Knowledge and Information Workers: Who Are They?
by Colin White
Originally published October 29, 2008
I recently wrote a white paper1 that examined the frustration of users in finding the information they need to do their jobs. This frustration was highlighted in a 2007 Accenture survey2 of 1,000 middle managers that showed managers spend up to 2 hours a day looking for information and that more than 50% of the information they find has no value to them.
The hypothesis of the white paper was that many users have problems finding information because the data discovery and analysis tools provided by vendors often assume, incorrectly, that the user has a detailed working knowledge of the business data involved, knows where to find it and is able to use fairly sophisticated software tools for finding and using the business data they require.
Data and business analysts who work with computers and business data throughout their working day may have a good working knowledge of corporate data and software used to process that data, but the majority of users do not. This is why business intelligence (BI) tools are used only by a fraction of users that could benefit from them and also why improving usability is a key focus area at present for BI vendors.
When I started writing the paper I used the expression less experienced users to describe those employees that use information to help them do their jobs, but information is not the sole focus of their role in the organization. This expression was not only slightly derogatory, but also vague. I researched other expressions I could use instead, and finally used the term information worker to describe those employees that use information in their jobs, and then categorized those employees as either information consumers or information producers. I’ll define these latter two terms in a moment, but first I want to explore the term information worker.
Researching the Terms
While looking for other expressions to use in place of less experienced users, I visited the websites of leading BI vendors such as Business Objects, Cognos, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP to see what terminology they used. There was a general lack of consistency in terminology usage by these vendors, especially when it came to terms such as data, information and knowledge; but, in general, most of the vendors used the term information worker or knowledge worker, or a combination of the two. In fact, many vendors sometimes used both terms in the same document. IBM tended to prefer knowledge worker, whereas Microsoft used primarily information worker.
What struck me was that none of the vendors did a good job of defining different types of knowledge/information workers or their requirements from an information-handling viewpoint. More research was therefore required if I was to define these terms accurately.
During my research, Robert Eve at Composite Software (who was the sponsor of the paper I was writing) pointed out that Peter Drucker coined the term knowledge worker in a business context as the antonym of manual laborer.
Given this, it would be reasonable to assume that an information worker (that is someone who works with information) is a type of knowledge worker. I believe there is a difference between information and knowledge, as there is between data and information, but that is a topic for another article.
An interesting piece of research I found regarding the needs of knowledge workers was an IBM Systems Journal article entitled “Ethnographic Study of Collaborative Knowledge Work,” (Volume 45, Number 4, 2006). To quote the introduction to this article:
The IBM Journal study identifies two types of knowledge workers: business user and power user:
These are fairly standard definitions, but the article is worth reading for how these two types of users carry out their jobs.
I found another article on this topic in a 2005 blog entry by Microsoft’s Mark Bower entitled “What’s in a Name? The Information Worker, the Knowledge Worker and the Structured Task Worker.”
The Microsoft article considers a knowledge worker to be a type of information worker:
I think this categorization scheme is confusing. The skills of the knowledge worker in this scheme are broadly equivalent to those of IBM’s power user. However, I don’t consider middle and senior managers (the examples given in the definition) to be power users. Also, defining a knowledge worker as a subtype of information worker is not consistent with Peter Drucker’s original definition.
I think you can see from just this short discussion how difficult it is to define the roles of information users in organizations, to give those roles meaningful names, and to clearly define the information needs and tools for each role.
I decided not to use the term knowledge worker in my paper given the origin of the name and the way it is (mis)used today. Instead, I chose to use the term information worker and to break information workers into two types: information consumers and information producers.
Information consumers range from senior and middle managers to call center staff. A common characteristic of these information workers is that they do not use corporate data and IT information-handling tools throughout their working day. These types of users represent the bulk of the information workers in an organization, and it is these users that are unhappy with the capabilities they currently have for finding information. Information consumers are the equivalent of business users in the IBM Journal article mentioned earlier.
Information consumers need to discover information that enables them to do their jobs more efficiently and make more informed business decisions. Information discovery involves locating and retrieving information of interest, and then filtering and organizing it so that it is easy to navigate and explore. Some information consumers, such as business managers, may do some limited analysis of the discovered information, while others, such as call-center staff, just use the information as is.
Information producers create the information used by information consumers. In addition to using information creation and discovery tools, information producers also use analysis techniques to enhance, aggregate and report on information. Information analysis extends information discovery by enabling information producers to apply their knowledge and expertise to discovered information and enhance its value by putting it into a business context. Enhancing information in this way makes it easier and faster to use by information consumers in their jobs. Information consumers may do additional analysis of the information, but this is likely to be limited in scope.
Examples of information producers include BI specialists, and data and business analysts. For these skilled information workers, the discovery process is less difficult, compared with information
consumers, because they have a detailed understanding of the information they work with in their everyday jobs. These information workers find it relatively easily to locate and explore data in
corporate systems because they have a good knowledge of the data and its relationships to other applications. These users also have a thorough understanding of the meaning of the business
information that is encapsulated in corporate data. Information producers are the equivalent of power users in the IBM Journal article mentioned earlier.
This article is a starting point for defining the roles of information workers. One issue is that there are several types of information consumers. The skills and requirements of a call center representative are different from those of a senior manager (a VP of Sales, for example). The former is a pure information consumer, whereas the latter may also have some information producer skills. This is why information worker titles should be related to business and technology skills, and why job roles should be related to requirements. A mapping of skills to requirements would then complete the categorization scheme. More research and analysis is required, and this is why I invite your input on this topic.
I would like to thank Robert Eve of Composite Software for his input on the terms used in this article.
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