How can we Define a “Knowledge Worker”?
Only in the mid Nineties did the term “knowledge worker” find a wide use in the sociological literature, after terms like “knowledge society” or “knowledge economy” had already circulated in all kind of literature (scientific and popular) related to the problem of the “new economy”. “Knowledge work” belongs to the late phase of the ideology of the “information society”, the first phase aiming to demonstrate the overcoming of work through artificial intelligence. The clean knowledge work of postfordist society as opposed to the dirty manual/mechanical work appears in reality as hard work, with very long workdays (the overworked netslaves). Nevertheless today “knowledge work” enjoys a high reputation as better work in comparison with that done in the fordist epoch.
Two different approaches can be used for the definition of the “knowledge worker”: one looking from the education side, another from the job side. If “knowledge worker” means a highly educated young man or woman, with post-graduate qualifications and international experience, the first question to deal with is the problem of access to educational resources. This is a problem of revenue and of class-conditioned selection, against the popular ideology of the “new economy” which says that the “new” of the information society exists beyond the class-based access to knowledge. The second question here is this: what kinds of knowledge are transmitted by the existing educational systems? Some authors answer: a technology-based knowledge. If “knowledge worker” means a man or a woman working in a specific job, with a specific function in the organization (enterprise, institution etc.), the main question to deal with is the relationship between his/her educational degree and the job they really do, the problem of over-education and the related job frustration. The second question is the relationship between their job and their life. Some empirical evidence shows that in well-paid, highly qualified and high responsibility jobs, with large career opportunities, private life is the first thing to be sacrified. If “knowledge worker” is defined by the work really done, another question is the difference between skill and education-based capability. With “skill”, experience plays the main role; with education-based capability, it is the knowledge accumulated beforehand. Another problem is the difference between “knowledge” and “creativity”, where skill is not related to experience but to some kind of “inborn” capability. And finally, there is the problem of the relationship between “knowledge worker” and innovation. “Knowledge workers” are per se considered innovative. In fact the knowledge transmitted by the educational system today is not a knowledge for innovation, but much more a knowledge on procedures, a functional knowledge. “Knowledge workers” are not educated as “knowledge producers” and the enterprises do not employ “knowledge workers” for innovation, but mainly for better and faster application of existing procedures and processes. Producing knowledge is something different, out of the market, it needs ethics and another vision of the world. “Knowledge workers” are simply the modern appearance of the middle class.
Sergio Bologna (Italy)
Sergio Bologna (Trieste 1937), is advisor of the President of the National Council for Economy and Labour and Head of Transport Department of Antoptima SA, Lugano (CH), a little hi tech firm, and is editor of the book Il Lavoro Autonomo di Seconda Generazione, 1997 (The Second Generation Independent Work) by Feltrinelli, Milan.
He studied history, literature and Philosophy. He was an officer by Olivetti Advertising Department (1964\66), Professor at the Faculties of Sociology and Political Science by the Universities of Trento and Padua (1966\81), visiting professor at the University of Bremen (FDR) (1982\83), and has several publications on work history and sociology.
In 1985 he left the academic world and set up a consulting office and research laboratory on transport and logistics as consultant for institutions and enterprises. From 1998 to 2001 he was a member of the Expert Group for the Guidelines for the National Transport Plan by the Ministry of Transport (coordinator of the freight and logistics sector).
(Plenary Session Speaker, English)