Untapped knowledge, hidden sweet spot
Knowledge workers stacking up in today’s flattening organizations
By Ellen Fussell Policastro
Times are changing when it comes to who knows what and how much they are worth in the manufacturing realm. Traditionally, the phrase “knowledge worker” applied to management and professional levels in industrial operations. But today, the term includes frontline workers.
In fact, “the closer a person is to a manufacturing process, the more direct impact their actions have on the performance of the process,” said Peter Martin, vice president of performance management at Invensys in Foxboro, Mass. This is why this transition is so important in industrial operations.”
In 1959, Peter F. Drucker defined the knowledge worker as a person who has been schooled to use knowledge, theory, and concept, rather than physical force or manual skill. You could say the knowledge worker is everyone today who uses a computer. Being able to do your job from home, a hotel, or your car means you can acquire and share knowledge anywhere, anytime. But who are the engineering knowledge workers of today? And how can automation professionals cash in on this phenomenon?
“In the past, the term was related to the IT field because that field produced ‘nothing tangible,’ ” said Michael Andrews with NSPE National Society of Professional Engineers in Alexandria, Va. “However, the phrase is now attributed to many engineering fields and professions that don’t produce a ‘hard’ product,” he said.
Andrews believes these knowledge workers provide “intellectual or enabling capabilities” to the organizations they work for. “As the world and supply chain has evolved, so has the mix of blue-collar workers to knowledge workers,” he said. “It seems like the percentage of knowledge workers today is probably close to 65–75% (depending on where or how broad the study). There’s even a knowledge rating that rates cities based on the local economy/finance, factories/production facilities, advanced degrees held by citizens, educational facilities, and diversity.” (See the 12 April 2007 Expansion Management article, “Knowledge Worker Quotient: The Top Metros in the Knowledge Economy” at http://www.expansionmanagement.com/.)
Being a knowledge worker today means being empowered Martin said. Being empowered with the “information and education necessary to perform their duty in a manner aligned with strategy, business, and operational excellence,” is critical to today’s knowledge worker’s success.
“Since the industrial revolution, the frontline personnel in many industrial operations have been treated as non-value-adding employees. Early in industrial history, most frontline workers were uneducated and unskilled and had to be dealt with in an appropriate manner,” Martin said. “This is why Frederick Taylor’s Scientific Management was developed—to essentially turn people into robotic performers. Today, with the rise of public education, the frontline workers of most industrial operations are well educated and skilled, yet we tend to carry on the traditions of treating them as though they weren’t.”
All it takes to become one of the esteemed is “education, experience, and the availability of the correct information to empower these workers,” Martin said. People with this potential include operations, maintenance, and engineering—all the way through executive management. He refers to a good deal of today’s up and coming knowledge workers as “untapped potential to improve the operation and the business of industrial concerns.” Managers would do well to better use this important resource, right at their fingertips, “by providing these workers with the strategic, business, and operational performance measures associated with their specific jobs in real time,” he said.
An engineer would qualify as a special type of knowledge worker because, “they understand numbers and data and know how to interpret that data,” said Richard Heckel, founder and technical director of EngineeringTrends.com, a firm that studies and analyzes engineering education. “A lot of engineers have management and financial responsibility,” he said. In fact, the typical engineering education “should provide knowledge workers in technological areas or quantitative areas.”
“I read Dilbert and get angry every night,” he said. In fact, if you talked to engineering students, you’d find they have broad ranges of interests. The stereotype is not even applicable. Look at how many engineers go to the top of their field and do very well. Sometimes they go into business on their own. I had a graduate who was an average student but had good personal skills, and is now head of his company. The world is full of people who go through engineering school, do some engineering, and then are picked for management because of their social skills added on to their technical skills.” (See Ask the Career Coach, page 60.)
A good knowledge worker is “someone with confidence to make decisions, who can assess situations and go on to the next problem,” Heckel said. But they need a broad range of technical skills. And that includes engineering in all its facets. Today’s engineer is really “supposed to be a knowledge worker,” Heckel said. Engineers who join corporations with great technical content and reliance on that content, and who appreciate, understand management or soft skills, will have a good career, he said.
The best way to understand this special type of knowledge worker, Heckel said, is to “stop reading Dilbert. I’m always amazed at how little detailed information is out there on engineering education and what engineers do. The guidance counselors in schools don’t know because they have so many things to cover and it would take a great deal of effort.
“When I was an undergraduate in the early 1950s, we had to take what they called social relations courses (psychology or a language), because the cry had gone out that people wanted more well-rounded engineers. They didn’t want them just strictly educated in technological topics. And today, the education process for engineers is not linear, although some people don’t realize that.”
Educate in automation
Kim Miller Dunn believes there are two types of knowledge workers in the automation field: the information worker and the technology knowledge worker. “Engineers educated in automation look at what a plant can do with technology to improve plant performance,” said Miller Dunn, a director of sales development and support at Emerson Process Management in Dove Canyon, Calif., and ISA’s president-elect secretary. “The technology knowledge worker would be more like technicians, who know how to use, maintain, and apply instruments and control systems to make plants works.”
When it comes to automation, industry is looking at a “huge problem when the baby boomer bomb explodes,” she said. “Many of the knowledge workers in automation are aging. There are fewer young people entering the automation profession because they don’t know it exists. People still land in the automation profession largely by accident. But they gain knowledge of the profession mostly through on-the-job training,” she said. “When the baby boomers retire, how are companies going to fill the void that those knowledge workers provide?”
While the industry is full of well-trained chemical engineers, electrical engineers, and even computer science people who deal with process control and automation, “until they perform the task, have a complete understanding of the entire process, and a good understanding of the entire scope of automating the process, they won’t have a clue where to start,” she said. “This is going to make automation professionals and technicians a valuable commodity in the coming years” and a “huge opportunity” for the industry to educate students and fill the automation void.
Rod Lincoln, manager of organization development at Cytec Industries in Westwego, La., does not see the knowledge worker at his company as a specific group of jobs, but almost everyone who has any kind of technical knowledge could be classified a knowledge worker, he said. “The day that you can hire someone just for their hands is virtually gone in modern industrial plants, other than the janitorial and grounds crews. Operators, mechanics, and production employees must all know how to operate computers, troubleshoot complex systems, and implement new technology,” he said. “We are all knowledge workers.”
For the automation industry, Lincoln said the objective must be “strategic change.” While a lot of people in the organization are “slaves to the existing technology and share the organizational knowledge, the automation specialist is at the cutting edge, drawing in the technology and new knowledge for the rest of the organization to absorb.”
Analyze, share knowledge
A knowledge worker at Angela Summers’ consulting firm, SIS-TECH Solutions, is “someone who knows how to apply automation systems in a practical way to improve suitability, integrity, reliability, and security,” she said. “Knowledge workers understand more than the words of industrial standards; they understand the intent and its practical application to achieve end-user operational goals.”
The term has actually changed over the last 45 years because the concept of the knowledge worker can now include processes, services, organizations, and networks. “Knowledge work would include the standards and practices committees at ISA, which function as knowledge organizations, distributing the collective experience and learning of the committee members to external people,” she said. “Consensus practices, whether developed internally or externally, are an important part of any effective knowledge-based process.”
For SIS-TECH Solutions, knowledge workers are “subject-matter specialists with demonstrated ability to listen, capture, organize, analyze, and advise end users on process safety risk management,” she said. While she believes every consultant in her company could be considered a knowledge worker, “we reserve this description for our senior consultants and fellows” who are best able to “identify key information, understand it, derive a set of potential solutions from which to choose, and communicate these solutions effectively internally and externally,” she said.
Summers said the best way to understand today’s knowledge worker is to first realize “benefits are difficult to measure and may be intangible to upper business managers. Since she works in a specialized field, “knowledge workers directly affect key business parameters, such as project management, product quality, and customer satisfaction.”
Faster way forward
Another engineer-turned-consultant agrees. Joe Pasqualichio, a consultant at Booz Allen Hamilton, a global strategy and technology consulting firm in Herndon, Va., believes the qualities of a knowledge worker spring from “the desire to work with the conceptual rather than physical. Maybe more practically it takes a proper degree and the right mindset,” he said. Pasqualichio attributes the working title to “someone who can pinpoint and translate important information where there is an abundance of information available, and where this information is often confusing to interpret between fields of expertise.”
An electrical engineering graduate from the University of Pittsburgh, Pasqualichio sees directly how a group of multi-talented knowledge workers can research, analyze, and advise other people who are attempting to make a physical product. Although Pasqualichio is new to the field, he can still see how the term might have changed over the years. In the past, the term might have referred to “somebody using information to create something,” while today, it is more aptly applied “to somebody finding, categorizing, refining, and distributing information,” he said. “Maybe today’s knowledge worker is the intellectual middle man transforming existing or new information into the means to create new and innovative products and processes.”
All in all, he believes the knowledge worker offers the automation industry a faster way forward. “New processes and standards are developed all over the world, and sometimes these changes can come quickly. A knowledge worker who may be involved in process management and the communication of knowledge can change an industry by connecting the right people and making a large community aware of a potential best way forward.”
Executives of industrial firms can help catapult this faster way forward “by converting all their workers into knowledge workers,” Martin said. “This will drive improved bottom line results. We can best understand what the knowledge worker has to offer by empowering each of them with the information they require to perform their tasks in the most beneficial manner for the operation and observing the results. Experience has shown that the results can be very dramatic.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ellen Fussell Policastro is the associate editor of InTech. Her e-mail is email@example.com.
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