Cutting through the confusion of contemporary work

  • Paton S
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Purpose - The purpose of this paper is to discuss the nature of
contemporary work. There is much discussion surrounding the meaning of
the term knowledge worker and the value these workers generate for the
organisation. This paper agrees that the value to organisations of
workers who possess knowledge is increasing but argues that the nature
of the knowledge worker is unclear within current literature. It
acknowledges that there is a high level of knowledge in contemporary
work and that many workers can claim to be knowledgeable, however these
workers while necessary to the firm do not provide it with competitive
Design/methodology/approach - This paper argues that there are four
tensions running through the literature on the nature of the knowledge
worker and proposes that the elements that comprise knowledge work fall
into three groups that are knowledge possession, knowledge activity and
knowledge context, First, the nature of contemporary work and its
relationship to traditional categorisations of work is discussed;
second, worker types that have been proposed in the literature are
discussed; third, the factors within work types that are relevant to
knowledge are discussed; and a summary of the main points of contention
and a proposal for the research direction that should be taken to
progress this debate are presented.
Findings - This paper proposes that knowledge work should not be
automatically associated with service work or new forms of work; the
nature of knowledge work cannot be defined by one specific attribute;
the elements that comprise knowledge work fall into three groups,
knowledge possession, knowledge activity and knowledge context.
Practical implications - Based on these findings organisations must
rethink their approach to identifying the characteristics that define
the valuable activity that is knowledge work within their industry
Research limitations/implications - Further study must be carried out
into the nature of the worker, not only in their embodiment of skill and
knowledge but also into how they use it, what their work context is and
the support they should be given while engaging in their activities.
Originality/value - The value of the knowledge worker lies in combining
these elements in a specific way and applying this formula to further
our understanding of the nature of the knowledge worker.

Author-supplied keywords

  • Knowledge management
  • Manual workers
  • Skills

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  • Steve Paton

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