Web 2.0-enabled student or knowledge worker? The line is blurring.

I recently dug up a StatCan study that I cite quite frequently-  it’s about the employment trends in the public service, reviewing 11 years of data. Essentially the public service is changing; there are less people thinking more. The public service is trimming its brute workforce and gaining more knowledge workers.

“By 2006, knowledge-based workers represented 58% of federal workers in the Core (federal) Public Administration. Eleven years earlier, they represented only 41%.”

Consider this: with the public servants retiring and knowledge workers increasing, retirees aren’t getting replaced. Workers that are not getting replaced are either filling redundant positions in the workforce or having their positions outsourced by contract or elsewhere. The Government of Canada is becoming a knowledge worker workforce. One that depends on technology like Web 2.0 tools to connect to others and to adapt to their ever-changing work.

Now the question: Is the government changing with them, or is it fighting the storm?

A paradigm of the public servant as knowledge worker came from the top, the Privy Council Office:

“A growing number of public servants are ‘knowledge workers’ This means that they own the most important resource of the organization – their know-how and their ability to innovate… A learning and knowledge-based organization is much more fluid and unpredictable. Employees are expected to look for solutions, contribute ideas, share information with others, innovate and make a contribution…it challenges the traditional concept of management…the way in which managers achieve results and get the best from everyone is very different.”

This was over a decade ago in PCO’s 5th annual report by then-PCO clerk Jocelyne Bourgon (now professor emeritus at the Canada School of Public Service). What later followed is a complex story of another renewal effort (this one named “La Releve”) around the slogan “let managers manage”, followed by public service cutbacks and layoffs and ever-changing governments.

I believe it’s time to come back to it. Now with the Internet, Web 2.0 and a talented workforce, there might not be any other way. The knowledge workers are increasing in numbers in the public service (and across the workforce). An efficient public service revolves around the quality of work of public servants, and better government values its greatest asset: the people who work in it.

PCO Clerk Jocelyne Bourgon had it right then that a knowledge-based organisation the government needs to support knowledge-workers with the resources with continual learning, which “requires a transformation in its people, its culture and its leadership [PCO 5th Report]“. Interestingly, Bourgon recognised the technology driver as well, recognising the potential of the technological tools, stating “exploiting the potential of information technology to better meet the needs of citizens…[and] cultivating more open, participatory and transparent policy development processes[PCO 5th Report]“. She continues, stating, “to adapt to the profound effects of modern information technology. Of course, the public service must adjust in order to keep pace with the times and the changing needs of citizens”

It logically follows that better information, better tools to collaborate leads to better outcomes. The public service is changing, and technology is accelerating this change. What will force it? Famed organisational theorist Peter Drucker told us in 1992:

“What will force these changes is…new technology…in part the demands of a knowledge-based society in which organized learning must become a lifelong process for knowledge workers; and in part new theory about how human beings learn…..every organization will have to learn to exploit its knowledge”

Drucker, Peter F. “The New Society of OrganizationsHarvard Business Review (1992)

Key here is the statement “every organization will have to learn to exploit its knowledge”. Part of this learning is having access to the right tools and accessing the right people. As the Government of Canada learns to exploit its knowledge, barriers will come down, and linkages will be fostered. I hope.

Let’s broaden the view here; governments dealing with a rise in knowledge workers while coming to terms with technology isn’t a new development. The impetus is always there:

“[F]or most of the twentieth century much of government power grew from expertise, but changing technology and varying loci of information have shifted expertise away from this monopolistic position. Abilities, information, knowledge, and expertise in economic development do not reside exclusively in the city government…[government] must tap these capabilities and informational sources to get programs off the ground.”

“Multinetwork Management: Collaboration and the Hollow State in Local Economic Policy,” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 8 (1998)

What will happen?

Friction. Well, more of it. I’ve stated before when I wrote about how Web 2.0 was challenging the current governance structure. Technology is changing, and the public service workforce is changing. Technology has provided Web 2.0, and the workforce wants it.

The irony at play here is that the vision existed 10 years ago, with the impetus deflated with budget cuts and a new set of priorities on the public service. Now the impetus is coming from below (the “grassroots” perhaps) with this new workforce and citizenry expecting a different way for government to do things. To do things in a more collaborative, open and connected way.

The demographics & workforce are changing

Public servants are hired as knowledge workers, then provided with compromised access to the resources they need to do their job and limited means to network with experts. Hires to-be attend universities with Web 2.0-connected colleagues, wireless networked-libraries, online databases and papers that certainly weren’t written between the hours of 8 to 4. The recent graduate is hired into the public service, printing papers and filling out forms, tethered to a desk with a sub-par computer with blocked access, clock-watching their lunch time and eyeing the end of the day.

I see a Public Service Renewal as having an opportunity to bridge this divide, between the knowledge worker and the work they do.

If the Government of Canada was looking for a public service renewal strategy for a knowledgeable and connected government, I think PCO’s 5th annual report is a great place to start.