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Examining The Future of Knowledge Work

Date Posted: Wednesday, 17 September 2014 18:52
Posted By: Kerry Butters

“The definition of an employee is on the cusp of a transformation. Employee attitudes and expectations for flexibility will influence where, when and how people work.” – Tim Hansen, Intel Corporation, October 2012

Around 2 years ago, the paper that the above quote relates to was published by Intel. The paper sets out what the rapidly changing technology landscape will mean when it comes to how we work in the future and this is something that we’re already beginning to see take place. Knowledge worker

Most change is gradual though and it’s no different in this case. Companies are adopting different mind sets as well as technologies and with the advent of cloud computing, we’ve swiftly seen the workplace adapt to encompass different manners of working. For example, just five years ago, if you wanted to work remotely, then this had to be done using a VPN if you were to connect to the office. Now, cloud has enabled numerous ways that this can be done, such as through the company CMS, or hosted virtual desktops.

BYOD again was unheard of five years ago, and yet now an increasing number of employers allow workers to connect to the office using their own devices and manage these devices on the intranet through Mobile Device Management (MDM) software.

More People, Less Physical Mobility

Hansen sets out the theory that, due to the explosion in world population that’s about to take place, by 2050 we will have such limited physical space that “our ability to move physically from one location to another will become increasingly complex and time consuming.” This of course means that the organisation that dreams up innovative ways to offer teleworking to its employees will no doubt be the winner. However, it’s worth pointing out that the research points to this being increasingly the case in the US and Europe, with no mention of Australia, most likely because of the sheer size of the country.

However, what is and will continue to be global is the skills gap. It’s likely that in years to come, we’ll have to look at both ends of the age spectrum when it comes to filling jobs.

‘Knowledge’ jobs will be the most difficult positions to fill and the most in demand. Currently, it’s estimated that these are growing at a rate two and a half times faster than transactional jobs, which demand fewer conceptual duties.

According to Hansen, “as a result of the expected impact of technological innovation, knowledge workers will have an unprecedented opportunity to shape the future and influence societal change.”

That’s a pretty big deal.

What Does This Mean to the Modern Organisation?

Essentially, it means that those organisations that foster knowledge workers will eventually win out. As it’s highly likely that employees’ attitudes will shift in the coming decades, it’s necessary for employers to recognise this and prepare for a future in which the employer/employee dynamic will be considerably different. 

For example, there already exists indications that employees of all ages will demand more flexibility in the workplace, so that they can pursue other activities which are valuable to them. This is especially true of knowledge workers, as they have a tendency to shift between roles in any given working week. Of course, this will depend on the organisation that they work for, but it seems that a business that is willing to show social responsibility and allow themselves to become a clearly defined people-centric organisation will most likely be the ones that hold on to such valuable staff.

Satya Nadella’s Vision

Whilst this is future gazing to a certain extent, these changes are already taking place in many organisations. The idea of a people centric organisation is something that has been reasonably widely discussed and was the first concept that new Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella talked about on taking up his new role.

Whilst he discussed ‘people-centric IT’, the principles are the same and are all concerned with empowering the individual. In this instance, Nadella sees the concept as an environment where “the end user gets the experience they want and IT gets the control they want”, which is nothing especially new, when it comes down to it.

"The whole idea of people-centricity is to accept that a group of 10,000 people are 10,000 consumers who are used to driving their own world," Clive Longbottom, founder of IT advisory firm Quocirca told The Register. "You have to let the user work in the way that they want."

People Centric Organisations

In an organisation, the concept is no different, you simply give the employees the tools to do their jobs and the freedom to have a voice and contribute in a meaningful way to the company. In turn, people are much more willing to go the extra mile for the company that employs them and those that are capable of becoming a knowledge worker are more likely to learn how to do so.

Additionally, those who are already in knowledge worker positions will be more likely to stay with the organisation and help it to grow.

Microsoft’s vision incorporates this idea. It wants to enable users by focusing on devices and resources, allowing for BYOD and constant access to company resources, whilst unifying their environment.

"It's about the employee's identity, and who they are in active directory. It's what groups they existed in. It's what relationships and permissions they have," Andrew Conway, senior director in product marketing group, Microsoft UK said. "Some of the research shows that users have 5-7 internet-connected devices, and so we provide a set of tooling for IT to deliver everything that those people need across all the different device types."

It’s also about the constant blurring of the lines between work and home, so that people’s lives and identities become more integrated and it does seem to be the future. Coming back to knowledge workers, if they are constantly connected to the workplace, then it does seem that it would be easier to learn and most importantly, to use that to the organisation’s advantage and to further enable knowledge in other, less senior staff.

The organisation that looks to the future and models itself in the people-centric model is likely to be the one that will have the most knowledge workers and in turn, be agile, productive and innovative.

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