The task worker divide

I’m sitting here in London Heathrow airport, and scrolling through all last night’s Tweets on my Twitter client. I notice that, in addition to the Tweets I put up from #sdthinks, where I was speaking last night, there are lots of people I follow who were also at conferences doing live updates.

There are lots of people who are at airports in work time and clearly do their work mobile, whilst keeping in touch with everyone else.

They are lots who are arguing about Enterprise Architecture, or other professional stuff, in real-time.

There are lots who, in time-zones opposite mine, are working out whether they should, or should not, go out for Friday night cocktails with colleagues, or go home to families.

There are none at all who are process workers, or, the new term of today, task workers.

This makes me wonder: am I particularly discriminatory in who is in my list of people I follow? Or is something else at play here?

I then log into my newsreader, latch onto a presentation of technology trends, and come across the quote “In the next 10 years, everyone except task workers will be equipped with a notebook, which they will probably provide for themselves. Task workers will have fixed location PCs, stripped down to be optimised for the task at hand”.

It makes me realise something: practically everything we do today in tech is optimised for the knowledge worker. Task workers are getting shut out.

In the Department, we worry about Digital Inclusion a lot. There are many people who don’t have access to computers and the internet, so providing services to them online is difficult. The Digital Divide can be very real.

But what about the new divide? On the one hand, the whole tech industry is occupying itself in making knowledge workers more productive, more able to promote themselves, and more able to access the information and data that will make them successful. The best of them are self publishing constantly. They’re on twitter, and they have personal brands. Their future is their network.

On the other, though, there are the task workers. For task workers the normal approach is to take radical steps to make sure they can’t participate in the conversation by turning off their tools at work. Monitor their working patterns to get the maximum number of work units out of them in a given time, making sure the cost to serve are as low as possible! Deny them every opportunity to be digitally engaged, to build their own brands during the working week.

If they want to do that, they can do it on their own time, managers reason. Of course, that’s all very well when most of the influentials they might choose to connect with are at home or in bed.

Here is the problem I see. By making sure that task workers don’t have the same access to resources as knowledge workers, we ensure that they will stay task workers forever. It is a new class system that is only marginally more acceptable than the one we already worry about with the Digital Divide.

I mean, everyone knows that the best jobs go to those that know how to network into them, or have sufficient profiles they get noticed independently of their network.

The thing is, I’m not even sure how you would go about fixing this. Its not enough to say that our task workers need better training, when they aren’t allowed the the liberty to grow and flourish because of the press of work. And, on the other hand, I can’t see a solution which lets the cost of service rise all that dramatically either because of “declining productivity”.

I think there is indeed a new digital divide, and it is not one of the have-technology versus the have-nots. Its worse than that. Its the divide about those who are allowed to use it and those who aren’t.

6 Responses to“The task worker divide”

  1. Malcolm
    November 20, 2009 at 12:25 pm #

    Interesting post and one I agree with.
    In some organisations the make up is 10% knowledge workers and 90% task workers. What sometimes happens is that the 10% work out what the organisation needs and this reflects really what the 10% need rather than what the 90% need. There is a neeed to keep reinforcing the 10% to look at the demographics of the organisation and ensure they take into account the 90%
    With regards to task workers and tools to collaborate. I would advocate giving them the tools as this will result in innovative uses you would never envisaged.
    If you go out into an organisation you can see them being used.
    I read a recent article on a similar topic, It tended to focus more on the knowledge worker but did dip into the Task Worker arena (they called them Investigators). They then ranked the different types of collaboration tools that would help them the most.

  2. November 23, 2009 at 5:35 am #

    Malcolm, we obviously agree with each other fundamentally. It is a mistake to "lobotomize" your people. That is what we do, of course, when we deny them the right to participate fully the way the 10% do.

  3. November 24, 2009 at 9:24 am #

    +1 agree.
    I've been wondering for a while if what we're watching is two simultanious trends:
    1. the hollowing out of organisations as they remove middle layers of knowledge workers, leaving only executive and task workers. (Many Web 2.0ish CPG start-ups are extreme examples of this.)
    2. the conversion of task workers to knowledge workers (though focused on a task)
    Companies are delayering (again) and pushing decisions to the surface of the organisation where there is direct contact with customers and partners. To make this work they are having to empower many task workers to be able solve the problems in front of them.
    Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 traditional target, the white collar, office bound knowledge worker is being eliminated by the very technology that is intended to empower them.
    Or, put another way, the interesting battle front for Web 2.0 / Enterprise 2.0 is the situatated knowlege required by task workers working together in the field. Think about how Toyota structures production lines, empowering the people on the shop floor (traditional task workers) to solve problems. Or the utility field worker on maintenance, who used to work under instruction from the depot but is now mobile, working remotely. Or the outsourced garbo which is now a self-organising team. And so on. Even call centre operators working to a tight script might fit into this category: we want them productive, efficent *and* focused on customer engagement so that we can provide low cost *and* great customer service.
    Excluding task workers for the conversation is insane.
    And, as a final note, we need to remember that many task workers are highly trained, though lacking academic education. They should be respected for the skills they bring to the table, rather than the qualifications they lack.

  4. November 26, 2009 at 7:38 am #

    Peter, I think you're comments make the point much better than I did. Task workers, or actually, I should rephrase that as front line workers, are really going to be the future, I think. It is, as you say, insane to lobotomise them.

  5. November 26, 2009 at 10:45 am #

    Front line workers is a better term, as it captures what they are do — they're the front line of an organisation — without the negative connotations of task workers.
    I've had another ago at trying to order these thoughts on knowledge worker vs. task worker, for those interested.

  6. November 29, 2009 at 9:10 pm #

    For most task workers, the issue is being fired or reprimanded, not a lack of tools or time. There are "task worker" blogs, and most of them tend to break the illusion of professional rigour large firms maintain… Task workers aren't politically engaged with their employer in the way senior people are – they won't self-censor issues without prompting, etc. (The Chinese Communist Party has several openly identified party member blogs, and the discipline they have over the authors through their "HR" is tight enough to make this acceptable.)
    As an IT drone I tend to see "task workers" as my primary customers. My job is to automate their trivial tasks [resetting passwords, etc], so they can focus on stuff that requires understanding [probate, money laundering issues, etc]. Of course, I work in small growing firms where this is a) is recognised b) doesn't cause mass layoffs of the "task workers" concerned.

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