Enabling Operational Excellence
Enabling Operational Excellence
Enabling Operational Excellence
Enabling Operational Excellence

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Knowledge Worker vs. White-Collar Worker: Opinions Needed

Knowledge worker is a term bandied about in discussion of business process management (BPM). Is it synonymous with white-collar worker, or different? How do you use the term? I ask because there’s significant new and significant interest in automating new areas of white-collar work so as to render it more consistent, traceable and scalable. That requires capturing and encoding the know-how as business rules and on a broader scale, engineering and automating operational business decisions. Knowledge is a very far-ranging term, and there are many forms of knowledge beyond day-to-day operations of a business. Does it confuse the issue to call white-collar workers “knowledge workers”? Is knowledge worker perhaps a broader term than white-collar worker? Which term works best in your organization? Here is some background information from Wikipedia. I confess I have never heard the term gold collar before, but it seems to me there’s an important potential difference there. White-Collar Worker

A white-collar worker is a person who performs professional, managerial, or administrative work. Typically, white-collar work is performed in an office or cubicle. Other types of work are those of a blue-collar worker, whose job requires manual labor and a pink-collar worker, whose labor is related to customer interaction, entertainment, sales, or other service oriented work. Many occupations blend blue, white and/or pink (service) industry categorizations.

Knowledge Worker

Knowledge workers are workers whose main capital is knowledge. … What differentiates knowledge work from other forms of work is its primary task of “non-routine” problem solving that requires a combination of convergent, divergent, and creative thinking.

Knowledge workers are employees who have a deep background in education and experience and are considered people who “think for a living.” They include software developers, doctors, lawyers, inventors, teachers, nurses, financial analysts and architects. As businesses increase their dependence on information technology, the number of fields in which knowledge workers must operate has expanded dramatically.

Even though they sometimes are called “gold collars”, because of their high salaries, as well as because of their relative independence in controlling the process of their own work, current research shows that they are also more prone to burnout, and very close normative control from organizations they work for, unlike regular workers.

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Ronald G. Ross

Ronald G. Ross

Ron Ross, Principal and Co-Founder of Business Rules Solutions, LLC, is internationally acknowledged as the “father of business rules.” Recognizing early on the importance of independently managed business rules for business operations and architecture, he has pioneered innovative techniques and standards since the mid-1980s. He wrote the industry’s first book on business rules in 1994.

Comments (7)

  • Pedro Robledo

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    My opinion is that any worker should be a knowledge worker when participates in a process using BPM, as BPM provides the orchestation of the tasks and the role of the worker is to decide how to solve the task with her/him knowledge and not to be a passive worker. BPM looks for automation of all possible tasks and it will use human workers in order to take the best decisions and to solve qualified tasks.

    • Ronald G. Ross

      Ronald G. Ross

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      Pedro, So you’re saying that a knowledge worker is someone who performs a task in a business process. Two questions:
      1. What happens when the task is blue-collar work … e.g., run a new cable line, assemble a (physical) widget, etc.?
      2. What happens when a decision task is encoded as business rules, and automated? Is the worker no longer a knowledge worker?

  • Pedro Robledo

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    Currently you are right, there are knowledge workers and blue-collar workers executing tasks in a business process using BPM or without BPM. But my vision of the future is that we have to get the potential of each worker in a process, as we should decide to change the workflow if it is required due to the changes of the current case in the process (think about Adaptive Case Management). So the worker in a process, although he has to assemble a widget will need to have knowledge to take decisions if it is required (even when the technology will provide more information in any place, e.g. the applications of google glass in the task of blue-collar worker). The society has to change of mentality about jobs.

    And about business rules, it is required to be supported by these rules and any operational decision system, because business has to be ready for fraud detection, behaviour patterns, compliance… but the knowledge worker will have to decide what is the next step when he/she receives the automated decision and thinking about business. All blue-collar workers and knowledge worker should work thinking in business for the organisation and not making routine tasks as machines.

    • Ronald G. Ross

      Ronald G. Ross

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      Pedro, Interesting points. Let me make one observation on the second paragraph. Many business rules are about behavior, not decisions. Those rules need to be monitored external to the process. (The reason we have traffic cops, for example.) When there is a violation of a behavioral rule, the business should have already decided what the appropriate ‘next step’ is (be it sanction, backing-up, or different path). If you want consistent behavior, you must monitor compliance and step in to preempt when necessary. That’s something many people fail to understand about behavioral business rules.

  • karl walter keirstead

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    I would expect knowledge worker to be a sub-category of a wider category called white-collar-worker.

    The term “knowledge worker” was coined by Peter Drucker, probably first published in “The Practice of Management” (1954), although Wikipedia says ca 1959. In any case, I would go with his definition “.. one who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace”.

    We might get agreement that knowledge and information are prerequisites to decision-making – you can convert information into knowledge, you can access a knowledge base to get information.

    Re decision making, we have ” Decision-making is the art of converting information into action. It’s an art because it requires a blending of experience, knowledge, wisdom, intuition, and information. All of these except information are acquired or intrinsic capabilities.” (“Where, Oh Where, Have My Documents Gone”) http://wp.me/pzzpB-zb

    It may help pointing out that white-collar-workers spend more of their time making decisions (an art), whereas knowledge workers spend more of their time collecting, analyzing, consolidating and organizing knowledge (more research oriented) so that it can become “information” for decision makers or rule sets that automate decision making.

    White-collar-workers are more likely to be active users of run time BPMs and they certainly should be main participants in the design of BPM process templates. Knowledge workers can also actively use BPMs but more so as collaborators as opposed to performers of process steps.

    • Ronald G. Ross

      Ronald G. Ross

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      Karl, Well thought out. Thanks. I especially like the idea that white-collar workers are more likely to be performers (of tasks) in business process models, whereas knowledge workers are more likely to be collaborators.

      One nit, perhaps a significant one: If you can automate decision-making, then it’s not really an art. Assuming you automate well, it becomes engineering.

      • karl walter keirstead

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        Ron. . . . .

        I agree with you that when you automate decision-making it’s engineering and no longer art.

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