The Making of a Knowledge Worker

by Greg Hutchins

This is the story of Dan Sawyer. Sawyer is an expert in the emerging areas of engineering and technology governance and the application of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to technology.

Sawyer is a new type of worker—a knowledge worker. Pundits now think most of us will have to eventually mature into knowledge workers. These people are usually paid the most because they add the most value to organizations through the ideas they develop and the ideas they help monetize.

How did Sawyer, a technology geek, get to where he is today? I recently interviewed him as he was engaged as an IT governance expert for the state of Oregon legislature. I was intrigued by how a former software quality engineer had made so many career changes to eventually become a technology governance guru.

If Sawyer could transition from technical software quality expert to IT governance expert, his story could offer lessons to QP readers.

Hutchins: First tell me a little about yourself.

Sawyer: I started as an electrical engineer. I spent most of my first 20 working years with large companies, such as Sperry/Unisys and Sequent/
IBM. I followed a career arc of continuous career and technical development, starting as a programmer for enterprise mainframe systems, and gradually rose to director of software, systems design. Those were the good old days. But things changed.

Hutchins: How did things change?

Sawyer: A number of eye popping changes occurred. The business model for most of the technology sectors changed from designing and manufacturing large mainframes to desktop computers. Computing speed doubled every 24 months—Moore’s Law in action. There was lots more competition—first domestically, then globally—all of which led to dramatic changes at Sperry and, inevitably, affected my career.

Hutchins: What did these changes mean to your career?

Sawyer: If I was going to be marketable as a technology person, I had to adapt, period. I also knew that my employer wouldn’t look out for my family and me. I had to take charge and look out for myself.

This change in mind-set was traumatic and dramatic. I had to change how I saw my self worth as well as change how others saw my value contribution. I moved into expert based contracting and started positioning myself as an itinerant and indispensable knowledge worker.

Hutchins: What do you mean by an “itinerant and indispensable knowledge worker”?

Sawyer: One of the hard things to personally acknowledge in today’s consulting market is that I had to go where the work was. Work is no longer location specific. That’s a reality in today’s global economy. That was a tough reality for my family.

Second, I wanted to be indispensable to my client. This can mean different things. I’m brought to the table for executive decision making. I’m on the same side of the table working with my client as a trusted advisor to solve enterprise technical problems and to mediate solutions. In some cases, I might provide peace of mind on governance. I might issue a professional opinion to the board of directors.

Finally, I’m a knowledge worker. I add demonstrable, doable and applicable value in many technology spaces. I made a conscious decision not to be in commodity hell.

Hutchins: Commodity hell. That’s a fairly harsh concept. Do you want to elaborate?

Sawyer: It’s fairly straightforward. Commodity hell is low paid, low value added work. It is routine work that can be standardized and ultimately outsourced. It might pay well at first, but in time—sometimes quickly—it is going to be outsourced. It’s bad business as well as a bad personal business decision to spend much time in a commodity business.

Commodity business can be outsourced and, in the process, so can I. Also, there are the pricing pressures due to outsourcing. If others can duplicate your work offshore, outsourcing will be done quickly. How quickly is a real revelation.

Hutchins: “Adding value” seems to be your favorite expression. What do you mean by this?

Sawyer: Organizational value does not rest in property, plant and equipment any more. It rests with highly value added competencies. Once the ideas are deployed and monetized, they add intellectual property value to the company. I’m valued and paid to the extent I can add demonstrable value.

Hutchins: Another favorite phrase is “knowledge worker.” What do you mean by this?

Sawyer: Knowledge workers are responsible for innovation and continuous improvement. It’s estimated the knowledge worker class of worker is the fastest growing segment of the population. In general, knowledge work is the future of consulting.

For example, I have value added and differentiable knowledge, skills and abilities. I think for a living. I solve technical problems. Knowledge workers are usually paid the most and have the most impact on an organization. Companies with the greatest number of knowledge workers tend to be the fastest growing.

Hutchins: What are tips to becoming a successful knowledge worker?

Sawyer: I guess there are two pieces to the puzzle. The first is your technical and hard knowledge skills, and the second is your soft knowledge and maturity. Let me talk about these.

The first thing is having some knowledge that someone wants. The knowledge should solve an urgent problem. The problem can be at the enterprise/governance level or at a commodity level. Understand the implications of the problem and how it will impact you.

The second is personal and emotional maturity quotient. In some ways, this is tougher than simply having the technical knowledge.

From a work habit perspective, I’d say that other critical assets include the ability to self-manage work. Good work habits are essential. Say what you mean, and do what you say.

Hutchins: You mentioned that you anticipated several value migrations and positioned yourself accordingly.

Sawyer: This is really critical. I personally experienced several pivotal migrations.

There is a value hierarchy migration. Data is at the lowest level, then information and then knowledge is at the highest value level. I started my career working for large organizations that built computers and IT systems that captured data and later stored information. Now, due to the internet and globalization, harvesting data and understanding information are commodities.

Competition is in applying and monetizing knowledge. That’s why I made a conscious decision to know how to translate and apply technology to business decision making. I aimed to be at the very top of the knowledge worker pyramid, specifically in the technology governance space.

Hutchins: So there are different types of consultants?

Sawyer: I consciously positioned myself to be a high end technology consultant. What does that mean? There are basically three types of technical consultants. The lower ones work on technical problems and are paid accordingly. Middle level consultants work on process and project level problems and do fairly well. High end consultants work on enterprise and system level issues.

After more than 30 years in business, I’ve positioned myself in the governance space, consulting with top execs on engineering and technology governance.

Hutchins: What do you see as the next big thing? In other words, is there such a thing as recession proof employment?

Sawyer: Good question. Nothing is really recession proof. Because of my work in IT and engineering governance, I’ve been in quality land on and off for 30 years, mainly providing Capability Maturity Model software assessments over the last 15 years. I think that the next big thing will be risk management.

I’ve been doing technology and Sarbanes-Oxley work over the last four years. Both deal with managing uncertainty and variance—in other words, risk. Quality and risk have an inverse relationship. The logic goes something like this: Consistency is the hallmark of quality. Risk, as an uncertainty, is the opposite of quality. I believe quality professionals should rebrand themselves, learn the language of risk management and add risk to their quality toolkits. It’s only smart business.

Hutchins: What final tip can you give our readers?

Sawyer: Be resilient. That’s probably the hardest thing that I’ve had to do. I’m an engineer. I believe in cause and effect. My biggest challenge is that in today’s chaotic job market, there is little visible cause and effect. Most work and job factors are beyond our direct control.

GREG HUTCHINS is an engineering principal with Quality Plus Engineering and Lean SCM in Portland, OR. He is a member of ASQ.

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