Monday, April 07, 2014

The Prototype of Future Knowledge Workers

The following is an except from my 2008 book “Changing Software Development: Learning to be Agile”. I’ve been thinking about this suggestion a lot recently and have a blog post in the works. Hence I thought now would be a good time to share this, it also means I can reference this post in the one that comes next… and who know, I might even rustle up a few sales for the book!

The Prototype of Future Knowledge Workers

Highlighting IT workers as knowledge workers allows us to learn from the existing body of knowledge on the subject. IT workers are not alone; they are knowledge workers and there’s much to learn from other knowledge workers, and from research and literature about knowledge work in general. There’s no need for IT managers (and writers) to re-invent the wheel.

Yet, in another way, the existing literature, research and experience can’t help IT workers and their managers. This is because IT workers, and software developers in particular, are at the cutting edge of knowledge work. In many ways, they’re the prototype of the future knowledge worker; they’re pushing the boundaries of twenty-first century knowledge work.

This occurs because, to paraphrase Karl Marx, software developers control the means of production. Modern knowledge work is enabled by and dependent on information technology: e-mail for communication, web sites for distribution, databases for storage, word processors for writing reports, spreadsheets for analysis – the list is endless! These technologies are created by software developers and used by legions of knowledge workers worldwide. The key difference between software knowledge workers and the others is that other knowledge workers can only use the tools that exist. If a tool doesn’t exist, they can’t use it. Conversely, software developers have the means to create any tool they can imagine.

Consequently, it was a programmer, Ward Cunningham, who invented the Wiki. Programmers Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston invented the electronic spreadsheet. Even earlier, it was another programmer, Ray Tomlinson, who invented inter-machine e-mail. This doesn’t mean that non-programmers can’t invent electronic tools. Others can invent tools, but for programmers the barriers between imagining a tool and creating the tool are far lower.

Lower barriers mean that programmers create many more tools than other types of worker. Some tools fail, while others are very specific to a specific problem, organization or task in hand, but when tools do work it is programmers who get to use them first. In addition, because IT people have had Internet access for far longer than any other group, the propensity to use it to find tools and share new tools is far greater. So tools such as Cunningham’s Wiki were in common use by software developers years before they were used by other knowledge workers.

Early Internet access has had other effects too: IT workers were early adopters of remote working, either as individual home workers or as members of remote development teams; IT people are far more likely to turn to the Web for assistance with problems and more likely to find it, because IT information has been stored on the Web since the very beginning.

The net effect of these factors and others means that software developers are often the first to adopt new tools and techniques in their knowledge work. They’re also the first to find problems with such tools and techniques. Consequently, these workers are at the cutting edge of twenty-first century knowledge work; they are the prototype for other knowledge workers. Other knowledge workers, and their managers, can learn from the way in which IT people work today, provided that we recognize these workers as knowledge workers.

From “Changing Software Development: Learning to be Agile” by Allan Kelly, 2008.

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