At most corporations at which I consult, senior management draws a distinction between knowledge workers and those who aren't. You know the implication. The knowledge workers are the smart ones, the high potentials, and the fast trackers. Very often these are the people who are being groomed for leadership positions.
The phrase knowledge workers dates from Peter Drucker's coining in 1960 when he defined a knowledge worker as one who works with information. As John Seely Brown and his colleagues pointed out in an earlier blog on knowledge workers, Richard Florida's work on the creative class has been very useful for helping us to understand different roles and workers and their contributions, but it also "unintentionally diminshes the potential contributions from other parts of the workforce."
On numerous occasions I've stressed the value of complex problem solving and innovation to all organizations. By now, most people that knw that your ability to engage in those contributions may well provide opportunities, raises and security for your career future.
Yet when you talk innovation or creativity, most people still think that's genius stuff. That's a gross over simplification. Some of the most creative and innovative work in corporations takes place at very low levels in organizations. It's composed of the ordinary changes and adaptations made by people who work all over organizations: receptionists, front line assembly workers and even hotel maids.
A few months ago, I was staying a one of the better hotels in the Marriott group, and found my allergies acting up very strongly. So much so that I decided to try on one of their down scale inns the next time I was in Detroit. When I checked in I told the front desk about my difficulty. The employee sent a maid up to my room to check on me, finding that I had no allergy response to their cleaning agents. The maid then asked if I'd be willing to be a guinea pig and check out the odors of some new cleaning agents. I had no difficulty with two of the solutions, but the third sent me into a spiral. I found out later, that her boss had contacted the local upscale hotel, related my experience to them and that hotel had started doing some experimenting and research on their on. All of this was through the smarts of a lowly supervisor who probably made less than $15 buicks an hour. She was someone most companies would have ignored, but a highly creative lady who was working to manage customer relations very creatively.
As Seely Brown and his colleagues concluded, perhaps the single greatest lesson from Japanese auto manufacturers is that all employees are ultimately knowledge workers and that the role of the firm is to both encourage and support problem-solving by all employees.
As companies become more and more focused on talent development, they need to pay attention to the fact there's a lot of untapped talent inside organizations. The distinction between those who have talent and those who don't is misleading and way overdone. We undermine organizational potential when we draw artificial boundaries throughout the workforce. Competition is going to force us to expand our understanding of talented people. Like the Japanese, train them all to grow their creativity.