Why empowering ‘knowledge workers’ is critical to business success

Why empowering ‘knowledge workers’ is critical to business success
Scott Castle is an analytics infusion pioneer bringing over 25 years of software development, go to market strategy, product management and strategic partnership experience to his role as VP, Strategy at Sisense. Scott is passionate about turning data teams into superheroes that find unexpected insights in big data and disrupt traditional BI. Previously, Scott held technology positions at companies including Adobe, Electric Cloud and FileNet. Scott holds computer science degrees from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and UC Irvine.

Cultivating a new generation of such knowledge workers is one of the great challenges of the modern era. Today’s knowledge workers are more global, work across more industries and are not always even in the office. Each of them has a different workflow depending on their job, with their own specific ways to leverage their knowledge. 

But what are ‘knowledge workers’ and why is empowering them with the right tools, training and culture critical to drive business success?

Knowledge workers then and now

Historically, we thought of ‘knowledge workers’ only as technology professionals, such as programmers or systems managers. As technology became more accessible, however, more professionals in other fields were able to wield technology to generate even more value through their work. This included physicians, designers, engineers and others.

Today, technological advancements have made information and tools ubiquitous, personalised and invisible. We now have the capability to augment everybody’s thinking without expensive, time-consuming software certifications and data literacy programs. Everybody in our organisation is a potential knowledge worker.

This sounds like a pipe dream, but many innovative companies have already turned this dream into reality. Canadian airline Air Canada is one example, and as Safety Analytics and Innovation Manager Shaul Shalev explains, they didn’t just think of analysts and executives as their knowledge workers. 

They identified that gate agents, maintenance professionals, and other front-line employees make critical business decisions, often with important consequences for safety. Through the use of information, specifically insights from data, they were able to empower entire teams of workers to make smarter decisions for all of us.

”With data, our front-line employees will be able to potentially make a different decision that will be a more safer decision to our clientele, both clientele as our passengers and the employees themselves,” Shaul says.

The next generation of knowledge workers

To empower these knowledge workers, we will have to provide them with the information and tools they need to succeed. Historically, that simply meant teaching workers to use existing technology. We will have to be more creative than that. Computers, which Apple-founder Steve Jobs famously called ‘the bicycle of the mind,’ are no longer enough, at least in their desktop form. We cannot expect people to have to sit at an office desk to find important information and do their work, a fact made even more clear in the Covid-19 pandemic. We must find new ways to unlock knowledge workers, wherever they are and however they work. The companies that do this will be the ones that leapfrog the competition and change their industries.

Ensuring knowledge workers have the right tools and resources

Knowledge workers are increasingly diverse, with varying skill sets and even physical job locations. This presents an obvious challenge: How do we actually teach this growing and changing workforce to use the technology required to harness advanced tools and information? The answer is simple: Don’t.

Instead, work the other way around and personalise the technology to them. The fastest way to empower knowledge workers is to leave their workflow alone, and simply enhance it.

Here’s how: Knowledge workers have dedicated tools to help them do their jobs. For some workers, these tools are complex machines. For others, they are business applications. Identify the central tool to each knowledge worker, and then adapt technology to make those tools even better. Give in-the-field workers mobile devices, so they can access critical information without returning to a desktop computer. Move company-wide applications to the cloud so workers can access them from anywhere. Embed existing business applications with insights from data, so professionals can make smarter decisions without turning to additional dashboards and data portals.

Building remote working resiliency

The rise in remote work, accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, is here to stay. Gartner predicts that by the end of 2021, more than 51% of all knowledge workers will be remote, and in fact, that nearly a third of all employees worldwide will not regularly work from an office.1 As a result, we’ve also seen an increase in the number of business applications that knowledge workers must use every day. Identity-management company Okta reports that the average customer in 2020 used 88 apps, with many customers reaching almost 200 apps.

This has two implications: First, information and tools must be accessible from anywhere, without having to turn to additional experts for help. Second, the fewer apps and distractions workers have, the better. Some context switching is inevitable, such as using workplace chat apps, or collaborating in a coworker’s productivity tool. It is critical, however, that we do not ask knowledge workers to deviate further from their core workflows, simply to access more analytics, information or tools.

The key here is once again, focusing on a user’s workflow. Rather than have users visit dozens of different standalone apps, sign into various portals and digest emails and PDFs in dozens of locations, bring all that information to where they do their main work and where they collaborate with others. This creates a seamless world where knowledge workers can be in and out of the central apps, focusing on their decisions and barely aware that they’re using information and tools at all.

The right technology solutions to support knowledge workers

We cannot talk about empowering knowledge workers without acknowledging the role of cloud computing and artificial intelligence. AI is more sophisticated than ever and can now scan entire databases and suggest customised, actionable intelligence. Cloud computing no longer simply means making files accessible from anywhere, but also harnessing powerful servers to compute tasks and generate insights in seconds. Ultimately, both technologies are critical to helping future knowledge workers do their jobs, from anywhere in the world, using any tool or application.

In the past, knowledge workers relied on desktop computers in dedicated office spaces to do their work. They learned to wield complex tools and applications to make decisions, such as BI tools and complex programming languages. Through those tools, the first knowledge workers generated value never seen before. Now, technology has advanced that we can personalise those tools to us, without teaching users how to use technology at all.

This is how the most innovative companies will unleash the next wave of knowledge workers. They will look to empower everyone in their organisation, giving them the information and tools they need to make better decisions, wherever they are, in whatever apps they use. The technology that first created knowledge workers will recede into the background, and everyone will become smarter without even knowing it.

Editor’s note: This article is in association with Sisense

(Photo by Jesse Martini on Unsplash)

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