A Knowledge Worker Infrastructure: Where We Are Headed

Ten employees working 1 hour at $10 an hour are a whole lot more productive than 1 working one hour for $100. This is the general premise of a hybrid personnel engagement model for the information economy, where the keeping track of ever-speedier information is as valuable as tangible goods. Of course, finding a knowledge worker at $10/hr may sound incredibly challenging due to the cost of living (addressed below), but the opportunities lie in starting an organization from scratch (like JetBlue), with new management thinking emphasizing:

1) ongoing recruitment (for a constant supply of labor, as opposed to recruiting at a certain point in time for a specific job, especially since the expected tenure of such a part-timer shouldn't be expected to be too long)

2) from a wider candidate pool with a broader variety of skill sets, experiences, and interests (identified through evolving criteria, testing, and knowledge management)

3) to "activate" and engage only when needed for

4) constantly changing, yet deliberately planned roles within the firm, (which would be purposefully modularized job description tasks)

5) which would ideally require shorter, on-going training + learning programs (training only for each new task) and consequently

6) improved utilization of larger numbers of part-time workers, not expected to perform secondary tasks (unless planned) if their primary tasks are completed, and definitely not expected to continue working "on the clock" if their primary task is done.

7) These workers would also intentionally perform overlapping primary tasks per shift, meaning that their value is based on the diversity of their perspectives rather than the quantity of units they produce during any given shift, and this ultimately means that

8) the firm must have a systematic and internalized methodology for quickly harnessing the tremendous volume of knowledge and diverse viewpoints, and processing it all into actionable strategy and tactics.

The Freelancer Economy

What this suggests is an extraordinary evolution to a "freelancer economy", one that the current labor pool may not be particularly interested in working in. On the other hand, that's just a fraction of the labor pool, as entire swathes of industry depend on part-timers (retailers and restaurants come to mind) and vice versa.

The mere suggestion of altering our deeply-ingrained employment practices for a "hybrid" organization that frowns on all of the long-held beliefs of how an organization should operate is a challenging intellectual leap because a) our legal and tax system is based on the current system (1) and b) a higher education - considered a pre-requisite for becoming a knowledge worker - is considered an (expensive) stepping stone to a secure and stable job (to pay off said pricey education). Ironically, once a stable job is secured, a "knowledge worker" isn't always expected to think outside established policies, standards and procedures.

This hybrid model fully expects knowledge workers to think. (Imagine if fast-food joints treated their workers as knowledge workers, rather than just low-skilled, G.E.D.-qualifying, burger-assembling, counter-monkeys. They'd actually have to compete on food quality and innovation, since service would be built into the operating model. You don't have to look further than Starbucks' baristas to see the success of this model). In fact, because of the impact of technology, a knowledge worker is literally just a Google-search away from being a productive member of this economy.

But what of the benefits to the firm?

The costs of employee turnover exist only because of the nature of the prevalent infrastructure model. But a firm built from scratch (with the management thinking listed above) can successfully harness more productivity from this model than any other alternative. An employer continuously benchmarking their workers among each other, (since they're all, by design, performing similar or overlapping tasks), can better weed out the least productive workers, and in the process, create a smarter, higher-performance organization. The constant recruitment and training of fresh workers prevents any diminishment in productivity, while simultaneously minimizing the cost of turnover, since it's already built into the operating model. (What isn't obvious here is also that current workers are also psychologically motivated when they quantify the volume of workers in line to replace them.)

And more interesting is that by taking it upon itself to educate its workforce on delivering maximum knowledge (peak productivity) within the organization, employers eliminate worker incentive to request higher compensation (to pay off the cost of a pricey advanced education earned elsewhere). Hospitals have historically sponsored pre-med students, paying for their medical education, and in return, compensating them less for their tenure at the hospital. This in turn, lowers costs for patients, insurers, and overall administration of the hospital.

The Implications Are Vast

In this hybrid model, retention costs would disappear, since workers are fully expected to transition in and out of the firm throughout their various career phases.

Outplacement as an external benefit would disappear since this function would be brought in-house as a critical business function.

Career path choices would exponentially expand, forcing counselors to develop more academically rigorous tools to advise their clients.

Learning programs would be a critical business function, constantly teaching workers how to improve their own knowledge-producing abilities.

Professional networking circles would take on a dramatically greater relevance in the lives of its members.

Executive recruiters may command higher value, as workers willing to commit to one employer become rarer once the benefits of a freelance economy begin to bear fruit.

Benefits consultants would work for the workers, rather than the employer.

Temp firms could become valued strategy consultants, more than merely a source of quick, cheap help.

And oversight of the HR department may be a sure-fire entry point to the corner office.

The Irony of Unions

Oh, and so-long unions, as workers:

a) no longer need representation for collective bargaining since they're not planning on being at a firm for life;

b) the firm values each and every worker's opinion (preventing union leaders from being the sole contributor of workers' thoughts on how the company should be managed), with no distinction between collars,

c) yet doesn't solely depend on any single worker for individual productivity, eliminating the primary weapon of unions (withholding said productivity until demands are met);

d) and the firm is clearly helping workers develop personally and professionally, without asking them for dues.

This would effectively turn the "right of workers" into the right to easily transition from the firm if they're unsatisfied with their experience at the firm. Ironically, it is in this hybrid model, where workers are interchangeable units, that unions should thrive. In the existing (modern) infrastructure model, despite union reasoning to the contrary, workers aren't an external constituent (for the firm to exploit and workers to vigorously oppose at every turn), but actually, the "firm" itself (2).

It is inevitable that a creative, opinionated, interpretative, big-picture-perspective worker will become the primary source of value in an economy where just about anything can be a commodity. Goods made by hand and measured in how many hours a worker labored to put it together cannot be a sustainable way to value workers and measure productivity as the future marches on. And those firms that harness their knowledge workers by utilizing infrastructure models like the one described here will be the leaders in the next evolution of the economy.

Write to Al Berrios at



(1) Our tax and legal system would presumably change in a freelancer economy, but note that for the purposes of this discussion, "part-time" doesn't necessarily imply 1099 forms all around. In fact, since training, production, and management of workers would all occur on company premises, it would be nearly impossible to avoid categorizing employees as W-2s under our current tax system, so an employer in a freelancer economy shouldn't. The term freelancer merely implies the actual relationship between employer and employee, not the legal one.

(2) The issue that this hybrid infrastructure model highlights is the dated union belief that a company doesn't care about their workers, but instead, it's the union leadership who doesn't appear to care for its members. They can't permit a "modular" worker who self-improves and is able to quickly shift from job to job because it directly conflicts with their own operating model of a permanent, independent entity within the company (with their own representatives to management, as if management wasn't capable of representing the needs of their own workers); an operating model that also vehemently asserts that the employer is obligated to care for union-employees-and-their-families, turning labor-management relations into one that feels like a parasitic one, instead of recognizing the employer for what it is: a single organization fully capable of deploying its workers as they are needed.


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