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The future of knowledge workers, Part 1

In times of economic turmoil, taking a look into the future toward 2020 might seem like an academic exercise at best. On the other hand, understanding what organizational strategies executives and professionals believe are needed to ensure a viable future is critical to identifying opportunities on the horizon as well as challenges before they become insurmountable. The purpose of this research was to peer into those longer-term trends to determine how organizations will likely try to provide a compelling work environment that attracts, retains and leverages the best of the knowledge workers of the future.

This study on the future of the knowledge worker was sponsored by The George Washington University (GWU) and the Institute for Knowledge and Innovation at GWU. Some KMWorld readers were part of the sample population and accessed the survey through a posting on the KMWorld Web site. Some of the main trends identified in the survey are included in the following:

Critical thinking for the future. The majority of professionals and executives who took the survey indicated that their organizations will prepare proactively for the future by building scenarios and responses to emerging trends that could impact them. A significant number of organizations, however, are heading into the future much less prepared because they have no standard or consistent approach to detect and evaluate future impacts, or, worse, will likely wait until the trend becomes a distinct disruption and requires focused recovery action.

Retirements and the loss of knowledge. The well documented, coming baby boomer retirement wave is one such important future impact facing many organizations. The overwhelming challenge organizations expect to confront is the loss of organizational knowledge through those retirements. Interestingly, the loss of critical knowledge far outweighed concern about potential operational impact, possible cultural/social disruptions or the task of mounting an aggressive recruiting program to attract replacements.

Filling knowledge worker gaps. Although knowledge loss is predicted to be a huge challenge, programs to retain retirees or delay their retirement did not score high on the action list. Instead, the professionals and executives surveyed indicated that they would likely fill future critical talent gaps by relying on an aggressive recruiting program for new employees. A significant number of organizations, however, are likely not to hire new employees at all, but will instead outsource the work, use fewer workers overall or fill the organizational needs through the use of specialized "for hire services.

Recruiting/attracting strategies. To fill those future critical talent gaps, executives and professionals indicated that they are likely to advertise and promote a range of organizational advantages (in addition to competitive compensation and benefits) to attract and recruit the necessary professional and managerial talent needed for their future work force. The survey also asked if their strategies would be different for recruiting two different age groups, those just coming into the workplace (25 years old or younger) and a more experienced worker group (26 to 40 year olds).

The top recruiting strategy picked for both age groups was an emphasis on flex telework/telecommute programs that reflect the era of the mobile work force. However, that’s where the similarity ended. For the younger workers, cultural diversity/empathy was the second- most important organizational recruiting advantage, indicating a response to the next-generation worker’s awareness of the benefits provided by a multicultural workplace. Additional recruiting advantages will include emphasis on opportunities for personal growth through mentor/coaching programs, advanced degree support and integrated life/work programs.

For the 26- to 40-year-old group of recruits, the second-most important recruiting advantage was job security, which recognizes the likely important role of home and family life for their stage in life. Other advantages to be promoted included integrated life/work programs, personal services, cultural diversity/empathy, ethical culture, mentor/coaching programs, community service programs and eco/green initiatives.

Knowledge retention strategies. Knowledge loss is anticipated to be a significant retirement issue, but it is also expected to be a continuing challenge for other employees who leave as well. The top knowledge retention strategy for younger workers (25 years or younger) who leave the organization is likely to be the education and training of replacement employment (which suggests that many organizations feel that there will not be a lot of critical knowledge to be retained). On the other hand, many other organizations felt that there will be valuable know-how worth capturing, and would use resources like communities of practice and professional networks, documentation processes and work process knowledge capture through advanced software. There were few or no plans for engineering out the work or changing processes as a replacement for retention strategies.

For the 26- to 40-year-old worker, the top strategies for retaining workers’ knowledge when they leave their job will be through communities of practice and professional networks, followed by documentation processes, the education and training of replacement employment, and the capture of work process knowledge through advanced software. There was little or no interest in engineering out the work or changing processes in place of retention strategies.

Who took the survey? One hundred and twenty-five professionals and executives participated in the survey, which was conducted in mid-2008. Three-quarters of the respondents were from North America and one-quarter from Europe and South America. The survey group was highly senior level, with almost half consisting of executives and directors/managers. A wide range of organizational sizes were represented with more than one-third reporting 25,000 or more employees. Approximately two-thirds were from business and one-third from government organizations. The 35-part questionnaire was developed through interviews with KM thought leaders, KM publishers, academic leaders, business/government professionals and survey design experts. 

You may download the two charts accompanying this story. 

Part 2 of this article will appear in a future issue.

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