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The future of knowledge workers, Part 2

This is the second half of a two-part article that explores the findings of a recent study on the future of the knowledge worker. For Part I, click through to KMWorld Magazine.

The purpose of the research was to look at longer-term trends in 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.

The study was sponsored by The George Washington University (GWU) and the Institute for Knowledge and Innovation at GWU. Some KMWorld readers were part of the sampling population and accessed the survey through a posting on the KMWorld Web site. Several of the main trends identified in the survey are described in this article.

Top type of future knowledge work

Given the unstructured nature of knowledge work, the concept of "one size fits all" does not really apply here. Borrowing from a four-part work segmentation theme by Tom Davenport (Thinking for a Living, 2005), the survey asked what types of knowledge work are likely to become the most highly valued in the organization over the next 10 to 12 years. Collaborative work (project design team, global consultancy, etc.) received the highest ranking by the survey respondents. That was consistent with the high interest expressed throughout the survey in increasing collaborative support capabilities. Expert judgment work (research scientist, legal specialist, etc.) ranked a distant second, followed by process-oriented work (financial reporting, quality assurance, etc.) and transaction work (tech support center, billing inquiry, etc.).

Most valuable future skills

Over the next 10 to 12 years, team/collaborative skills will be the capabilities that organizations value the most for knowledge workers who are 25 years old or younger. Collaboration capabilities are essential for workers with little experience so they can learn and contribute through others in team/community participation.

The survey takers were asked to select from a list of 10 different skills and expertise possibilities. The top valued expertise of team/collaboration skills was followed closely by specialized technical expertise, which organizations indicated is a primary way that the younger worker can add immediate value to team and community initiatives. The remaining valued capabilities, in order of importance, were: analytics/ modeling, entrepreneurial skills, systems thinking and analysis, project management, strategic thinking, knowledge management, international experience and general management. PDF of charts may be viewed here.

For the 26- to 40-year-old workers who, in many cases, will form the core of the next-generation leadership, the organization would value highest the capabilities that enable major responsibility for the organization’s operations, strategy and overall performance. Those capabilities for that age group include project management as the highest skill and expertise, followed by strategy and strategic thinking, and specialized expertise. The remaining responses, in order, were for team/ collaboration, systems thinking and analysis, general management skills, knowledge management, entrepreneurial, international experience and analytics/modeling.

Top future technology investments

The top priority for future technology investment to support performance improvement for the 25-year-old worker or younger will be collaboration tools. That is consistent with organizational views that collaborative work will be the most valuable type of future work and that collaborative skills will be the most highly valued skill set of the younger worker. Technology investments will also be directed toward enabling improved communication, information access and mobile work through enhanced e-mail, search and portals infrastructure, virtual workspace tools and information processing tools for visualization, expertise location and business intelligence.

For the 26- to 40-year-old workers, the top technology investment priorities will also go toward collaboration and e-mail, search and portals infrastructure. The second tier of technology investments for the older workers, however, would be to enable better decision-making and leadership support through content analysis and sense-making tools and business intelligence capabilities. For both age groups, intelligent agent software and machine learning tools received little interest as technology investments by the survey organizations, even though ongoing update/enhancement of worker skills was projected to be a continuing challenge over the next 10 to 12 years.

Eco/green impact on knowledge work

As the eco/green movement continues to gain momentum and visibility in society, organizations are presenting a mixed view of what the major impact will likely be on the workplace over the next 10 to 12 years. The top two survey responses were a tie between two different potential impacts. Organizations believe one implication will be a significant expansion and support of virtual work, which reinforces the era of mobile work and the adoption of technology that enables work anywhere. On the other hand, an equal number of organizations foresee and expect little or no change from the current situation in the workplace, which reflects the realities of resistance to change and the requirement by some organizations of a physical presence in the workplace.

In a somewhat surprising rating, the professionals and executives who took the survey anticipated little or no increase in car-pooling and public transportation as a result of the eco/green movement.

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 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.

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