Knowledge work can be differentiated from other forms of work by its emphasis on "non-routine" problem solving that requires a combination of convergent and divergent thinking. But despite the amount of research and literature on knowledge work, there is no succinct definition of the term.
Mosco and McKercher (2007) outline various viewpoints on the matter. They first point to the most narrow and defined definition of knowledge work, such as Florida's view of it as specifically, "the direct manipulation of symbols to create an original knowledge product, or to add obvious value to an existing one", which limits the definition of knowledge work to mainly creative work. They then contrast this view of knowledge work with the notably broader view which includes the handling and distribution of information, arguing that workers who play a role in the handling and distribution of information add real value to the field, despite not necessarily contributing a creative element. Thirdly, one might consider a definition of knowledge work which includes, "all workers involved in the chain of producing and distributing knowledge products", which allows for a very broad and inclusive categorization of knowledge workers. It should thus be acknowledged that the term "knowledge worker" can be quite broad in its meaning, and is not always definitive in who it refers to.
An architect is an example of a typical "knowledge worker" Knowledge workers spend 38% of their time searching for information. They are also often displaced from their bosses, working in various departments and time zones or from remote sites such as home offices and airport lounges. As businesses increase their dependence on information technology, the number of fields in which knowledge workers must operate has expanded dramatically.
Even though they sometimes are called "gold collars", because of their high salaries, as well as because of their relative independence in controlling the process of their own work, current research shows that they are also more prone to burnout, and very close normative control from organizations they work for, unlike regular workers.
Managing knowledge workers can be a difficult task. Most knowledge workers prefer some level of autonomy, and do not like being overseen or managed. Those who manage knowledge workers are often knowledge workers themselves, or have been in the past. Projects must be carefully considered before assigning to a knowledge worker, as their interest and goals will affect the quality of the completed project. Knowledge workers must be treated as individuals.
Loo (2017) using empirical findings from knowledge workers of two sectors – advertising and IT software sectors – and from three developed countries – England, Japan and Singapore – investigated a specific type of knowledge workers – the creative knowledge workers - as opposed to the generic ones as indicated above. The findings from the analysed empirical data offer a complex picture of this type of work in the knowledge economy where workers use a combination of creativity, abilities, talents, skills, and knowledge towards the eventual production of products and services. This investigation (Loo, 2017) identified a definition of creative knowledge work from four specific roles of copywriting, creative directing, software programming, and systems programme managing in advertising and IT software. The manner in which each of the creative applications is applied is dependent on the role(s) of the creative workers. This type of work includes a complex combination of skill sets or ‘creative knowledge work (ckw) capacities.’ "Creative knowledge workers use a combination of creative applications to perform their functions/roles in the knowledge economy including anticipatory imagination, problem solving, problem seeking, and generating ideas and aesthetic sensibilities" (Loo, 2017, p. 138).
Taking aesthetic sensibility as an example, for a creative director, it is a visual imagery whether still or moving via a camera lens and for a software programmer, it is the innovative technical expertise in which the software is written.
Other sector-related creative applications include an emotional connection in the advertising sector and the power of expression and sensitivity in the IT software sector. Terms such as ‘general sponge,’ ‘social chameleon,’ and ‘in tune with the zeitgeist’ were identified which the creative knowledge workers used to identify emotionally with their potential audience in ad making. From the IT software perspective, creative knowledge workers used a ‘sensitivity’ creative application to ascertain business intelligence and as a measurement of information, the software worker might obtain from various parties (Loo, 2017).
Creative workers also require abilities and aptitudes. Passion for one's job was generic to the roles investigated in the two sectors and for copywriters, this passion was identified with fun, enjoyment, and happiness in carrying out the role alongside attributes such as honesty (regarding the product), confidence, and patience in finding the appropriate copy. As with the other roles, a creative worker in software programming requires team working and interpersonal skills in order to communicate effectively with those from other disciplinary backgrounds and training. As regards the managerial roles of creative directing and systems programme managing, the abilities to create a vision for the job in hand, to convince, strategize, execute, and plan towards the eventual completion of the given task (such as a campaign or a software) are necessary capacities (Loo, 2017).
Linking these abilities and capacities are collaborative ways of working, which the findings from this study have identified. The two modes of working ranged from individual to collaborative where a worker might be doing either or both depending on the specific activity. The abilities to traverse between these two work modes alongside the relevant creative application are part of the complexity of this style of working.
Creative workers also require an understanding of various forms of knowledge (Loo, 2017). These are related to disciplines such as those from the humanities (e.g., literature), and the creative arts such as painting and music (e.g., popular and classical varieties). Creative knowledge workers also require technical-related knowledge such as mathematics and computer sciences (e.g., software engineering) and physical sciences (e.g., physics) though there are distinctions in the two sectors. In the IT software sector, technical knowledge of software languages is especially significant for programmers as ascertained in the findings. However, the degree of technical expertise may be less for a programme manager, as only knowledge of the relevant software language is necessary to understand the issues for communicating with the team of developers and testers. The technical know-how for a creative director relates only to the understanding of the possibilities of technologies (such as graphics and typography) in order to capitalise on the technical wizardry. The technical specialists are then required to execute the creative director's vision.
The above types of disciplinary knowledge may appear in explicit formats, which can be learnt from formal programmes at teaching institutions such as higher education and professional institutions alongside other skills and abilities relating to presentation, communication, and team working. As ascertained in the findings, there was other non-disciplinary knowledge, which was not explicit but tacit in nature. Interviewees mentioned tacit experiences from their past work and life experiences, which they used to draw upon in performing their creative knowledge work. This form of knowledge was harnessed collectively as a team (of an advertising campaign or a software programme). This collaborative approach to working, especially with roles such as creative directing and software programme managing, requires tacit knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses and the needs and wants of the related team members (knowledge of psychology). This form of working may occur within the organisation, as a stand-alone group for a specific project in the organisation, or as a sub-contracted team outside the organisation. Within this role, creative knowledge workers may perform their activities individually and/or collectively as part of their contribution to the project. The findings also brought out some characteristics of collaborative working such as the varieties of stakeholders such as sub-contracted groups, and the indirect relationships between clients, workers (of an ad agency), and consumers (Loo, 2017).
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