In search of the Knowmad-friendly organization
Knowmads — the nomadic professionals of the knowledge economy — are in their element under uncertainty and ambiguity. They know how to extract value from their knowledge, skills, learning capacity, social capital, and passions. But they do not fit well into hierarchical and bureaucratic organizational contexts where they feel constrained by structures, procedures and rules that often leave little room for personal initiative and craftsmanship.
For that reason, and because they normally have more opportunities to find an alternative job than their colleagues, knowmads don’t stay much in this type of work environments, so their employers frequently accuse them of being disloyal. But what really happens is that for knowmads the word loyalty means something very different. The unconditional loyalty many companies still expect from their employees is something that simply does not fit into their schemes.
Job descriptions of several pages, leaders who value presence rather than contribution, micromanagement, the absence of meritocracy, and slow decision-making choke them. Knowmads have left behind the prefabricated jobs we inherited from the industrial era and seek projects that fit their passions and their need to find meaning in what they do. Actually, most of them are “craftspersons” in the sense Richard Sennett gives to this term in his book The Craftsman. The way they work reflects a desire to do their job well for its own sake, a goal they achieve after years of practice and experimentation looking for work perfection as a source of satisfaction and personal fulfillment…
Their careers are also subject to that perfectionism. Knowmads take care of selecting experiences that enrich them both intellectually and emotionally. In that sense, they are living examples of the “protean careers” defined and studied by Douglas T. Hall in the seventies:
(A protean career is) a process that the person, not the organization, is managing. It consists of all of the person’s varied experiences in education, training, work in several organizations, changes in occupational field, etc. The protean person’s own personal career choices and search for self fulfillment are the unifying or integrative elements in his or her life.”
Knowmads understand that learning is primarily a social process. In fact their professional life is a continuous cycle of learning and unlearning in which they cooperate, share, and weave networks of relationships. In addition, they are not afraid to make mistakes, and they are continually exploring new alternatives, and dare to run risks, and make experiments, precisely because they know how much they also learn when things do not go to plan.
However, it is true that these knowmads don’t fit well into the structures, work systems, and culture of many companies, and this is a challenge the leaders of these organizations rarely know how to address. They realize they need to find ways to attract and bind a new category of professionals they do not understand well enough, but with whom they can’t live without. Yet they do not know where to start…
Above all it is a matter of culture fit.
At the end of the day, knowmads look for the same things as any other nomadic tribe throughout history: space and freedom.
These professionals want to have autonomy to exercise their initiative and creativity, and to set up networks of interpersonal relationships through which they share information and carry out their work. They want to have freedom to improve the way things are done, replacing existing working methods with more efficient, more agile, and more efficient ones. And they also want to have the possibility of using skills that would otherwise remain untapped, and to extend their areas of responsibility to include other activities and relationships that will enable them to learn new things, or make a greater impact.
The challenge is that to get there many organizations first need to break with years of running in the opposite direction…