The Education Futures Blog

Who are knowmads?

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The world belongs to nerds, geeks, makers, dreamers, and knowmads.

Over fifteen years ago, I crafted the knowmad concept while a PhD student at the University of Minnesota. A few years later, I wrote a blog post with a general definition:

“A knowmad is what I term a nomadic knowledge worker –that is, a creative, imaginative, and innovative person who can work with almost anybody, anytime, and anywhere. Industrial society is giving way to knowledge and innovation work. Whereas industrialization required people to settle in one place to perform a very specific role or function, the jobs associated with knowledge and information workers have become much less specific in regard to task and place. Moreover, technologies allow for these new paradigm workers to work either at a specific place, virtually, or any blended combination. Knowmads can instantly reconfigure and recontextualize their work environments, and greater mobility is creating new opportunities.”

…and then things took off, catching me off guard. In the years since, the idea has spread around the world: there are ‘knowmads’ high schools and higher education options, groups forming around the world, books by international authors on the topic, and people are even calling themselves knowmads as a job title on their social media profiles. And, of course, we wrote our own book, Knowmad Society. The list goes on-and-on!

I’m also really pleased that others have worked to extend the idea, incorporating their own perspectives, especially into desired cognitive, affective, and behavioral traits for knowmads. With these developments in mind, it seems that it is time to update my definition for a knowmad. Here it is:

A knowmad is a nomadic knowledge worker who is creative, imaginative, innovative, and who can work with almost anybody, anytime, and anywhere. Knowmads are valued for their individual-level knowledge, and create new value by applying what they know, contextually, to solve problems or generate new opportunities.

Knowmads can work within the core of organizations (as team members) or outside of them (as freelancers or consultants), and they are able to switch from job-to-job as needs change.

Characteristics of knowmadic workers

Knowmads:

  1. Are not restricted to a specific age;
  2. Build their personal knowledge through explicit information gathering and tacit experiences, and leverage their personal knowledge to produce new ideas;
  3. Are able to contextually apply their ideas and expertise in various social and organizational configurations;
  4. Are highly motivated to collaborate, and are natural networkers, navigating new organizations, cultures, and societies;
  5. Use new technologies purposively to help them solve problems and transcend limitations;
  6. Are open to sharing what they know, and invite and support open access to information, knowledge, and expertise from others;
  7. Can unlearn as quickly as they learn, adopting new ideas and practices as necessary;
  8. Thrive in non-hierarchical networks and organizations;
  9. Develop habits of mind and practice to learn continuously; and,
  10. Are not afraid of failure.

Note: List inspired by Cristóbal Cobo in Aprendizaje Invisible (2011).

An agile organization requires adaptive, diverse workers. In a world consumed with accelerating change, organizations need knowmadic workers who can navigate, flow with, and create change more than ever. The performance of static jobs or roles are less likely to create new value or help an organization lead in any area. Diverse perspectives and experiences, coupled with deep subject matter expertise, enable knowmads to help drive these changes to adapt and lead in an era of uncertainty of what the future will bring.

Knowmads do not exist only within formal organizations, they are present in all walks of life. A knowmad’s mobility is tied to how he or she applies his or her knowledge. Knowmads differentiate their jobs from work. Jobs are positions, gigs, or other forms of employment. Work is longer term in scope, and relates to the creation of meaningful outcomes. One’s work differs from a career in Knowmad Society. Whereas a career is something that “carries” a person throughout life, an individual’s work is a collection of activities that are backed with elements that are purposive at the personal level. In other words, the results of a knowmad’s work are that person’s responsibility alone.

Knowmads continually strive to define and refine their work. This can be expressed through taking on various jobs, apprenticeships, entrepreneurial endeavors, social activities, etc. If the knowmad once made a difference at their job, but there is little new opportunity for creating change, then it’s time to move on. Without having a purposive direction to herd one’s various jobs into work, we must question if that person has found his or her way.

Knowmad-powered organizations are built around knowledge, not information. Michael Polyani (1966) knowledge exists at the personal level, comprised of tacit and explicit elements. Explicit elements can be conveyed as information, i.e., as things you can read in a book or through observation. Tacit elements are developed through experience, trying things out, or experimentation – like learning how to ride a bicycle. Combining these two elements of knowledge together forms one’s personal knowledge – and this most fundamental level of knowing is what makes a knowmad stand out. To remain competitive, knowmads must continuously learn, unlearn, and refine what they know.

Because knowledge is personal, organizations cannot manage it. They can, however, attend to the expansion of the ecology of knowledge among their employees and members (Allee, 2003). For managers, this requires creating a blend of chaos and order (chaordia) and placing trust in all actors of the organization to co-lead in its evolution (see esp. Hock, 1999).

What this means

The emergence of a knowmad society requires new mindsets that encourage greater leadership from all stakeholders — at personal, organizational, and policy levels. This is more than an attitude that is supportive of knowmads, but requires a fundamental cultural transformation to embrace these new approaches to the purposive use of individual knowledge together with strong social supports to help each of us maximize our potential without fear of failure.

For schools, if knowmads need to be different, we need to allow a diverse ecology of approaches to teaching and learning to develop. We need to break free from compulsory, standardized tests and create authentic opportunities for growth and new value creation (see esp. Manifesto 15).

For businesses, leaders need to focus less on managing and focus more on attending to the curation of teams with diverse skill sets and perspectives, embracing chaos and uncertainty for what they are and focusing instead on potentials for new value creation through applications of the organization’s combined knowledge.

For governments, leaders and administrators must attend toward developing a diverse workforce. This requires placing more trust in educational institutions, investing for the future, and creating strong safety nets to help combat frictional unemployment that will likely boom with an expanding knowmadic workforce.

For individuals, this means that we must all assess our knowledge and skill sets. In a world that is changing at an accelerating pace, are we able to keep up, lead, and change the conversation? If the conversation is not any different without us, it’s time to move on.

References and recommended resources

Allee, V. (2003). The future of knowledge: Increasing prosperity through value networks. Amsterdam ; Boston: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Cobo, C., & Moravec, J. W. (2011). Aprendizaje invisible: Hacia una nueva ecología de la educación. Col·lecció Transmedia XXI. Barcelona: Laboratori de Mitjans Interactius / Publicacions i Edicions de la Universitat de Barcelona.

Hock, D., & VISA International. (1999). Birth of the chaordic age (1st ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

KNOWMAD.ORG - The international community of knowmads (in Spanish).

Moravec, J. W. (Ed.). (2015). Manifesto 15. Minneapolis: Education Futures.

Moravec, J. W. (Ed.). (2013). Knowmad Society. Minneapolis: Education Futures.

Polyani, M. (1966). Chapter 2: Emergence. In The tacit dimension (pp. 29–52). New York: Doubleday.