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Another way to say it is that these are the people in an organization who are “in the trenches”.

They are doing the hardest or most important work.

I would like to find a non-militaristic way of saying the same thing, but am having trouble finding a good one.

My goal is to find ways to describe the value of these people in an organization in contrast to those in roles removed from the core business (for example, administration, which is also important but is not the reason for the existence of the organization).

In this specific case, the core business is education and military metaphors don’t seem appropriate.

Another close alternative could be: “where the rubber meets the road”, but that’s not quite it either.

Yet another recently discovered possibility, but not commonly understood is:

Genba (現場, also romanized as gemba) is a Japanese term meaning "the actual place". Japanese detectives call the crime scene genba, and Japanese TV reporters may refer to themselves as reporting from genba. In business, genba refers to the place where value is created; in manufacturing the genba is the factory floor. It can be any "site" such as a construction site, sales floor or where the service provider interacts directly with the customer.

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    To clarify: these are people who don't normally get much attention/credit but do a lot of important work? Sep 26 '18 at 7:12
  • My question is not necessarily about the idea that these don’t normally get credit. For example, in a university, some professors can get a lot of credit whereas other may not, but they are all doing the core work of “education”. My question is more to do with trying to ensure we are creating IT Systems that solve the problems of those doing the core work and meeting their needs, as opposed to only focusing on the needs of HR or Finance or Records/Registration, for example.
    – jlevis
    Sep 26 '18 at 7:20
  • Could you just use "those doing the core work"? Or would that be perceived as insulting to others? Sep 26 '18 at 7:31
  • That isn’t incorrect, but it is a bit bland and business speaky. I was hoping to find a different (while staying non militaristic) metaphor/idiom that was a bit more zesty/memorable/poignant.
    – jlevis
    Sep 26 '18 at 7:44
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Customer-facing or client-facing as opposed to back office is used in commerce. I'm sure it's less common than customer-facing, but you could use student-facing. Or scholar-facing, etc.

Front-office is the natural antonym to back-office, but it doesn't fit your situation.

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The following are options that have slightly different implications, and/or different levels of praise

  • people who are at the forefront [of something]
  • people who make the gears turn
  • people who are doing God's work
  • people without whom [something] could/would not function
  • unsung heroes
  • pawns (usually negative connotation)
  • peons (usually negative connotation)
  • people who perform the core function [of something]
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The folks 'leading (spearheading) a non-military charge' might be called 'the avant-garde', 'the advance guard' (military connotation), 'innovators', 'pioneers', 'those on the cutting edge', those 'riding the wave', 'movers and shakers', 'creatives', 'luminaries', 'trailblazers', 'the vanguard', 'the new wave', 'the juggernaut'.

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  • I'm not sure that the OP is thinking of anything so glamorous. I read the question as referring to those who, day in and day out, are performing the primary routine function of the organisation, not those who are innovating or developing it. Depending on the organisation they could be order pickers, sales staff, machine minders in a factory, classroom teachers and so on. "People at the coalface" as suggested above sounds right to me.
    – BoldBen
    Dec 14 '18 at 10:08

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