Knowledge workers are software engineers, writers, business development people, architects, etc. – anyone who deals with organizing ideas and creates intellectual property (hopefully licensed under a Creative Commons copyright, open source software, etc. – but also proprietary intellectual property (*)).
Stephen Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People says (in Business 2.0, December 2004 issue):
The industrial age was about control, and the information age, or knowledge-worker age, is about release.
Covey gets this right: in the new economy and new way of doing things, trust and flexibility is key.
Think of the revolution in manufacturing processes through “just in time” delivery of material and sub-systems. The new knowledge economy, even acknowledging the dot-com meltdown, is also about flexibility in getting work done on schedule by pulling together human resources just as they are needed. There is no doubt in my mind that being able to tap into talent on a global scale facilitates this type of flexibility: make time zone differences work as an advantage, form a trust network of people from many countries who can work together, etc.
Networks of trust and cheap communications infrastructure are what makes this happen.
A similar thought: also in the Business 2.0, December 2004 issue: a writup of technology innovators who chose to save lots of money by setting up their new companies in rural areas (that had great broadband support) in order to drastically cut the cost of doing business. This resonated with me: I live in a fairly remote area in the mountains of Northern Arizona – but, I spend a lot of my time designing and writing code for a company in India. I also take advantage of the relatively low rural cost of living to be able to work on commercial products that are definitely “niche market” – a (slightly) lower return on investment while living in an inexpensive rural area that works for me – if I was still living in Solana Beach California, the lower return on investment would make it impossible to work on the types of products that most interest me on a technical level.
In a sense, work networks are scale free networks like the internet: the “hubs” are large cities where closeness to customers and business partners is worth the higher cost of doing business. However, just as smaller “non hub” internet sites add tremendous value to the internet, distributed smaller businesses (especial high technology businesses) in much less expensive rural areas adds to the value of the economy.
(*) My take is that the most efficient way to do business and build industry is a mix of open source/open content and proprietary intellectual property – I am not arguing for one over the other.