What is a Knowledge Worker, Anyway?
by Jim Ware and Charlie Grantham In our consulting and research work we spend a lot of time exploring how the emergence of knowledge work as the primary driver of economic activity is changing the nature of the workplace and even basic organizational and management practice. Recently one of our clients asked us a very basic question: Just what is a knowledge worker?” As he said, “Everyone uses that term but it certainly doesn’t seem very well defined. And if we’re going to be doing market research and making investments aimed at attracting knowledge workers to our community and local businesses, we sure ought to have some kind of agreement about just who it is we’re talking about.” We agree, and that question stimulated the development of a working paper on “Knowledge Work and Knowledge Workers.” We’re pleased to offer an excerpt from that paper here.
Peter Drucker is generally credited with coining the term “knowledge worker” in 1959. In 1991 he wrote an article on knowledge worker productivity for the Harvard Business Review (“The New Productivity Challenge,” Nov-Dec 1991, pp69-79) in which he more or less put knowledge work (ill-defined at best) and service work in one large, rather amorphous, bucket. The closest he came to defining “knowledge and service” work in that article was this: Knowledge and service workers range from research scientists and cardiac surgeons through draftswomen and store managers to 16-year olds who flip hamburgers in fast-food restaurants on Saturday afternoons. Their ranks also include people whose work makes them “machine operators”: dishwashers, janitors, data-entry operators.
At that time Drucker was not particularly concerned with where and when these knowledge workers accomplished their tasks; his focus was on improving their productivity, which he called the “single greatest challenge facing managers in the developed countries of the world.” However, in 2007, in a global economy that is enabled by powerful information technologies and driven by creativity and innovation, most knowledge workers are increasingly mobile, locationindependent, and free to choose where, when, and for whom they will work. As local economic developers consider whether to invest in new kinds of infrastructure and new work environments as part of their efforts to attract, retain, and leverage talent, we need to develop and agree on more precise definitions of who is a “knowledge worker,” how many of them there are in a given region, and what kinds of services and infrastructure they want and need to be successful.
© Copyright 2007 by The Work Design Collaborative, LLC. All rights reserved.
What is a Knowledge Worker, Anyway? Reprinted from Future of Work Agenda, March, 2007
A Basic Definition The broadest view of knowledge work is that it is an activity that either requires specialized knowledge or skills, or creates new knowledge. In contrast to physical labor, knowledge work focuses primarily on creating or applying information or knowledge to create value. So what exactly is a knowledge worker, and how can the nature of his or her work be described? At the most generic level, the term “knowledge worker” refers to individuals who possess high levels of education and/or expertise in a particular area, and who use their cognitive skills to engage in complex problem solving. Wikipedia defines a knowledge worker as: Someone who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knowledge_worker ).
Babson College Professor Thomas Davenport, who has probably studied knowledge work and knowledge workers more than almost any other active scholar today, has this to say about the concept: I certainly think there's a lot of fuzziness, ambiguity, and imprecision about what a knowledge worker is, and it's not a term most managers use...