Some years back I heard the above term which was meant to label the workers whose brains were used more than the brawn. And I was happy to be one of them. Because my prejudice told me that the ones using their gray cells are valued more, both in monetary terms as well as social status.

The professions employing knowledge workers include doctors, lawyers, teachers and professionals who are adept at making sense of inexplicable things.

When I moved out of my engineering in 2002, the IT sector was employing hoards of the knowledge workers. It was later that I realized that the sector is brimming with people who have moved in for the sake of easy life and higher cash flow. But they lacked the aptitude needed to make IT work.

But I was wrong. To build IT systems is one thing, to run it commercially is another. The latter (often) doesn’t require a lot of innovation, and is akin to a clerk in a traditional organization making the same reports and doing the same job every passing day. I felt that IT, in fact was an abode of sophisticated clerks.

I’ve had the opportunity to explore the ways of working of some traditional manufacturing organizations as well. The culture may be different, so might be the content, but the basic essence of work remains the same. With multiple levels of hierarchy, there are people with varied qualifications, each doing work they best can. From the outside it might appear crappy, but the fact remains that such dirty work also needs to be done. To add to the comfort of the officers, there are office boys, who incidentally are also employees of the organization. I have also seen a few young promising individuals, who working in a different role. These people are usually highly qualified, self motivated, and get to learn things from their bosses, and subsequently move up the ladder. These look at the strategic view of things, and apply their brains to innovate things which add real value to the company. TAS of the Tatas is one such example.

Arent these individuals knowledge workers? You bet they are. They look at things differently; they are trained to move fast. Tata also has the concept of Fastrack, whereby qualified and performing people are rapidly moved up the ladder, bypassing years of experience. Companies that are forward looking have separate careers for such individuals.

Comparing this with the IT world, even here there are roles that can be given to the better ones. The difficult part is to identify whom to push forward. Usually everyone is equally qualified, and with retrenchment being the norm, it gets difficult to identify, leave alone retain them. That’s because everyone wants to make hay till the sun shines.

IT companies must take a cue from the new generation companies in the traditional sector, to have more lucrative career paths for the more promising individuals. In its absence, the normal growth pattern is far from interesting. There are both promising and not so promising, both hard workers and hardly-workers. It takes a good deal of effort to pinpoint individuals who are loyal, hard working as well as brilliant.

As the IT industry matures, it will get imperative for companies to make the differentiation at various levels. Without this, there will be a lot of bright people ‘caught in the wrong job’.