Peter Drucker, the great patriarch and founder of management as a discipline, famously coined the term “knowledge workers” during the mid-twentieth century. “Knowledge workers” were the people who were being paid to think, to work with their brains instead of their hands. Fifty years later, such “knowledge workers” have become the lifeblood of our economy, and are approaching 60% of all workers in the United States.
“Knowledge” was originally recognized during the 16th century, by the English philosopher Francis Bacon, who stated in his famous words that “knowledge is power.” Today, knowledge has become the new means of production, usurping the primacy of the physical assets originally recognized by Karl Marx. Knowledge has become the most important commercial asset of the 21st century. It is this “Knowledge” that is the essence of the emerging discipline known as “Knowledge Management.”
So what is this Knowledge Management that is being assigned the pivotal role of tending the most valuable assets of our New Economy?
Knowledge Management is: the identification, capture, definition, organization, optimization, and leveraging of Knowledge and Knowledge Workers toward achieving the important ends of the contemporary enterprise.
How does this work? Some of the concepts we need to understand in order to optimize our Knowledge Assets are:
- Who are Knowledge Workers?
- What is Professional Intellect?
- How do we leverage Knowledge
Who are Knowledge Workers?
Knowledge workers are defined by the work they perform, and they fall into three categories:
Professionals: Engineers, lawyers, doctors, professors, translators, accountants, and others who provide professional (highly knowledgeable) services that require specialized knowledge, advanced academic credentials, and often licensing.
Senior Management: The more senior ranks of management who are paid to think and lead today’s organizations and enterprises.
Technical Workers: Providers of specialized support for professional, leadership, managerial, scientific, and technical activities.
Today’s organizational success depends more on intellectual and systems capabilities than on traditional physical assets. It would follow then that the companies that possess the most productive knowledge workers are most likely to win in the marketplace.
This is true for both “new economy” (knowledge-based) enterprises, like software and consulting, and “old economy” manufacturing enterprises, where research and development, process and product design, logistics, marketing, and systems management are critical knowledge-based functions which can remain invisible.
Therefore, managing what people know, and turning it into useful products and services, is becoming an essential executive skill. Because knowledge is the new competitive resource, the management and deployment of organizational intellect, or what has come to be known as Professional Intellect, is both a strategic asset, and a source of sustainable competitive advantage.
What Is Professional Intellect?
Professional Intellect is what people know and how they use it. To manage Professional Intellect, we must first recognize that it operates on four levels within the modern organization:
Cognitive Knowledge: Know-what is the basic mastery of knowledge-based disciplines that professionals achieve through extensive training and certification.
Advanced Skills: Know-how is the translation of “book learning” into effective execution. It evidences the ability to apply a discipline to complex real-world problems.
Systems Understanding: Know-why is the knowledge of cause-and-effect relationships underlying a discipline. It allows knowledge-holders to apply professional intuition to solving complex problems and creating new value.
Self-Motivated Creativity: Innovation spins knowledge in unsuspected ways to eventuate new and exciting contributions. The cultivation of this level resides in an organization’s culture.
Significantly, the value of Professional Intellect increases exponentially as one moves up the scale of knowledge, reaching its pinnacle in creative mastery and the innovation and discovery most valued within an enterprise.
How to Leverage Knowledge and Professional Intellect?
The “best practices” for developing Professional Intellect toward significant levels of contribution, include:
Recruit the Best: The gains to be achieved through the leveraging of professional intellect are so great, that even a few top-flight professionals can deliver momentous success. Therefore it is important for an organization to know how to find, attract, retain, and cultivate extraordinary talent and individual commitment.
Force Intensive Early Development: Throw knowledge-holders into the crucible of real-world problems under the watchful eye of a coach or team. This enables your best talent to move rapidly up the steep learning curve of the practical application of knowledge. On-the-job training, mentoring, and peer pressure force professionals to the top of their knowledge pinnacle. Studies have shown that such intensity and repetition are essential to the development of the most advanced levels of Professional Intellect. People who go through intensive experiences become more capable and valuable.
Constantly Increase Professional Challenges: Intellect grows the most when knowledge-holders buy into serious challenges. The best leaders are demanding, visionary, and intolerant of half-hearted efforts, often setting nearly impossible “stretch goals.” The goal of development is to push Professional Intellect well beyond the comforts of mere book knowledge.
Evaluate and Weed: Highly intelligent individuals prefer to be evaluated, and to know that they have excelled. The competition of the weeding process in a meritocracy drives performance and fulfillment.
The real challenge before today’s leaders and managers lies in shifting their view of the world, such that they can identify, access, and leverage the knowledge within their organization.
Until we learn to view our enterprise from the perspective of knowledge and its application, we cannot shift our paradigm to start leveraging it into innovation, knowledge-based products and services, and sustainable competitive advantage.
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