COVID-19 Lesson: Empowering Your Deskless Workforce Creates a Competitive Advantage

Front view of technician or engineer with protective mask and tablet working in industrial factory. The business and technology challenges arising out of the Covid-19 pandemic are numerous. One of the biggest...

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Where are the Knowledge Workers?

In reality, nearly everyone in the workforce is a knowledge worker. You know this if you run a business that needs employees to autonomously learn and apply new skills.

Where are the Knowledge Workers?


Where are the knowledge workers?

Where are the knowledge workers of today? In the ’80s and ’90s, when tech was building muscle, the term ‘Knowledge Worker’ gained traction. However, it was first coined by Peter Drucker in 1959. He suggested, “the most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.” In reality, nearly everyone in the workforce is a knowledge worker. You know this if you run a business that needs employees to autonomously learn and apply new skills.

Where do you find today’s knowledge workers? If you answered, “Sitting behind a computer.” you’d be about 20% correct. The majority of them are on the factory floor, pulling stock from warehouses, installing garage door openers, setting tile, inspecting fire-extinguishers, making pizzas, and performing thousands of other ‘deskless’ roles in society. These functions hardly require a computer but they do require varying degrees of knowledge. Not too long ago I made the discovery that fewer than only 2 out of 10 employees have a corporate e-mail address. One of my tech colleagues was floored when I told him this. His question was, “How do they get anything done?”

My reply was “See for yourself.” As far as he was concerned they lacked a critical component for acquiring and exchanging knowledge despite the overwhelming evidence otherwise. I mentioned that his kitchen got remodeled with no fewer than 10 people working together to bring it off as a team while solving real-world problems along the way. The concept of ‘deskless knowledge worker’ never occurred to him despite seeing them in his home every day for three months. Houses get built, cars are assembled, airplanes roll off the production line, packages get delivered on time, autos are repaired, shoes are sold, drains get cleaned, shelves are stocked… the list goes on.

I’m fascinated with workers that don’t get specialized knowledge from a work PC (or tablet). As a former dues-paying member in the IAM (International Association of Machinists) I spent a big chunk of my youth in the production of aircraft and rockets after my tour with the US Navy. All Navy training worth anything was OJT (on-the-job and peer-to-peer) and I expected it would be the same in private aerospace.

I have massive respect for the trade unions that continue to prioritize mentoring. I recall my Lockheed days when older members applied years of institutional knowledge to their daily tasks making many difficult operations a breeze to learn for anyone willing to benefit from their experience. They knew when to teach and when to let a newbie learn it the hard way. Which of course was a form of entertainment for them. It’s sad to watch these institutions of learning shrink. This should remind us of how high-school vocational programs were gutted in the ’80s and ’90s. We all see how well that turned out.

Everyone is hiring ‘smarter’ people than they hired 20 years ago. Certainly more of the workforce is higher educated than ever before. It’s always a fun dialogue to debate the difference between smart and knowledgeable. There’s never an argument that workers show up on their first day with more capability to learn faster than ever before. That makes them smarter. What sets this new generation workforce apart is nearly unlimited access to shared knowledge and their eagerness to use it.

Their advantage is they aren’t waiting for the sage employee with all the answers to engage with them. They don’t need to wait for the next training event to learn how to use a new piece of machinery. They don’t need complex software solutions, training packages, or even access to a PC at work. All they need is their tribe and a mobile phone.

Knowledge acquisition is a social event. It’s their ticket to connection. On any given day they are engaging with their network to build their skills and add tools to their toolbox. Mentoring is a peer-to-peer just in time activity they embrace in the workplace. It’s the same behavior they exhibit in their leisure activities. They self-motivate to seek answers and share their insights, tricks, and ingenuity liberally with their colleagues.

It’s both amusing and frustrating to watch tech titans struggle to create solutions that resonate for this majority of workplace personas. Most of them are sure their jackhammer approach to team building will result in more cohesion and productivity. All of them profess that engagement is the goal but fails to articulate the engagement gaps that truly impact the deskless worker. Tech-centric solutions won’t work if they don’t embrace and amplify social norms. Beyond that, tech has a bias that consistently rubs people the wrong way. This segment of employees has little patience for software that imposes the process for the sake of process. There are simply some things in this space that shouldn’t be automated for the sake of automation.

If you’re going to be successful in developing solutions for the 3 billion employees that are potentially the largest consumer base in the history of the world start with awareness:

  • This segment of the workforce doesn’t have their own desk and probably wouldn’t want one
  • They sure as hell don’t have a corporate computer they call theirs
  • These Deskless Workers outnumber office workers 4:1
  • These people are wicked smart and have to prove it every day
  • These people must function as a team every day or everyone fails – there are no heroes
  • These individuals are doing quite well without Microsoft SharePoint, Google Docs, PowerPoint, Sway, and corporate e-mail.

Yogi Berra, known for genius phrases once noted: “You can observe a lot just by watching.”



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