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September 5, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 8


With a workforce spread across ten field centers, NASA has plenty of “knowledge nomads” who move from one organization to another. This is increasingly common in today’s workforce, according to a study published by Harvard University’s Center for Public Leadership.

In most discussions of management, it is common to equate “high turnover” with “lack of commitment.” With a highly mobile workforce, however, turnover does not necessarily reflect dissatisfaction. Particularly in a project-based organization such as NASA, mobility is a way of life. Many workers rotate constantly between projects, directorates, and field centers in response to new opportunities.

Professors Todd Pittinsky and Margaret Shih examined this “knowledge nomad” phenomenon, and conducted an experiment to determine if mobility had a negative effect on a workers’ commitment to their organizations. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, they found that highly mobile workers do form attachments. “Knowledge Nomads serve as living proof that the labor pool includes people who exhibit both characteristics (mobility and strong organizational commitment),” write Pittinsky and Shih. “Managers looking to create a more engaged workforce – and become leaders – would do well to consider the factors that help Knowledge Nomads thrive.”

Read Pittinsky and Shih’s working paper about Knowledge Nomads (PDF).

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