Our Articles

A Monthly Article from our Speakers

Current Article of the month

Articles of 2020

Articles of 2019

Articles of 2018

Articles of 2017

Articles of 2016

Articles of 2015

Articles of 2014

Articles of 2013

Articles of 2012

Articles of 2011

Articles of 2010

Articles of 2009

Articles of 2008

Articles of 2007

Articles of 2006

Articles of 2005

Articles of 2004

Articles of 2003

Articles of 2002

Colin WhiteInformation Workers: Who Are They?

by Colin White

May 2009


Business users are becoming increasingly frustrated with the tools they have for finding the information they need to do their jobs. This frustration was highlighted in a 2007 Accenture survey of 1,000 middle managers that showed managers spend up to 2 hours a day looking for information and that more than 50 percent of the information they find has no value to them.

Business users often have problems finding information because the data discovery and analysis tools provided by vendors often assume, incorrectly, that the user has a detailed working knowledge of the business data involved, knows where to find it, and is able to use fairly sophisticated software tools for finding and using the business data they require.

Data and business analysts who work with computers and business data throughout their working day may have a good working knowledge of corporate data and software used to process that data, but the majority of users do not. This is why business intelligence (BI) tools are used only by a fraction of users that could benefit from them and also why improving usability is a key focus area at present for BI vendors.

In the past, I have often used the expression less experienced users to describe those employees that use information to help them do their jobs, but information is not the sole focus of their role in the organization. This expression is not only slightly derogatory, but also vague. After researching other expressions I could use instead, I finally settled on the term information worker to describe those employees that use information in their jobs, and then categorized those employees as either information consumers or information producers. I’ll define these latter two terms in a moment, but first I want to explore the term information worker.

Researching the Terms

While looking for other expressions to use in place of less experienced users I visited the web sites of leading BI vendors such as Business Objects, Cognos, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and SAP to see what terminology they used. There was a general lack of consistency in terminology usage by these vendors, especially when it came to terms such as data, information, and knowledge, but in general most of the vendors used the term information worker or knowledge worker, or a combination of the two. In fact, many vendors sometimes used both terms in the same document. IBM tended to prefer knowledge worker, whereas Microsoft used primarily information worker.

What struck me was that none of the vendors did a good job of defining different types of knowledge/information workers or their requirements from an information-handling viewpoint. More research was therefore required if I was to define these terms accurately.

A colleague of mine pointed out that Peter Drucker coined the term knowledge worker in a business context as the antonym of manual laborer.

“Every knowledge worker in a modern organization is an executive if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results.” Peter Drucker, “The Effective Executive,” 1966.

“Finally, these new industries differ from the traditional modern industry in that they will employ predominantly knowledge workers rather than manual workers.” Peter Drucker, “The Age of Discontinuity, 1969.”

Given the above, it would be reasonable to assume that an information worker (that is someone who works with information) is a type of knowledge worker. I believe there is a difference between information and knowledge, as there is between data and information, but that is a topic for another article.

An interesting piece of research I found into the needs of knowledge workers was an IBM Systems Journal article entitled “Ethnographic Study of Collaborative Knowledge Work,” (Volume 45, Number 4, 2006). To quote the introduction to this article:

“The term [knowledge worker] was coined by Peter Drucker in 1969 to describe someone who adds value in the workplace by processing existing information to create new information which can be used to define and solve problems. Examples of knowledge workers include managers, salespeople, nurses, doctors, lawyers, judges, and analysts. To get their job done knowledge workers rely heavily on tacit knowledge, the kind of knowledge that cannot be codified, but only gained through training or personal experience.

Companies consider knowledge workers among their top talent and are looking for ways to improve their effectiveness. These workers rely on the ability to work collaboratively, leverage relationship capital, and deliver new solutions. Understanding how they work and what their needs are is a critical step toward creating tools that enable them to perform more efficiently. If we can improve technologies and work practices for knowledge workers, we may impact the knowledge work component of many jobs.

We describe an ethnographic study whose goal is to better understand the ways knowledge workers get their jobs done, to identify the kinds of support they could benefit from, and to make recommendations for tools that might provide such support.”

The IBM Journal study identifies two types of knowledge workers: business user and power user:

“Business User

  • Goals: aligned with the business goals
  • Focus: getting the job done
  • IT: computers are simply a means to an end; there is little business value to learning a new tool or technology.
  • Skills: business expert who uses computers (e.g., browses the Web) but has no development skills, not even HTML, and has no desire to develop these skills

Power User

  • Goals: mix of business and technical goals
  • Focus: sometimes known as the local IT expert (guru); provides help to others in installing or upgrading of software and some troubleshooting; usually the first person called upon for help before approaching the IT department
  • IT: usually the early adopter in their group; uses computers to get the job done and has interests in new tools and technologies
  • Skills: business expert who, although not a developer, understands technology and is willing to learn to use a new tool if the benefits justify the effort”

These are fairly standard definitions, but the article is worth reading for how these two types of users carry out their jobs.

I found another article on this topic in a 2005 blog entry by Microsoft’s Mark Bower entitled “What’s in a Name? The Information Worker, the Knowledge Worker and the Structured Task Worker.”

The Microsoft article considers a knowledge worker to be a type of information worker.

“When we use the term information worker, this isn't simply another name for knowledge worker. Information worker is the superset of 3 classes of worker with different information and technology usage characteristics.

Knowledge Worker

  • Works with ideas and manages teams
  • Wants to be able to develop and improve processes and forms; encourage collaboration; create workspace environments
  • Needs to create, consume, transform and analyze data
  • Works in an unstructured, free form way, maybe starting with a set of ideas that are collaborated on and built into a new document/report/form/business process.
  • Examples of this type of worker include middle/senior managers, consultants, and marketing executives.

The Structured Task Worker

  • Unlike the knowledge worker they tend to work only with data and information, not ideas.
  • Create and consume, but don't transform or manage information
  • Needs to be able to find facts quickly; create documents; edit, write and process information
  • According to some reports this category of information worker makes up 80 percent of the user base in most organizations.
  • Examples of this type of user include bank clerk, call centre operator, nurse and people in supervisor roles: shop manager, bank manager, nursing supervisor.

The Data Entry Worker

  • Create and consume, but don't transform or manage information
  • Wants easy access to information; standardized process and forms; list management
  • Doesn't tend to do free-form document creation
  • This type of user typically works in some kind of administrative, secretarial or receptionist role.

I think this categorization scheme is confusing. The skills of the knowledge worker in this scheme are broadly equivalent to those of IBM’s power user. However, I don’t consider middle and senior managers (the examples given in the definition) to be power users. Also, defining a knowledge worker as a subtype of information worker is not consistent with Peter Drucker’s original definition.

I think you can see from just the short discussion above how difficult it is to define the roles of information users in organizations, to give those roles meaningful names, and to clearly define the information needs and tools for each role.

I decided not to use the term knowledge worker given the origin of the name and the way it is (mis)used today. Instead, I use the term information worker and to break information workers into two types: information consumers and information producers.

Information consumers range from senior and middle managers to call center staff. A common characteristic of these information workers is that they do not use corporate data and IT information-handling tools throughout their working day. These types of users represent the bulk of the information workers in an organization, and it is these users that are unhappy with the capabilities they currently have for finding information. Information consumers are the equivalent of business users in the IBM Journal article mentioned earlier.

Information consumers need to discover information that enables them to do their jobs more efficiently and make more informed business decisions. Information discovery involves locating and retrieving information of interest, and then filtering and organizing it so that it is easy to navigate and explore. Some information consumers, such as business managers, may do some limited analysis of the discovered information, while others, such as call-center staff, just use the information as is.

Information producers create the information used by information consumers. In addition to using information creation and discovery tools, information producers also use analysis techniques to enhance, aggregate, and report on information. Information analysis extends information discovery by enabling information producers to apply their knowledge and expertise to discovered information and enhance its value by putting it into a business context. Enhancing information in this way makes it easier and faster to use by information consumers in their jobs. Information consumers may do additional analysis of the information, but this is likely to be limited in scope.

Examples of information producers include BI specialists, and data and business analysts. For these skilled information workers, the discovery process is less difficult, compared with information consumers, because they have a detailed understanding of the information they work with in their everyday jobs. These information workers find it relatively easily to locate and explore data in corporate systems because they have a good knowledge of the data and its relationships to other applications. These users also have a thorough understanding of the meaning of the business information that is encapsulated in corporate data. Information producers are the equivalent of power users in the IBM Journal article mentioned earlier.

Information producers may have sufficient expertise to manually analyze discovered information. Usually, however, more in-depth analysis requires the use of automated analysis tools provided by BI and office productivity tools vendors. Frequent use of these tools enables these skilled information workers to master the complexities and idiosyncrasies that exist in many of these products.

The above is a starting point for defining the roles of information workers. One issue is that there are several types of information consumer. The skills and requirements of a call canter representative are different from those of a senior manager (a VP of Sales, for example). The former is a pure information consumer, whereas the latter may also have some information producer skills. This is why information worker titles should be related to business and technology skills, and why job roles should be related to requirements. A mapping of skills to requirements would then complete the categorization scheme.