» Archive for March, 2003

Beware the Information Worker

Thursday, March 20th, 2003 by Jonathan Spira

In order to explain knowledge management, I used to draw a significant distinction between “information” and “knowledge.” The former, I argued, was data structured in the form of documents, spreadsheets, while the latter was information with human interpretation and wisdom added.

But this is an arbitrary distinction. Since the actual definitions of both terms outside of the KM world are nearly identical – thus confusing all but the KM specialist – emphasizing such a distinction was a distraction from what really is always the most important issue: making useful CBK software and hardware. This distinction was useful as a device to highlight perhaps the role of the knowledge worker, but it was not an accurate representation of the information and knowledge conundrum.

This point was recently driven home to me at a gathering of analysts at Microsoft headquarters. One presentation was about the “Information Worker.”  The information worker, explained Microsoft VP Joe Eschbach, “is a pilot, a doctor, a ditch-digger.” Knowledge workers were consultants, analysts, and others who worked in close proximity to their computer. Personally, I would hope that the pilot on my next flight is a knowledge worker. Perhaps Eschbach was just trying to make the point, albeit with an unfortunate example, that Microsoft sees “information workers” as being more all-inclusive as opposed to the more rarefied “knowledge worker.”

The real distinction Microsoft seems to be drawing between the two is how far from a computer workstation you actually perform your job. This is a useful and important distinction to make in product design and marketing, for the KM needs of the ditch-digger  are very different from those of the analyst. But this is not a distinction between “knowledge” and “information”; it is a distinction between desk-based workers and everyone else. Of course, consultants and analysts are increasingly mobile, and the Collaborative Business Knowledge marketspace is providing tools to keep these professionals “wired” regardless of location.

Microsoft, unfortunately, has yet to learn the lesson that labels can be distractions from problems and their solutions. (The cynic in me would say that they know this already and that is why they emphasize the labels!). Microsoft, through the emphasis of the term information worker, is confusing – and broadening -  the marketspace.  Peter Drucker coined the phrase “knowledge worker” in the 1950s and it has been wisely used ever since. Rather than drawing attention away from the issues of how people use these tools by playing language games, Microsoft should focus on what they do best: creating useful and powerful software.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.


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