3.5 Knowledge Workers

3.5 Knowledge Workers

            We will start this section with Peter Drucker's, the management guru, famous quote from his article “The Post Capitalist Society” (1993):  "The basic economic resource - the means of production - is no longer capital, nor natural resources, nor labor. It is and will be knowledge". He predicted that the major changes in society would be brought about by information. He maintains that knowledge has become the central, key resource that knows no geography. According to him, “the largest working group will be knowledge workers as talking about knowledge based industry”. Taking about the role of organization in knowledge economy, he says “…[these] new industries differ from the traditional 'modern' industry in that they will employ predominantly knowledge workers rather than manual workers.” (Druker, 1992)

           The terms ‘Knowledge work’ and ‘knowledge workers’ are often used but no official agreed upon definitions of these terms exist. Usually,  job title or education level is used to define knowledge work. In simple words, Wikipedia defines a knowledge worker as someone “who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace.”

            One of the main problems in defining these terms relates to the difficulty of defining knowledge itself and distinguishing knowledge from information. Indeed, the terms ‘information worker’ and ‘knowledge worker’ are used interchangeably. There is a vast literature in which the concept of management of knowledge is hard to distinguish from the management of information. For example, Wilson (2002) argued that the general conclusion from one meta-analysis is that much of what is described as knowledge management is really either management of information or a description of organizational changes that improved information sharing.

            Drucker (Drucker, 1954) is credited with popularizing the term ‘knowledge worker’ as long ago as 1954. He defies Knowledge worker as:

  • A person who has knowledge important for the organization and is often the only person who has it.
  • A person who can use the knowledge in their work
  • Knowledge workers often work intellectually, but this is not a rule.

            Druker argue that the knowledge is partly subconscious; the worker may not know about it or may not understand its importance. Other employees of the organization have a limited approach to the knowledge, they cannot learn it (it is demanding on time or finances or is impossible as they do not have the knowledge or skills to develop it) or they cannot or are not allowed to use it (knowledge is linked to some certificate or diploma).

             Drucker (1959) maintained that knowledge workers primarily work with information or develop and use knowledge in the workplace. Later in 1968,  Drucker expresses, ‘Today the center is the knowledge worker, the man or woman who applies to productive work ideas, concepts, and information rather than manual skill or brawn…Where the farmer was the backbone of any economy a century or two ago…knowledge is now the main cost, the main investment, and the main product of the advanced economy and the livelihood of the largest group in the population’ (p. 264).

            Usually high performance jobs are performed by subject-matter specialists in all areas of an organization (Durker, 1973). In his another article on knowledge worker productivity (Druker, 1991) he defined  knowledge and service as: “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.”

            Ware & Grantham (2009) argued that “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, location-independent, and free to choose where, when, and for whom they will work.”

            Taking a broader view, Ware & Grantham (2009) defined knowledge work as 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.  Similarly, they defined knowledge worker as ‘the 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’.  They showed their concerns that such very broad definitions, however, encompass almost all forms of meaningful work. Even a barber, a hair stylist, a hamburger flipper, or an assembly line worker has some degree of specialized knowledge about his/her profession, although their level of knowledge and experience affect their productivity and effectiveness (Ware & Grantham, 2009).

            Elliott and Jacobson (2002) have discussed the evolution of the knowledge professional. Keeping in view the historical perspective of job trends they reported following six categories of jobs which distinct worker from each other:

  • Hunter-Gatherer: They had a basic and communal knowledge. Living and working in small groups of people, knowledge was transferred by gender from old to young, and focused around how to survive.
  • Farmer & Artisan: Throughout the 11th century and later, labour was confined largely to manual and craft trade – much of agriculture like farmers, blacksmith. Knowledge was transfer through work experience. Despite the presence of scribes and other intellectuals, it’s estimated that information workers made up less than 10% of the workforce at the end of the 18th century.
  • Industrial Revolution Worker: Industrial Revolution marked a major turning point in history when the manual labour economy shifted increasingly towards machine-based manufacturing. Industrialization moved people from the field and into factories where men, women and children worked, creating a division between manual labour and those who manage it; giving birth to knowledge work.  At the same time, the invention of telegraph made it possible to speedup information transfer.
  • Post-World War II Worker: After World-war II, a large number of graduate were available in the market. This sudden influx of highly educated work forces along with technological advancements grew corporations both domestically and internationally, making a stronger telecommunication network necessary for information sharing. This widespread adoption of the telecommunication tools provided unlimited opportunities for sharing information across the world. 
  • Technology Novice: In the second half of the 20th century, a new data processing age was born and the phrase of “knowledge worker” had become cemented in the work-place. Knowledge workers were challenged to learn the mechanics of new office technology like the digital fax machine, personal computers etc. for making quicker voice and data information exchange possible. Workers were now relying on digital communication more than ever.
  • Information Professional: Today, the Internet has dramatically revolutionized the way workers connect and develop their work products. With the help of email and software solutions, work has become asynchronous, flexible and efficient. No generation knows this better than the millennial’s, who grew up using technology from an early age. Millennial’s will have an increasing influence on how knowledge workers communicate and exchange information.

            Knowledge workers can be identified in any culture and in any phase of mankind’s development. However, technological and social changes in the 20th Century caused a marked increase in their numbers in organizations in advanced economies (Mládková, 2011). Now-a-days every employee who uses his brain more than his hands is being considered knowledge worker. However, Amar (2002) makes it clear that, ‘all knowledge work is intellectual work. Thus, a job that is not intellectual enough will not contribute to knowledge work. Such jobs should not be allowed in a knowledge organisation’.  

            Therefore we can say that knowledge workers depend on their knowledge and the ability to learn, even though they work with their hands. Thomas Davenport (2005) sees knowledge workers as people with high degrees of expertise, education, or experience. Davenport says the primary purpose of a knowledge workers’ job involves the creation, distribution, or application of knowledge. Knowledge workers think for a living (Davenport 2005).

            Ware & Grantham (2009) maintained that “knowledge workers indisputably include individuals in the traditional professions, such as doctors, lawyers, scientists, educators, and engineers. Most of us would also include those who work in senior positions in marketing, advertising, consulting, finance, insurance, and strategy development, to name just a few functional specialties. And then there are also specialized knowledge-based jobs like airline pilots, musicians, senior business executives, and even government officials. Because their work typically entails the interpretation and manipulation of information as well as the creation of new knowledge (as opposed to relatively routine data collection and processing), knowledge workers are usually considered a distinctly different “breed” than their less-skilled white-collar counterparts such as bank tellers, bookkeepers, call center specialists, or clerks who perform relatively routine work in highly structured and procedurally-constrained ways.”

            Knowledge workers are characterized by a number of traits, among them the ability to extract and synthesize key information to enhance innovation and productivity. For example, Drucker (2006: p.165) says, “It is generally accepted that the knowledge workers’ expertise in their role is the starting point for enhancing both their individual and their contribution to an organization’s productivity, quality and performance. If knowledge workers are to continue contributing to an organization and the economy at large, their knowledge must remain up-to-date. ”

            Ware & Grantham (2009) defined two categories of knowledge workers to encompass the diverse set of tasks and jobs: ‘Knowledge Executors’ versus ‘Knowledge Generators’. Knowledge Executors are those workers who apply existing knowledge by manipulating information through processes created or invented by others. Knowledge Generators, on the other hand, create new knowledge by manipulating information to develop new solutions to a given problem, or to create new concepts or products.

            Many other attempts have been reported in literature to define knowledge work and knowledge worker (Autor, Levy, and Murnane 2003; Elias and Purcell 2004). However, what is missing from all of these attempts at defining knowledge work is a thorough analysis of workers themselves and what they do at work. Through a large survey of 2,011 online panel respondents working in at least one job for a minimum of 20 hours per week for at least 3 months, Brinkley, et. al.(2009) grouped the sample group (workforce) into seven distinct clusters of jobs, listed below:

Leaders and innovators (11 per cent)

Frequently performed tasks

Data and analysis, leadership and development, people management.

Occasionally performed tasks

Administrative tasks, creative tasks.

Specific tasks

Collaborate with people inside organization on project/programme, analyse information to address work-related problems, manage people, write reports, provide consultation/advice to others.

Example occupations

Production and functional managers, financial institution and office managers, business and finance associate professionals.


Experts and Analysts (22.1 per cent)

Frequently performed tasks

Data and analysis, people management.

Occasionally performed tasks

Leadership and development, administrative tasks.

Specific tasks

Collaborate with people inside organisation on project/programme,enter data, compile data, analyse information to address work-related problems, writereports.

Example occupations

ICT professionals, teaching professionals, managers and proprietors in service industries, research professionals, customer service occupations.


Information handlers (12.8 per cent)

Frequently performed tasks

Administrative tasks.

Occasionally performed tasks

People management, data and analysis.

Specific tasks

File (physically/electronically), sort post, manage diaries, enter data, handle complaints, settle disputes and resolve grievances.

Example occupations

General administrative occupations, secretarial occupations, financial institution and office managers, managers and proprietors in service industries, financial administrative occupations.


Care and welfare workers (7.5 per cent)

Frequently performed tasks

Caring for others, people management, work with food, products or merchandise.

Occasionally performed tasks

Data and analysis, administrative tasks, perceptual and precision tasks.

Specific tasks

Provide care for others, administer first aid, clean/wash, dispense medications, expose self to disease/infections, write reports.

Example occupations

Care associate professionals, care services, childcare services, social welfare associate professionals.

Servers and sellers (7.0 per cent)

Frequently performed tasks

Work with food, products or merchandise, people management, administrative tasks.

Occasionally performed tasks

Data and analysis, perceptual and precision tasks, leadership and development.

Specific tasks

Clean/wash, handle complaints, settle disputes and resolve grievances, manage people, stock shelves with products or merchandise, order merchandise.

Example occupations

Managers in distribution, storage and retailing, managers and proprietors in hospitality and leisure services, food preparation trades, elementary personal services.


Maintenance and logistics operators (11.3 per cent)

Frequently performed tasks

Perceptual and precision tasks, maintenance, moving and repairing.

Occasionally performed tasks

People management, work with food, products or merchandise, data and analysis, administrative tasks.

Specific tasks

Visually identify objects, know location in relation to the environment or know where objects are in relation to you, judge distances, lift heavy objects, load/unload equipment/materials/luggage.

Example occupations

Protective services, security occupations, transport drivers, metal machining, fitting and instrument making trades, science and engineering technicians, construction trades.


Assistants and clerks (28.3 per cent)

Frequently performed tasks

People management, data and analysis, work with food, products or merchandise, administrative tasks.

Occasionally performed tasks

Handle complaints, settle disputes and resolve grievances, collaborate with people inside organization on project/programme, teach others, clean/wash, coach or develop others, provide consultation/advice to others, motivate others.

Specific tasks

 

Example occupations

Customer service occupations, sales assistants and retail cashiers.

            Through this cluster analysis they tried to classifying workers in the knowledge economy on the basis of cognitive complexity of the tasks that workers perform most frequently and the sectors in which they are employed. Their findings portrayed the composition of the knowledge economy workforce and the work that workers actually do in a 30-30-40 model.

  • About a 30% of workers are in jobs requiring high knowledge content.
  • A further almost 30% of workers engage in jobs with moderate knowledge  content – primarily codified knowledge – relating to the cluster specific tasks that define these jobs (eg administrative tasks, caring for others and work with food, products or merchandise) as well as the people management and communication tasks that are shared by most workers.
  • Finally, 40% of workers engage in jobs with only few tacit knowledge tasks (eg perceptual and precision tasks, maintenance, moving and repairing).

             They concluded that virtually all jobs involve some tacit knowledge, but core knowledge workers – leaders, innovators, experts and Analysts - performed the most tacit knowledge tasks for their job and those in the 40 per cent performed the fewest this categorization of jobs may survive due to the unprecedented growth of knowledge based industries and related occupations.

            Knowledge work is complex, and those who perform it, require certain skills and abilities as well as familiarity with actual and theoretical knowledge. Knowledge workers use different methods and techniques to perform knowledge work and have the authority to decide what work methods to use in order to complete their varying job tasks. They must be able to find, access, recall, and apply information, interact well with others, and possess the ability and motivation to acquire and improve these skills (Farkas and Török, 2011). 

            One of the most important questions is whether traditional employment relationships in organizations are still relevant in the knowledge economy (Brinkley, 2008). The global community is divided into two camps on this aspect.  One camp considers that knowledge workers reject traditional employment relationships, in turn preferring ‘portfolio work’ (i.e. holding several part-time jobs simultaneously) and favouring more freestanding relationships as temporary employee, freelancers or self-employed workers. Yet, others argue that new forms of working have developed within the modern corporation. In this case, the more specialist and entrepreneurial knowledge workers are given the freedom to experiment and develop new ideas. These ‘intrapreneurs’ combine the freedom of self-employment with the security and resources of big companies (Brinkley, et. al., 2009).

                        Farkas & Török (2011) argued that in 21st century, the high level of work autonomy allotted to knowledge workers will make them managers of their own. This has twofold consequences: the content of managerial functions and roles undergo changes while, parallel to this, new functions and role expectations emerge. They further argue that the increasing importance of the economics of emotions and attention should be thoroughly considered both from the perspective of market operations and organizational behaviour. ICT and globalization have made virtual work possible. Managers may want to become aware of the extent to which knowledge work is characteristic of their organization and learn more about how knowledge workers could best be managed. A meaningful starting point for this is for them to take stock of the competencies that are required for sustainable good performance in knowledge working positions.

            Towards the end of this section we have listed Drucker’s (1999) six factors that determine the productivity of knowledge workers:

  • Task-orientation: Knowledge workers focus on what is the task, rather than how should the work be done? They try to eliminate everything that hampers the worker from doing the task through eliminating non-value adding aspects of knowledge work, such as, waiting for the arrival of inputs, getting clarification about ambiguous goals or information, redoing work in response to changes in constraints or context and to account for the impacts of untimely re-prioritization and re-identification of outcomes.
  • Innovation: Knowledge workers ontribute innovation continuously.
  • Autonomy: Knowledge workers manage their own productivity and have autonomy for their performance.
  • Learning & Teaching: Knowledge worker are responsible of continuing innovation and continuous learning and teaching are part of their task and responsibility.
  •  Quality–orientation: Productivity of knowledge workers is primarily about quality of output and quantity second.
  • Asset vs. cost: knowledge workers should be regarded as an asset rather than a cost factor.

            Drucker concludes that the key determinants of knowledge worker productivity are management and organizational practices, information technology and workplace design. Technology can always be purchased, but it is not the determinant factor in productivity. The values that people have such as honesty, hard work, integrity, teamwork, and resilience affect productivity. For example at the height of their economic boom, the Japanese were known not necessarily for their motor skills but for their attitude to work, work ethic, respect for authority and loyalty.

            We will conclude this discussion with Olivier Serrat (2008) point of view. He maintains that a knowledge worker is someone who is employed because of his or her knowledge of a subject matter, rather than ability to perform manual labor. They perform best when empowered to make the most of their deepest skills. Knowledge workers produce and distribute ideas and information rather than goods or services. They are individuals with different aspirations from the hierarchy-conscious personnel of the past; they are also mobile and they do leave. Hiring talented people is difficult. Keeping them is more difficult still. So, to plug the drain of human capital in a competitive knowledge economy, knowledge workers should be treated as an asset rather than as a cost. Preferably, they should be managed as though they were partners (or at least volunteers).

            Recent literature has specified that knowledge workers will represent more than half of all employees in advanced economies (Kokavcová & Malá 2009; Mládková, 2011); causing a drastic change in the working behavior of knowledge workers. Gartner predicts that by 2013, 40 percent of enterprise knowledge workers will have removed their desk phones. Most won’t even be content with sitting in their cubicles or office anymore, tablets and other mobile devices to remain what industry is calling “hyberconnected”. It is also expected that 15% of business intelligence knowledge workers will add collaboration and social software into decision making.  Broadband will become universal, allowing for greater mobility in the enterprise.


Footnotes