge in a given context.

From a systems perspective, we offer a definition of the knowledge worker that includes three levels of knowledge work that have implications for education leaders. A system is a whole that cannot be divided into independent parts, and it is on this notion that our definition hinges. Even though the three kinds of knowledge workers can perform distinct or differentiated work, educators should see them as a whole, or integrated set.

* The Doer. The first level of knowledge work—the work of the Doers—is characterized by the repeated application of a single algorithm or operation. These knowledge workers, the largest group in the old economy, are skilled in the use of specialized tools and languages and must master specific content and skills.

Doers base their work on answering how questions. The file clerk, for instance, knows how to use the alphabet to organize files. Regardless of the setting or the stack of files to be organized, the file clerk applies that knowledge to guide her in her work. The computer operator who masters a given software program knows how to run it on a desktop PC, network or laptop. However, because the work is based on repeated application of a single operation, the computer operator is unable to adapt that algorithm to an unfamiliar or unique situation.

Practice is a key instructional component in preparing Doers, as is procedure or process. Assessment entails recall of key words, concepts, and principles along with performance demonstrations.

* The Problem Solver. The second level of knowledge work includes and builds on the aspects of the first one. These people will constitute the largest group of knowledge workers in the new economy.

In his book Systems Thinking: Managing Chaos and Complexity, Jamshid Gharajedaghi explains that the Problem Solver knows that no problem exists free of its context and is able to adjust solutions to match the context and to address exceptions that arise. Agility is critical to the work of Problem Solvers.

Problem Solvers base their work on answering why questions. They are pattern finders who are able to find similarities when faced with situations that appear different and can adapt the algorithms they have mastered. They are the troubleshooters who can tell you why your printer isn't working, intervene and get your document printed before the board meeting.

This level of knowledge work requires the procedural knowledge of the Doer plus the deep knowledge of the architecture and operating principles that were designed into the program or smart machine they are using.

Preparation, then, demands practice in multiple situations and opportunities to try out solutions and evaluate interventions in real time. Assessment yields itself to well-constructed rubrics that may entail several dimensions and levels of mastery.

* The Designer. The third level of knowledge work includes the two prior levels. Knowledge workers at this level will exist in smaller numbers in the new economy.

The Designer appreciates context also, but where the Problem Solver looks for similarities among differences, the Designer is also able to perceive critical differences among apparent similarities.

The Designer knows not only how to solve existing problems with known algorithms, but also how to formulate unknown problems. (Our colleague Russell Ackoff long has lamented that public education gives very little opportunity for students to learn to do this important work, settling instead for canned solutions of known problems.)

After formulating the problem out of the chaotic mess, the Designer creates new and unique algorithms, relying on the powers of abstract thinking to create and test new solutions to the new problems.

Fred Smith, founder of Federal Express, was a Designer, even as a college student. His hub-based solution to the previously unknown desire for rapid delivery of parcels worldwide was ballyhooed and derided by the college professor who read Smith's class project report. And no wonder. The professor knew only the known problems and known solutions. As a knowledge worker of the second level, he did not value innovation and design, the essence of the third level.

Gharajedaghi explains that the Designer knows that success changes the game and is continuously looking to define the new game. Preparation at this level means exposure to real situations without known solutions and time to develop designs and to approximate them. It often means working with a team of others who may offer challenging perspectives. It does not mean working with a team of others, each of whom has a single, known, "right" answer.

Assessment relies on rubrics established on the principles of design, ethical standards and perhaps other dimensions.

An Integrated System

Preparing knowledge workers will require differentiated assessment, curriculum and instruction. At the same time, these differentiated elements must be closely integrated, managed as a whole in a way that will foster student choice and various levels of mastery.

Questions about what should be taught where, at what levels of the education system, with what assessment criteria and with what access mechanisms will be critical for the entire education system. No single level will be able to issue a unilateral decision.

It's the creation of all three kinds of knowledge workers that makes a strong workforce for the new economy and the integration of all aspects of the education system that makes it possible.

Since the new economy depends so heavily on digital technology, the second level of knowledge worker will be more important than the first level. The Doer was able to function effectively in an era of automated machines, but will not be so successful in a workplace that relies on smart machines. As a result, secondary schools may need to take responsibility for developing the Problem Solvers while colleges shift their work from preparing Problem Solvers to preparing Designers.

Providing the settings for the three levels of knowledge workers to develop will require more and different partnerships between schools and the workplace—both public and private. These partnerships may expand well beyond the local community through distance learning technology, implying that education leaders must be as well or better informed about what is happening outside the school district as what lies inside it.

Staff development and staff selection will be critical to simultaneous integration and differentiation of curriculum, instruction and assessment. Schools will need teachers who understand the three levels of knowledge work and who can appreciate the value of each. Standards-based approaches so popular today may tend toward lower levels of the three we propose.

Innovation and design must become a part of all public education systems. Mantras such as "all children can learn" and goals such as "all children reading at grade level by second grade" are necessary but not sufficient to create the levels of knowledge workers the new economy wants and needs to continue to increase standard of living and quality of life.

Applied Knowledge

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton assert in their book The Knowing-Doing Gap: How Smart Companies Turn Knowledge Into Action that in the new economy "competitive advantage comes from being able to do something others can't do. … The trick is in turning the knowledge acquired into organization action."

As a school leader, can you turn the definition of three levels of knowledge work into action? Can you develop education programs that will be valued by the community your district and schools serve, that will help students develop both their competency and their joy in learning, and that will create exciting places for teachers, administrators, and other staff to become high-level knowledge workers themselves?

Susan Leddick is consulting partner and marketing director with Interact Inc., based in Bryn Mawr, Pa., which consults on organization design and improvement. She can be reached at 552 Triple Tree Road, Bozeman, Mont. 59715. E-mail: susanleddk@aol.com. Jamshid Gharajedaghi is CEO of Interact Inc. They, along with a consortium of education service agencies, are creating the Center for Interactive Design of Learning Systems.