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Skills for the Knowledge Worker

Skills for the Knowledge Worker
Teacher-Librarian, December 2005
Doug Johnson

In early 2005, reporter Thomas L. Friedman frightened a great number of Americans with his book The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (Farrar, 2005) by detailing the impact of globalization on the white-collar workforce in developed countries. Many U.S. jobs thought to require “knowledge economy” skills, and therefore secure, Friedman reported, are now being exported to nations like India and China that have good telecommunications infrastructures, an overabundance of skilled workers, and, compared to the U.S., a very low wage scale.

Most Americans, especially those in traditional blue-collar jobs such as manufacturing, have for decades watched non-skilled work being shifted to either automated systems (robotics) or to cheaper foreign labor markets. The conventional wisdom has been that in order to be a productive worker in the post-industrial economy one needed an educated mind rather than a strong back for work that would be done stitting at desk, not standing on the factory floor.

But Friedman reports that desk jobs in the fields of customer/technical support, computer programming, medical technician diagnostics, tax preparation, and legal research are now migrating abroad as well. The outsourcing of these kinds of jobs should cause educators to seriously examine what constitutes “knowledge worker skills.” How might prepare our graduates to function in jobs that can’t be outsourced—and in some way justify the high remuneration that middle class workers have come to enjoy in developed nations?

This is a problem that is being overstated in the short run, but understated in the long run. At the current time one in ten technical support skills are off-shored; by 2010, it will be one in four such jobs. (Morello, “U.S. Offshore Outsourcing: Structural Changes, Big Impact,” Gartner, July 15, 2003.) Business analysts predict: “The offshore trend is not a fad, but a mega-trend.” (Kalakota and Robinson, “Offshore Outsourcing: Will Your Job Disappear in 2004?” Informit.com, Feb 27, 2004.)

Is the educational establishment addressing this trend? The article “Education and the Changing Job Market” (Levy and Murnane,  Educational Leadership, October 2004) contains this remarkable graph titled “Trends in Tasks Done by the US Workforce 1969-1998 (1969 = 0)”

In the article, the authors raise questions about whether current standards-based public education prepares students for mastery of the occupations set to grow in the United States. Using U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data they argue that the greatest job growth will be in well-paying occupations requiring “expert thinking” and “complex human communication.” Schools, the authors claim, need to teach in such a way that these skills become second-nature to high school graduates, and graduates can apply these skills in college or postsecondary training programs, which lead to success in up-and-coming occupational fields.

But what exactly do we mean when we say “expert thinking” and “complex human communications?” What separates these job skills from “routine cognitive” work? And are there skill sets which students must master before being able to considered complex communicators or expert thinkers?

Johnson’s Hierarchy of “Knowledge Worker Skills”
I would posit that there is a Maslovian-type Hierarchy of Knowledge Worker Skills, skills that need be mastered prior to the acquisition and application of “higher order” skills. I will categorize these as: Basic Skills, Discipline/Profession Specific Skills, Technology Skills, Information Problem-Solving/HOT Skills, and Conceptual Skills. Each is described below.


Level One: The Basics Skills
The ability to read for understanding, interpret visual information, write comprehensibly and persuasively, and solve numeric problems are, and will remain, the foundations on which all other “knowledge work” skills rest. To this end, the United States has ambitiously devised systems of testing to help assure that all students have these literacies. Much of this testing, which varies by state, tests only basic reading comprehension, simple composition and low-level arithmetic skills.

The danger many educators perceive in an emphasis on “the basics” is that if only the basics are tested (and thereby valued), schools will ignore the affective, creative, and problem-solving sides of education and give student few chances to apply these skills in meaningful ways. Basic skills, in other words, are an important bar to set for students, but an exceeding low one. Yet, as a primary, if not sole measure of school effectiveness, school leaders are establishing goals and improvement plans addressing student performance on very basic “basic” skills.

Level Two: Discipline/Profession Specific Skills
K-12 schools have the obligation that all students gain some degree of what is often referred to as “cultural literacy.”  This is a base of knowledge in history, social science, science, literature, and both physical and cultural geography. These will not be acquired without mastery of the basic skills listed above, and what constitutes “cultural literacy” is highly debatable. The memorization of massive numbers of facts without context or application has been rightly criticized as not being a valuable end-product of education.

Post-secondary schools teaching the core skill sets and body of knowledge of science, law, education, architecture, medicine, computer science, engineering, accounting, and other professions will continue to be important, of course. Yet these occupations are evolving as technology automates routine tasks and creates new procedures and processes (computer modeling in engineering and CAT scans in medicine) that are impossible to do without technology.

Level Three: Technology Skills
Since technology has impacted nearly every job that might be considered “knowledge work,” there is an increased recognition that basic technology skills have become a new “basic skill.” The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) attempts to describe what students need to know and be able to do in its “National Educational Technology Standards”(1998) <cnets.iste.org/>. These standards are divided into six broad categories of application:

Technology Foundation Standards for Students
1. Basic operations and concepts
•    Students demonstrate a sound understanding of the nature and operation of technology systems.
•    Students are proficient in the use of technology.
2. Social, ethical, and human issues
•    Students understand the ethical, cultural, and societal issues related to technology.
•    Students practice responsible use of technology systems, information, and software.
•    Students develop positive attitudes toward technology uses that support lifelong learning, collaboration, personal pursuits, and productivity.
3. Technology productivity tools
•    Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
•    Students use productivity tools to collaborate in constructing technology-enhanced models, prepare publications, and produce other creative works.
4. Technology communications tools
•    Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
•    Students use a variety of media and formats to communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences.
5. Technology research tools
•    Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
•    Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
•    Students evaluate and select new information resources and technological innovations based on the appropriateness for specific tasks.
6. Technology problem-solving and decision-making tools
•    Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
•    Students employ technology in the development of strategies for solving problems in the real world.

The focus of these clear and well-written standards is on the use of the technology itself. And while technology is sufficiently novel, difficult, and mystifying, special standards like these will be necessary.

But technology gurus like Donald Norman are beginning to see that the “how to use technology” skills are becoming less important. In his book The Invisible Computer (MIT Press, 1999), Norman argues that no one really wants to use a computer or even use a word processor. What one really wants to do is write a letter. He predicts that “information appliances” will do a single task simply with minimal technical expertise on the part of the user. Just think how little training is associated with using an AlphaSmart (a portable, inexpensive word processing device) compared to using Microsoft Word. And for most beginning writers, the AlphaSmart does 90% of the drafting and editing that can be done with Word.

Level Four: Information Problem-Solving Skills and Higher Order Thinking Skills
While the ISTE standards focus on the technology itself,  “Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning” (1998)  <www.ala.org/aasl/ip_nine.html> acknowledges technology as one of broader set of skills needed by students to be successful information problem-solvers. Released as part of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and Association for Educational Communications and Technology’s (AECT) guidelines, Information Power: Building Partnerships for Student Learning, these standards have three major divisions of nine standards:

1. Information Literacy
Standard 1 The student who is information literate accesses information efficiently and effectively.
Standard 2 The student who is information literate evaluates information critically and competently.
Standard 3 The student who is information literate uses information accurately and creatively.

2. Independent Learning
Standard 4 The student who is an independent learner is information literate and pursues information related to personal interests.
Standard 5 The student who is an independent learner is information literate and appreciates literature and other creative expressions of information.
Standard 6 The student who is an independent learner is information literate and strives for excellence in information seeking and knowledge generation.

3. Social Responsibility
Standard 7 The student who contributes positively to the learning community and to society is information literate and recognizes the importance of information to a democratic society.
Standard 8 The student who contributes positively to the learning community and to society is information literate and practices ethical behavior
Standard 9 The student who contributes positively to the learning community and to society is information literate and participates effectively in groups to pursue and generate information.

Yet even these standards say little about how information once found and evaluated is to be purposefully used.

There is an acknowledgement that students need Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS), of which Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy is among the most venerated. Bloom identifies six levels within the cognitive domain, with certain verbs often listed in association with each level.

  1. Knowledge: memorize, name, recognize, repeat, recall, define
  2. Comprehension: describe, discuss, explain, restate, translate
  3. Application: apply, demonstrate, illustrate, interpret
  4. Analysis: analyze, categorize, compare, contrast, distinguish
  5. Synthesis: arrange, create, develop, design, formulate
  6. Evaluation: assess, defend estimate, judge, predict, rate, support (PBS Teacher Source, <www.pbs.org/teachersource/whats_new/math/assessment0300.shtm>)

Another interesting look at developing higher order thinking skills (that bridges this category of skill and the next – “conceptual” skills – are The Habits of Mind <www.habits-of-mind.net/>. Costa and Kallick believe good problem-solvers demonstrate these characteristics:
1.    Persisting
2.    Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision
3.    Managing impulsivity
4.    Gathering data through all senses
5.    Listening with understanding and empathy
6.    Creating, imagining, innovating
7.    Thinking flexibly
8.    Responding with wonderment and awe
9.    Thinking about thinking (metacognition)
10.    Taking responsible risks
11.    Striving for accuracy
12.    Finding humor
13.    Questioning and posing problems
14.    Thinking interdependently
15.    Applying past knowledge to new situations
16.    Remaining open to continuous learning

One effort that is attempting to define a more holistic approach to technology, information literacy and HOTS is NCREL’s “eGauge 21st Century Skills” <www.ncrel.org/engauge/skills/skills.htm>. This interesting model is definitely worth a look, but in my opinion, still may not address all the skills a post-information age worker needs.


Level Five: Conceptual Skills
Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age (Riverhead Books, 2005) acknowledges Asia (the outsourcing trend described by Friedman), as well as two other trends impacting on an individual’s value in the labor market which he labels “Abundance” (rising affluence which leads to markets of not just functional, but pleasing goods and services) and “Automation” (improvements in mechanized and AI labor). He suggests that readers ask themselves three questions about their jobs:

  1. Can someone overseas do it cheaper?
  2. Can a computer do it faster?
  3. Am I offering something that satisfies the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age? (Are you not just manufacturing toilet brushes, but toilet brushes that satisfy the user’s aesthetic sensibilities as well?)

As a result of these trends, he believes we are shifting from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. Successful players in this new economy will be required to develop and use the right-brain abilities of high concept (seeing the larger picture, synthesizing information) and high touch (being empathetic, creating meaning). Happy news, perhaps, for those of us who never were all that good at the left-brain stuff in the first place.

More specifically, he suggests we work toward developing in ourselves (and I hope by implication, our students), six right brain “senses,” to complement our left-brain, analytic skills. He suggests we need realize the value of:

  1. Not just function, but also DESIGN. “It’s no longer sufficient to create a product, a service, an experience, or a lifestyle that’s merely functional. Today it’s economically crucial and personally rewarding to create something that is also beautiful, whimsical, or emotionally engaging.”
  2. Not just argument, but also STORY. “When our lives are brimming with information and data, it’s not enough to marshal an effective argument… The essence of persuasion, communication, and self-understanding has become the ability also to fashion a compelling story.”
  3. Not just focus, but also SYMPHONY. “What’s in greatest demand today isn’t analysis but synthesis – seeing the big picture and, crossing boundaries, being able to combine disparate pieces into an arresting new whole.”
  4. Not just logic, but also EMPATHY. “What will distinguish those who thrive will be their ability to understand what makes their fellow woman or man tick, to forge relationships, and to care for others.
  5. Not just seriousness, but also PLAY (“Ample evidence points to the enormous health and professional benefits of laughter, lightheartedness, games and humor.”
  6. Not just accumulation, but also MEANING. “[Material plenty] has freed hundreds of millions of people from day-to-day struggles and liberated us to pursue more significant desires: purpose, transcendence, and spiritual fulfillment.”

I will also be bold enough to add a seventh “sense” of my own to Mr. Pink’s list:

7.    Not just knowledge, but also LEARNING. Unless a person develops both the ability and the desire to continue to learn new skills, to be open to new ideas, and to be ready to change practices in the face of new technologies, economic forces, and societal demands, he or she will not be able to successfully compete in a global economy.

In the age of educational accountability, we seem to be gearing all our instructional efforts to helping students master left-brain skills, since that is what tests usually measure. But to what extent do we and should we also be developing design sense, storytelling abilities, the ability to synthesis information, empathy, the use of humor, and the ability to detect the importance of the information learned? How do we create true “life-long learners?”

What emphases, using Pink’s model, might schools and libraries wish to cultivate in the “conceptual age” worker? You might want to rework that last paragraph on page 7, the one that precedes the suggestions for implementing Pink’s model to give it some more emphasis for teacher-librarians.

•    Offer art classes and activities
•    Assess not just content, but appearance of student work
•    Teach visual literacy

•    Ask for student writing in the narrative voice.
•    Teach speaking skills.
•    Use storytelling as a part of teaching.
•    Give students opportunities to both hear and tell stories.

•    Design classroom projects that cross disciplines.
•    Ask for the application of skills and concepts to genuine problems.
•    Use inductive learning strategies (learning by doing).

•    Emphasize reading literature about people from other cultures and socio-economic groups.
•    Give students service learning and volunteer opportunities or requirements.
•    Give students the opportunity to take part as an actor in theater productions.
•    Design group projects.

•    Teach with games.
•    Offer a variety of athletics and physical education classes.
•    Offer participatory music classes.
•    Teach through riddles and jokes, and encourage students to tell them.

•    Offer classes in comparative religion, myth and legend.
•    Teach ethical behaviors as a part of every project.
•    Asking for writings to include statements of personal values.

•    Teach processes, not facts.
•    Allow students to research areas of personal interest (and tolerate a diversity of interests).
•    Give students the ability to learn in non-traditional ways (online, early enrollment in college, apprenticeships).
•    Make available clubs and organizations for students to join in which students learn non-academic skills.
•    Provide access to a wide range of information sources.

Our society and educational system sadly sees many of the opportunities listed above which develop “conceptual age” skills as “extras” – frills that are often the first to be cut in times of tight budgets. We are doing a disservice to our students as future workers and citizens by doing so.

I admit that I approach the problems of creating “knowledge worker” skills both from a U.S.-centric and pragmatic point of view. Yet conscientious librarians and educators of every country and professional role should be advocating for more attention to be paid to the questions: What skills will give individuals value in a global economy? What skills will allow my students to achieve the greatest level of professional attainment and personal fulfillment? What projects, activities, and assessments will allow students to practice these skills? What do schools and library programs look like that help their students and patrons master these skills?

As librarians we need to provide access to the resources necessary to support technology, information literacy and high-order thinking skills. As teachers, we need to model instructional design and delivery practices that build “conceptual age” skills. And as school leaders, we need to advocate for instructional programs that go beyond “the basics” if we are to truly demonstrate concern for our students’ futures.

Posted on Monday, July 9, 2007 at 09:11PM by Registered CommenterDoug Johnson in | Comments8 Comments

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Reader Comments (8)

I am a student on the TRIo project and I need to get some sortof relevance from your @blog' about the construction industry Please help me.

I need help about understanding different learning theories, especially constructivism, and its application to work based learning - construction.

February 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterGareth Howells

Hi Gareth,

I don't think there is any relationship between "contructivism" as an educational theory and the construction trade. Constructivism means that a student builds his/her own knowledge and understanding through reading and research rather than simply being told what he/she needs to know by a teacher.

You'll need to do a little research on this one!


February 24, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

Doug, I really enjoyed this post on knowledge worker skills. I was looking for a primer or something to at least provide me and my company with some way of thinking about and organizing the universe of skills that our employees need and this post provides a great overview and some models that we can play with. Thanks,


March 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterShilo

I too am committed to the project of understanding and describing "skills for Knowledge Workers." I call my efforts "Knowledge Literacy for the Knowledge Economy." The United Nations Public Administration Network (UNPAN) has published my first manuscript as a freely downloadable e-book on their website, titled HOW TO THINK LIKE A KNOWLEDGE WORKER. If you Google the title you will find multiple listings.

December 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWilliam Sheridan

Thank you, William. I will download and read your book over the winter break!


December 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Johnson

I'm a knowledge worker but no one wants my skills unless I have other professional skills. I've done a higher degree in the hope that it would give me some skills to present for jobs that I would be suited to doing (as I have done similar in the past). But I haven't been able to land any jobs in my broad fields of knowledge in nearly 4 years; merely jobs involving one skill in which I am not interested in further and that I find exceedingly boring: editing other people's work. I've fallen into editing as it's something I have had to be able to do in order to progress as a health researcher, writing and reviewing articles, marking student work and doing my own for my masters. It's deadly not being able to work with the content I am passionate about and even worse when there's no work at all. I'm stumped. However, a machine or an overseas worker could not do my job- I apparently need to be able to do my old job better without having any further experience!

May 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMurfomurf

I really enjoyed this post on knowledge worker skills. I was looking for a primer or something to at least provide me and my company with some way of thinking about and organizing the universe of skills that our employees need and this post provides a great overview and some models that we can play with. Thanks

August 17, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpeluang bisnis di rumah

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