Knowledge assisted workers

Knowledge workers are the cognitive workers who innovate and often come up with the policies and procedures in the organization.

Commentary - Recently, I read an interesting article on BBC’s website. The title was: Ready for the Robot Revolution? The article expounds on the recent advances in robotics. One sentence especially caught my attention, “Robots are tools designed to achieve human goals.” Robots can act as “intelligent appliances” that roam around carrying tasks to achieve our goals. There are many applications and tremendous potential in robots assisting humans.

Still, for some of us the robot revolution might sound too futuristic. How about technologies assisting humans intelligently with much wider applications? Recently Apple introduced the new iPhone 4S which included an interesting capability called Siri. How appropriate that the late innovator Steve Jobs leaves us with yet another legacy, helping us and enriching our lives. This technology has great potential for purposeful, proactive, intelligent, adaptive, and in-time informative assistance to the iPhone user. With rich voice recognition and conversational interfaces, it integrates with many facilities on the Internet and can act as an intelligent assistant, guiding the user through voice interactions.

Assistance via smart devices, such as smartphones or robots, is just one aspect of what could be accomplished through technology. Within the domain of business applications (especially BPM applications), the most innovative, cognitive, and influential workers are often characterized as “knowledge workers.” Originally introduced by Peter Drucker in the late 1950s, the term has evolved with extensive applicability, especially in the 21st century. Thomas Davenport has an excellent book on the topic called Thinking for a Living. The term “knowledge worker” can be applied to any type of skilled worker who thinks for a living, in any industry or domain. Knowledge workers are the cognitive workers who innovate and often come up with the policies and procedures in the organization. They can react on the spot, knowing what to do in a particular, usually exception-based situation, leveraging their knowledge and experience.

BPM has historically addressed the automation of structured and repetitive production processes, where the sequencing of activities are typically planned ahead of time – you have to follow the procedure or flow chart. The operators or participants in these structured processes tend to be “clerical” workers participating in automated processes. They carry out tasks routed and assigned to them, based on their availability, skills, or roles. The work needs to be completed within a prescribed period of time, to keep the well-oiled enterprise engine running efficiently. This sounds more like repetitive or planned “factory” work processing rather than a creative knowledge worker’s milieu for innovation.

The “work” of knowledge workers tends to be collaborative, dynamic, ad-hoc, or unstructured, and often highly dependent on the expertise of the worker. Knowledge workers are the owners of changes to policies and procedures, as well as the innovators of new products and services. Only recently, thanks to the emergence of dynamic case management, have we seen automation including knowledge workers as participants in overall dynamic cases. Dynamic cases can involve many different types of work, such as structured or planned, as well as unstructured and collaborative processes.

The spectrum of dynamic case “workers” from the clerical type to the higher-level cognitive knowledge worker is really a continuum. Knowledge workers are the experts and strategic leaders. The clerical workers are the soldiers carrying out the routine work. Between these two, you have the most important category. The majority of workers are actually “knowledge assisted workers.” Knowledge assisted workers need to apply policies and procedures in the work that they are trying to complete, and sometimes make on the spot decisions in particular situations. They need to be instructed in the application of the business rules; however, they are not coming up with the rules. Customer service representatives are a good example of knowledge assisted workers. They are usually trained so that when they interact with a customer, they know what to do. Where does the “assistance” come from? Well, there are a number of technologies that help the worker carrying out their tasks in dynamic cases:

• The worker is assisted through guided and intent driven interactions. The policies and procedures are automated and guide the interaction of the worker. The underlying dynamic case management technology provides the needed hints, coaching, or interactions for particular tasks, even pro-actively. Therefore, depending on the task and its context, the worker is assisted with intuitive and targeted interactions. Compare this to the intense training and often cryptic or complex forms, multiple screens, manual perusing, and other wasteful activities that workers need to engage in to get their job done.

The worker is assisted with situational or contextual assistance. There could be different variations or specializations of business policies for different types of customers, jurisdictions, or services. For instance, a different discount calculation could be offered to a customer by the customer service representative, depending upon the type of the customer, product, or location. Thus, the application of business rules, UI interactions, and just-in-time and just-needed forms. The system assists the worker in picking the most appropriate. Instead of relying on the worker to peruse policy manuals, the system helps the worker treat various customers differently, with a certain level of personalization.

The worker is assisted with knowledge and insight from historical data. Advanced analytics capabilities, such as predictive and adaptive analytics, can take the guesswork out of many categories of tasks to offer a prioritized list of next best actions for the worker. The dynamic case solution can accurately determine which people are going to be your best customers, what they are likely to want, how they will react to a particular offer, and how you can best align customer desires with business objectives. Furthermore, through adaptive techniques, the next best action recommendations could change and adapt.

These are some of the capabilities in a dynamic case solution that can assist workers in carrying out the tasks that are assigned or routed to them. Robotics and personal assistance solutions on smartphones will continue to provide increasingly sophisticated and helpful solutions to the user. But for workers, invaluable assistance is provided through contextual guidance, situational execution of policies, and “next best action” recommendations for the dynamic case tasks of perhaps the most important category of workers – the knowledge assisted worker.

Setrag Khoshafian is one of the earliest pioneers and recognized experts in Business Process Management. Currently, he is Vice President of BPM Technology at Pegasystems Inc. He is the strategic BPM technology leader at Pega and is also involved in numerous technology, marketing, alliance, and customer initiatives – especially in business process outsourcing. He is the lead author of nine books as well as numerous business and technical articles. His latest book is Service Oriented Enterprises ( In addition to BPM, he is a noted expert on SOA, object-orientation, and database technologies.