Knowledge workers, information life cycles, and content silos oh my

This is what content silos feel like to knowledge workers

Our modern economy runs on knowledge. Today, knowledge lives in the cloud as digital content, information, and data stored across an increasing maze of productivity, collaboration, and communication apps and repositories. The content, knowledge and intellectual property residing within organizations are assets that must be managed and leveraged just like physical assets and human assets, in this case, knowledge workers.

As teams become more distributed, organizations become flatter, and knowledge workers become more literate in technology, companies will adapt to become more agile and dynamic in order to break down the barriers to efficiency that have existed the past twenty to thirty years. While this is the case, the modern knowledge worker faces a specific set of challenges in the workplace, many of which forward-thinking organizations will tackle using advancements in technology and an understanding of the cultural shifts of the workforce.

Exactly who is the modern knowledge worker?
This is Jim. Jim is a knowledge worker.

Jamie Johnson defines knowledge workers as the “people who are developing new strategies and coming up with ideas for new products and services” and are “individuals with a high level of education and experience. The main focus of their job is to use and apply knowledge in a creative and innovative way.” She further describes their main characteristics as having “Specialized knowledge of a subject, The ability to find and access new information, The ability to utilize new information, Good communication skills, and A growth-motivated mindset.”

Knowledge workers can be programmers, architects, engineers, marketers, design thinkers, public accountants, lawyers, and academics, and essentially any other white-collar worker who uses judgement and critical thinking in their role.

Peter Drucker first coined the term in 1959 when he stated: “The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.” Three years later the famous consultant, author, and scholar stated that increasing the productivity of knowledge workers was “the most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century.”

The Growth of Knowledge Work Occupations
robot coworkers are coming but they aren’t here yet

Despite advancements in technology (like AI, automation, robotics) that are supposedly going to wipe out jobs, knowledge workers continue to be the most prolific area of job growth in the modern economy. In 2012, McKinsey & Company estimated there are 230 million knowledge workers in the world. The Wall Street Journal states “knowledge work occupations have been adding more jobs than any other since the 1980s — about 1.9 million per year. The other categories are growing too, but only by about 100,000 to 250,000 per year.”

The Wall Street Journal also states that when looking through the past thirty years, the number of jobs for knowledge workers has never been rising as quickly as it currently. The graph below highlights the growth of knowledge workers comparative to routine and manual workers.

Not only are the numbers of knowledge workers increasing, but their demographics are shifting dramatically. As my colleague Mihir Bhangley wrote, Millennials will make up 75% of employee demographics by 2025, and with 70 million baby boomers set to retire over the next 20 years, the demographics of knowledge workers will undergo a dramatic cultural shift, reimagining the way workers learn, work, and collaborate.

In the past, employees were driven by external lifestyle motivators such as salary, benefits, and location. The modern knowledge worker is more interested in workplace flexibility, technology, social impact, collaboration and a desire for continuous development. Learning matters more than ever to knowledge workers, with 65% of employees identifying career opportunities and training as their most important motivators.

As knowledge workers become learning workers, they will also become way more technologically advanced. Workers will have increasingly high expectations for how their role, team and tech stack function together, thus reducing their patience for inefficiencies in the workplace.

A 2016 Ericsson Mobility study found a single website loading delay lead to a 38% increase in heart rate, roughly equivalent to how someone would feel watching a horror movie. Millennials have the desire for instant gratification, and this carries over to the workplace as well.

This is also the case with communication. For example, workers 18–44 years old prefer team messaging like Slack (43 percent), and find it the least disruptive work activity while workers 45+ years old not only prefer email but also find communication apps the third most disruptive work activity after unscheduled meetings and phone calls.

The modern knowledge worker will value experience, teamwork, and collaboration while bringing a more adept view on tech in the workplace. This will also lead to much higher expectations on the tech they use to enable them to work faster and more efficiently while breaking down company silos by enabling flatter and more collaborative team structures.

Technology Trends and the Knowledge Worker
What about the tech?

Now that we covered the makeup of the knowledge worker and how they are evolving over time, it is important to understand the technology that is essential to their performance and how market trends are shaping the ‘future of work’ for the knowledge worker.

First, we need to define the technology markets at play. What markets have the biggest impact on knowledge workers everyday activity, and ultimately their organizations at large?

For the purpose of this article, I’m going to define the markets as Enterprise Collaboration, Next-Generation Data Storage, Document Management Systems, Enterprise Content Management Systems, and Enterprise Collaboration Systems. While these markets are inherently bigger than just “tech for knowledge workers”, they all play a massive part in a knowledge workers ability to perform their roles.

The Next-Generation Data Storage Market is expected to reach 144.76 Billion USD by 2022, the growth of which is mainly driven by the increasing volume of digital data, the proliferation of mobile devices (smartphones, laptops, and tablets) and the growth of new markets like IOT.

The Document Management Systems Market is expected to grow to 6.78 Billion USD by 2023. Separately, the Enterprise Content Management Market is expected to grow to USD 67.14 Billion by 2022, with the largest contributor being the exponential growth of digital assets a company creates and uses.

Finally, we consider The Enterprise Collaboration Market, currently valued at USD 31.25 billion and expected to register a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of over 10.62% over the next 5 years. When combined, we’re looking at ~ USD 300 billion in market size.

Where do we go from here?
There’s no looking back

Now that we have an idea of the markets at large, it is time to take a deeper dive. The technology implemented from each one of these markets ends up contributing to one or more aspects of the information life cycle for knowledge workers:

the circle of life, for information

For the remainder of this article, we are going to look at one of the most important aspects of the information lifecycle: the search and retrieval of existing information and how content silos are impacting the profitability and efficiency of organizations

This IDC Whitepaper states that within the information life cycle “the ability to find and retrieve information is paramount. It’s impossible to create knowledge from information that cannot be found or retrieved. For knowledge workers to truly fulfill their potential as catalysts in transforming information to knowledge assets, timely access to relevant information is crucial.”

Where the f@%$ is the piece I need?!

Finding information has become even more of an arduous task than it has been in previous years. One of the reasons for this is the sheer amount of information knowledge workers are inundated with. The IDC projects that data will grow to 40 zettabytes by 2020, resulting in a 50-fold growth from the beginning of 2010.

They also estimate that more than 90% of the information created is “unstructured” information, meaning information that resides outside of databases and living within documents, communication applications, and other content silos. Even more alarming is that out of all the unstructured information being created, less than 1% of the information is analyzed or used at all.

If the information isn’t being found or used, where does it go?

This information, as categorized by the IDC, is the “invisible intranet” of the enterprise. Proprietary file formats used in legacy content management systems are generally not indexed, regardless of how common they are or how often they are used. The IDC further states “Even commonplace productivity files in Microsoft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint formats are often overlooked or ignored by crawlers. In general, file system–based storage devices are the least effectively indexed resources in any enterprise network.”

Acknowledging these challenges, Dropbox states in their S1 SEC filing that “The proliferation of devices, operating systems, and applications has dramatically increased the volume and complexity of content in the workplace. Content is now routinely scattered across multiple silos, making it harder to access. According to a 2016 IDC report, more than half of companies ranging from 100 to 5,000+ employees use at least three repositories for accessing documents on a weekly basis.” It is important to note that beyond the 900 cloud applications being used by the average enterprise to manage its processes, the proliferation of fluid and distributed teams working across multiple devices and operating systems only exacerbates the problems created by content silos.

Executives also agree on the challenges content silos create. According to a survey conducted by the IDC — “76% of company executives considered information to be “mission critical” and their company’s most important asset. Yet, 60% felt that time constraints and lack of understanding of how to find information were preventing their employees from finding the information they needed.”

Now that we acknowledge content silos are a problem in the workplace it is time to take a look at their impact on an organization and its employees, as well as how deep the problem goes.

An all too normal occurrence

Employee Stress:

In a 2015 survey, Wrike found the number one source of stress in the workplace is missing information. 52% of the 1,400 survey respondents said they feel stress when they have to wait to receive information or can’t find the content they need to do their job.

RingCentral found that workers often get so frustrated and stressed over content silos that they’d rather do household chores(53 percent) and pay bills (52 percent) over navigating the content management systems and repositories of their company. While this is amusing, its also quite alarming.

maybe wasting time is more fun when there is fire

Waste of time:

Content silos lead to an extraordinary amount of wasted time. Often content needs to be recreated because the employees can’t find the original’s location, and/or people are completely unaware of its existence in the first place. Professor Kit Sims Taylor found that knowledge workers spend nearly two-thirds of their time searching for content and information and communicating it to others. According to Professor Sims, roughly one-third of a knowledge worker’s time is spent in reworking and recreating knowledge that already exists. Only about 10% of time is actually spent in the creation of new knowledge and content.

In RingCentral’s “From Workplace to Zen” report they found app fragmentation and content silos so bad that more than two-thirds of knowledge workers waste up to 60 minutes at work daily navigating
between applications, and 68 percent of workers toggle between apps up to 10 times an hour.

The cost burden to organizations:

Studies by AIIM and Ford Motor Company found that these content silos lead to:

“Poor decisions based on faulty or poor information. Duplicated efforts because more than one business unit works on the same project without knowing it has already been done. Lost sales because workers can’t find the information they need on products or services and give up in frustration and lost productivity because employees can’t find the information they need and have to resort to asking for help from colleagues.”

Furthermore the IDC Reports

  • An enterprise employing 1,000 knowledge workers wastes at least $2.5 to $3.5 million per year searching for nonexistent information, failing to find existing information, or recreating information that can’t be found. Furthermore, the opportunity cost to the enterprise is even greater, with potential additional revenue lost exceeding $15 million annually.
  • In the aggregate, the Fortune 1000 stands to waste at least $2.5 billion per year due to an inability to locate and retrieve information.
  • Fortune 500 companies would lose $12 billion as a result of intellectual rework, substandard performance, and inability to find knowledge resources. IDC calls this the “Knowledge Deficit”

The disconnect between knowledge workers and management

McKinsey & Company found that almost 80 percent of the senior executives surveyed in a 2005 study said that effective coordination across product, functional, and geographic lines was crucial for growth. With this being the case, only 25 percent of the respondents described their organizations as “effective” at sharing knowledge across teams. While C-suite executives show concern, they are the most likely to be content with their current suite of tools, as this RingCentral study shows 44 percent of executives to be fine with their current tech stack. This clearly reveals a disconnect with the cultural shift to newer communication and collaboration solutions.


The knowledge worker has been the most important employee of the enterprise for thirty years and will continue to be crucial for the operations of companies regardless of industry. As the demographics of knowledge workers shift to a younger generation, the capabilities and demands of the average knowledge worker will shift as well.

Companies need to understand where challenges and inefficiencies have existed for knowledge workers, as well as understand that these are opportunities to not only extract value but also create competitive advantages. Utilizing the increasing tech literacy of the younger generation, as well as their increasing desire to communicate and collaborate amongst teams and organizations, companies will be able to decrease, if not completely eliminate, the barriers that obstruct workers throughout the information life cycle.

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