Wednesday, February 08, 2006

kinds of workers

my conversation with nikhil also sparked another line of thought: what kinds of workers are there, and how do we mix different types of workers together? i started thinking about this because i wanted to try and have a model for choices i make as a worker as a function of my personal development.

in this part i talk strictly about people as workers, and i don't consider the social dimension of our lives. this is of course limiting, but it has helped me think about work.

now i imagine you're wondering what i mean.. so let me be more specific. in this post i want to talk about 3 types of information workers that i've been thinking about: peons, problem solvers, and visionaries.

often, people mix a bit of these 3 types into their own work.


there is little innovation in what a peon does. a peon works towards some goal which is clearly defined, chugging away at a task until it is completed. it's important to note that a peon is largely interchangeable with another peon. for concreteness, and coming from a perspective i understand, let's consider software engineers as an example of the information workforce peons. for the most part, software engineers are implementing a specification. 90% of this work is likely peon-ish in nature.. swapping in another peon is usually feasible, it's just that typically the peon working on a problem has honed their skills and is probably quite quick at completing the task. in essence, i guess i'm talking about peons with semi-important expertise.

problem solvers

problem solvers can take new problems, or old problems, and find interesting and innovative solutions. they also see the drawbacks and limitations with their solutions, and can expand the original problem to see larger classes of problems, as well as solutions. continuing with software engineers, we can see that for a typical software engineers, it's probably true that some small percentage of their time is spent problem solving.

a purer problem solver might be considered professors in academia. their job is essentially to push the envelope of research in their field. when they are done with a problem, often they hand off that problem to others so they can continue pushing the envelope in other areas.


a visionary sees where things should be down the road, or where they might be, and works with that vision at the forefront of their mind, guiding their decisions. visionaries see things others can't, and they bring people around to their vision, and recruit people to help them realize the vision.

some analysis

now i imagine that even visionaries were once peons. furthermore, if you really want to accomplish your vision, you probably need to be very good at working in peon mode. visionaries also need to have good problem solving skills, because the road to their vision is filled with obstacles.

interestingly, i believe that problem solvers need not ever really be peons or visionaries. they can kind of wall themselves in, working myopically on their particular problem. there are many academics who do just this.

the best information workers, i believe, are those that combine good peon work with problem solving. in general, visionaries make poor information workers unless you let them work on their vision. otherwise, they'll be unfocused. pure problem solvers do poorly as information workers because unless you can compartmentalize their work into individual problems, it's inevitable that the problem solver will be distracted as they think more deeply about problems that might be essentially irrelevent.

now i actually personally think it's good to be a peon, at least for a while. it's where you sharpen your skills. however, at some point you learn everything there is to know, and then you're going through the motions. if you want a mentally easy life, workwise, certainly you should just keep repeating the motions. but if you want to keep learning, then you need to switch your peon work, because only in new work will you actually learn new things. in fact, that's exactly what pure problem solvers generally thirst for: they want to solve new problems, which requires learning new things.

inevitably, i imagine people will think that i'm making some judgement about the value of each type of worker. something like, "oh visionaries are so much more interesting and vibrant. who wants to be a peon?" but that's not my point at all. my point is that by understanding these categories, how you feel about them, and understanding where you might fit, and how your decisions relate to these categories, you might better understand where you want to be, and what might need to change to get you there.

or maybe this is all bunk... but i've been thinking about it and wanted to get it recorded.


Halldor said...

Man, have you considered going into MBA, perhaps with HR as a focus? Business people think a lot about this, and by the way, there are more types than 3 (I think some system has 7).

Of course the MBA would find a better name than "peon", which according to the dictionary means "somebody who does boring menial tasks"

omar said...

MBAs do this all the time! man, i want it!

but seriously, i agree that there are more types than 3. however, i also think that everyone should give this a thought once in a while -- i think giving thought to this is like giving thought to who you are and how you behave in your social life, which is also worth thinking about.

in fact, considering that most people work most of their life (more than they socialize) it might make more sense to think about this stuff.

personally, i'd prefer to retire and drink wine :)

omar said...

oh, halldor, you're a peon!

peon just seemed like the best word. i didn't particularly want to mince words. i also think that peon might have a bad rap.. what's so bad about being a well-paid peon?

seema said...

i want to be a peon. oh please.

hkm said...

i think this is the first time i've heard the word "peon"! sounds like some kind of high tech gadget! like, "i just got the latest ipeon!"

if you can get your hands on it, harvard business review has some really great articles on kinds of workers and other theory... look into the organizational behaviour section (i think they have one?).