Managing Knowledge Workers

August 4, 2015


In a world where deep knowledge is a valuable commodity, managers must cope with workers who know more in their specialty than their bosses do. Because of this, bosses have to trust that their employees are using their knowledge effectively but must also encourage them to share it and contribute to a team. Managers have to find new ways to lead when they sometimes can’t tell whether anyone is following.

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There are plenty of epochal stories of missing the boat on great new knowledge. The Swiss invented a mechanism that counted time in digits but couldn’t see how it applied to watches. The Japanese saw it in an exhibit of interesting curiosities and the rest, as they say, is history. Talk to Xerox people and they’ll freely admit—in fact it’s part of their folklore—that their research facility at Palo Alto came up with truly breakthrough technology (e.g., the mouse, icon technology, laptops). None of it was exploited because Xerox management couldn’t see its market value. Apple did.

But there are some success stories too. 3M Post-it notes were the result of a scientist creating a glue that didn’t stick well. The genius was not just that scientist, but in the company’s ability to recognize usefulness. In hindsight, it’s easy to shake our heads and say, “How stupid, how short sighted,” and to believe we’re more like the 3M manager who gave the go-ahead for the Post-it notes or Steven Jobs who saw the potential of the Palo Alto research.

But encouraging new knowledge can be a tricky thing. The glue used on Post-it notes failed 3M’s standards. In some companies, that kind of “failure” would have prompted the response, “Throw the stuff out and start again.” Great ideas are great because they don’t fit into our current way of thinking. Truly creative people often link items that we know don’t make any sense to join. So, encouraging new knowledge or ideas to come forward can be a difficult thing and all great missed opportunities probably started with one manager shaking his head and saying, “I don’t think it’ll work.”

This chapter will discuss three major things a manager can do to address this issue. The first actively solicits employee’s ideas. The second and third activities are more about the culture that you need to create so that the ideas will continue to come forward. They are taking a new view of failure and admitting mistakes.
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What people are saying

“With an insightfully crafted guide to the implementation of intellectual capital concepts, Frances Horibe has made a tremendous contribution to leveraging people and their knowledge in the context of the new economy.”
Hubert Saint-Onge
Senior Vice President, Strategic Capabilities
The Mutual Group

“Managing Knowledge Workers is an excellent reference guide, addressing the challenges all business leaders face in maximizing the creation of shareholder wealth by harnessing the human capital of a capable and committed workforce.”
Gordon J. Feeney
Vice Chairman
Royal Bank Financial Group

“Provides a roadmap to optimizing our knowledge workers and maximizing our technology investment. Should be read by managers at all levels of the organization.”
Ken Henry
Vice President, Business Excellence
Manulife Financial

“We’ve finally figured out that the proxy for business success is customer loyalty. Managing Knowledge Workers is essential reading for those wanting to understand how to ensure the loyalty of those people essential to achieving customer loyalty–our employees!”
David Carlson
A VP, Customer Care
Newbridge Networks

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