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By Julian Matthews

Varied Roles Of A K-Worker

No job description can adequately capture the synthesis, versatility, imagination and stamina of knowledge work. Consider the relationship management role. A job description may reduce the role to tasks, such as monitoring customer satisfaction, explaining chargeback, setting budgets and managing projects.

However, depending on the type and scope of the company and the personality of the person filling the roles, the relationship managers must frequently fulfill all their roles at once: ambassador, vendor manager, problem solver, customer advocate, psychologist, salesperson, financial analyst, satisfaction monitor, interpreter, leader, consultant, researcher, speaker, project manager, advisor, communicator and technician.

Virtually none of those roles match or reflect the observable tasks that job descriptions require.

Source: GartnerGroup


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Knowledge Workers and why your e-business needs them

Research engineer Rabindra Singh was left in a lurch after steady government contracts for telecom products in India came to a sudden halt. Funding dried up for in-house technology development at the company he had worked in for seven years.

At age 33, and with a pregnant wife, he decided to look further afield for new opportunities. Three options came to mind--Silicon Valley, in which he had had a stint as design consultant, the U.K. and Singapore.

Malaysia was not even on his radar screen, but became his eventual choice.

"I was told how things are shaping up here--the infrastructure and the Multimedia Super Corridor (MSC) project. Besides it is much closer to my country, and just takes 5 hours to be back in case of any family emergencies," said Singh, the only son of aging parents.

Although he had no relatives in Malaysia, the country has had long ties with India. Over a century ago, the British brought in large numbers of Indians to then Malaya to fill labor shortages and work on the railways, rubber estates and tea plantations. Many of them eventually stayed and their descendants now represent 10 percent of the population.

In the 21st century, Rabindra represents the new migrant workers to Malaysia. Highly skilled, adaptable and technology-savvy, they bring desperately needed expertise to a country sorely lacking in such resources. Indeed, technology hubs the world over are in a rush to grab what is now known in management parlance as the "knowledge worker". These busy bees of the New Economy are deemed crucial for bustling research hives to turn honey into money.

The MSC as a magnet

Malaysia's MSC with 300 IT companies under its wing has eased entry requirements to lure an army of the world's brightest and smartest as a means to jumpstart the project. "The knowledge economy is going to thrive on the basis of the ability of a particular hub to gravitate the brains from all over the world, and allow for a good mix so that there will a high degree of exchange of ideas. We would like the MSC to become a mecca of knowledge workers," said Larry Valida, a senior manager at the Multimedia Development Corporation, the agency overseeing the development of the 750 sq km high-tech zone.

Valida defines a knowledge worker as someone with a basic degree and two years' working experience; or a Master degree holder in IT-related or multimedia-related disciplines; or someone without any paper qualification but has had five or more years of experience in IT or multimedia industries.

MDC is projecting the MSC will require over 31,300 knowledge workers this year, and the figure will climb to 38,000 by 2001. As of March 31 this year, MDC facilitated the entry of 1,488 foreign knowledge workers involving 152 firms. Out of these, the bulk or 47.8 percent comprised Indian nationals.

Valida said MSC companies have also become a magnet for Filipinas, Singaporeans, Indonesians and various Europeans, Australians, New Zealanders, Japanese, and North Americans. He said the hires are coming in at two levels--those that have rare expertise and come on expatriate packages for short consultancy-type stints in multinationals, and those in the lower-tier as researchers, systems analysts, programmers and lecturers. He believed in the near future that knowledge workers traversing the world for new opportunities will have four main considerations: bandwidth, fun, cost of living and the ability to raise family in a safe environment.

"By the end of this decade the quality of life in the work place is going to be the single, crucial determinant on where the knowledge worker is located. Western countries do not have safety levels that we have here, where the crime rate is relatively low. Granted that pay scales are lower, but in the context of cost of living it's one of the best in the world. At the end of the day, it's what your money can buy," he said.

The K-worker is nomadic

Singh reasoned that better salaries, lifestyles and new environments are key factors for the movement of Indian knowledge workers worldwide. "I like the relatively cleaner, pollution-free environment here, and the access to Indian foods. The infrastructure is definitely at par with the best in developed countries. We have the latest design and simulation tools along with the best test and measurement equipment. With the Net we also have easy and quick access to the latest in the field of our domain. There is freedom to experiment on something new and challenging."

Singh is one of 20 Indian nationals currently employed by Embedded Wireless Labs, a joint-venture research house near Kuala Lumpur that develops fixed wireless and last mile solution products for emerging economies.

Embedded Wireless has already spawned commercial entity Arcadian Wireless Inc and set up headquarters in Silicon Valley. The company typifies the cross-boundary collaborative nature of some newer players of the knowledge economy. Arcadian Wireless president Cheam Tat-Inn said the company maintains research and marketing arms in Malaysia and has an 18-man software team in Bangalore, while leveraging its San Francisco address for access to capital and partnerships.

The Valley, however, has its fair share of detractors. Rent-an-app pioneer Inc and financial solutions developer AccTrak21 Inc, both of Malaysian origins who made their debut there a year ago, have since had a change of heart.

"We found that it is unreasonably expensive to run a business and almost impossible to attract and retain staff in Silicon Valley," said CEO Darryl Carlton, whose company eventually pulled out and relocated to Denver, Colorado. Carlton lamented how knowledge workers there were constantly wanting to work on the "next new thing", and had much higher remuneration expectations with all stock option carrots floating around.

AccTrak21 managing director Tim Loving agreed the costs were prohibitive for a startup. "The R&D industry is intellect-based and people-intensive. A low staff turnover rate is absolutely critical. It pays to minimize all elements of people costs," he said. He added that in an Internet-driven world, geographical location may no longer be a pre-determinant for a successful software business.

K-work is ad hoc, demand-driven and creative

A recent GartnerGroup study pointed out that attempting to strictly retain all employees in the knowledge economy age may be futile. Worldwide people are spending less time with any one employer. In the U.S. the median tenure for all workers is 3.6 years; in Silicon Valley it is significantly less. Mobility is on the rise as professionals and technologists shop for experiences to bolster their portfolios and stimulate learning.

"The factor driving this movement is less the flattening of organizations than the perceived high reward for people with good ideas launching the ideas themselves," said GartnerGroup vice president and research area director Kathy Harris in an email response.

Harris said, however, that dotcoms are under great pressure to produce. "First, their funding partners typically expect some return on their investment within a defined time frame. Second, being first to market with a new idea is one of the critical success factors in the Web economy. These two factors individually and collectively exert great pressure on these companies to produce."

Harris takes a broader view of the knowledge worker saying that by 2002, knowledge-based work will characterize the majority of jobs in the majority of industries as more companies convert themselves into e-business models. "K-work is ad hoc, demand-driven and creative. Fewer jobs will be well structured or well defined. K-workers will not be given a predetermined set of tasks, but will be far more responsive, collaborative and action- and decision-oriented. Management practices have to adjust to this new environment," she said.

GartnerGroup analysts predict that by 2005, 75 percent of global enterprises will require major overhauls in response to the shift to knowledge as the center of wealth production.

"Old models of hierarchical organizations, command and control structures, and follow-the-management-chain approaches must be replaced by horizontal processes, matrixed management, collaborative work styles, shared decision-making and more employee autonomy and participation in decisions," said Harris. She cited examples of recent announcements by Ford Motor, Delta Airlines, and other companies to provide PCs with Internet access for all their workers as movements towards the transformation. "We believe the efforts to Internet-enable employees represent initial steps in fueling profound cultural change. This will impact not only the manner in which such enterprises act as suppliers and customers in the world of e-business but also the character of their workforce and their workplaces," she said.

The bottom line is enterprises that move quickly to seek out knowledge workers that are versatile, can collaborate and have cross-enterprise understanding, and put in place adequate reward practices stand to gain in the New Economy. Those that hold out and treat the late 1990s as an anomaly, do so at their own peril.

Published in CNET Asia, Pg 1 | Pg 2 | Pg 3 | Pg 4

(C) 2000 Julian Matthews & Anita Devasahayam. All Rights Reserved.
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