Knowledge worker

Knowledge worker (also referred to as as intellectual worker or brain worker) is someone who is employed due to his or her knowledge of a subject matter, rather than their ability to perform manual labor. It includes those in the information technology fields, such as computer programmers, systems analysts, technical writers and so forth. The term can also refer to people outside of information technology but who are hired for their knowledge of some subject, such as lawyers, teachers, and scientists.

The term was coined by Peter Drucker in 1959, as one who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace. The United Nations Public Administration Network (UNPAN) has adopted and placed in their reference library the manuscript titled HOW TO THINK LIKE A KNOWLEDGE WORKER. This document is available for free download at the following URL: Any attempts at revising and/or rewriting this piece on Knowledge Workers could undoubtedly benefit from the insights contained in this UNPAN document.

Due to the constant industrial growth in North America and globally, there is increasing need for an academically capable workforce. In direct response to this, Knowledge Workers are now estimated to outnumber all other workers in North America by at least a four to one margin (Haag et al, 2006, pg. 4).

A Knowledge Worker's benefit to a company could be in the form of developing business intelligence, increasing the value of intellectual capital, gaining insight into customer preferences, or a variety of other important gains in knowledge that aid the business

Knowledge network of knowledge workers

Knowledge workers are used to work in an environment described as a knowledge network. That network could be mostly in form of invisible network of knowledge production and distribution, since knowledge is invisible and countless in its procession. Hamid Etemad and Yender Lee (2003) coined this concept as INK model for epistemology scientometrics rather than evaluative bibliometrics (Narin-F, 1978) only. Popper (1963) states there is always an increasing need for knowledge to grow and progress continually, whether tacit (Polanyi, 1976) or explicit. Knowledge grows like organisms, with data serving as food to be assimilated rather than merely stored (Weiss, 1960). All knowledge workers, particularly R&D project managers, need to easily access and search internal and external knowledge bases.

Toffler (1990) observed that typical knowledge workers (i.e. all R&D scientists and engineers as well as technology managers) in the age of knowledge economy and knowledge society must have some system at their disposal to create, process and enhance their own technological knowledge. In some cases they also manage the technical knowledge of their co-workers.

To emphasise the collaborative nature of knowledge work, and distinguish knowledge workers from other jobs that require skill and experience, the theory of human interaction management replaces the term knowledge worker with the term interaction worker.

Management of knowledge workers

Knowledge workers are believed to produce more when empowered to make the most of their deepest skills; they can often work on many projects at the same time; they know how to allocate their time; and they can multiply the results of their efforts through soft factors such as emotional intelligence and trust (Francis Fukuyama, Manuel Castells). Organizations designed around the knowledge worker (instead of just machine capital) are thought to integrate the best of hierarchy, self-organization and networking rather than the worst. Each dictates a different communications and rewards system, and requires activation of knowledge-sharing and action learning. A basic pattern rule of human systems is that when you mix them you will get the worst of each unless you contextually and carefully attend to connecting the best.

The Knowledge Age

The third wave of human socio-economic development is described by Charles Savage in "Fifth Generation Management." The first wave was the Agricultural Age with wealth defined as ownership of land. In the second wave, the Industrial Age, wealth was based on ownership of Capital, i.e. factories. In the Knowledge Age, wealth is based upon the ownership of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to create or improve goods and services. Product improvements include cost, durability, suitability, timeliness of delivery, and security.

In the Knowledge Age, 2% of the working population will work on the land, 10% will work in Industry and the rest will be Knowledge Workers (Ann Andrews).

Hierarchy of knowledge Work

Knowledge work ranges from tasks performed by individual knowledge workers to global social networks. This framework spans every class of knowledge work that is being or is likely to be undertaken. There are seven levels or scales of knowledge work.

  • Knowledge work (e.g., writing, analyzing, advising) is performed by subject-matter specialists in all areas of an organization. Although knowledge work began with the origins of writing and counting, it was first identified as a category of work by Drucker (1973).
  • Knowledge functions (e.g., capturing, organizing, and providing access to knowledge) are performed by technical staff, to support knowledge processes projects. Knowledge functions date from c. 450 BC, with the library of Alexandria, but their modern roots can be linked to the emergence of information management in the 1970s (Mcgee and Prusak, 1993).
  • Knowledge processes (preserving, sharing, integration) are performed by professional groups, as part of a knowledge management program. Knowledge processes have evolved in concert with general-purpose technologies, such as the printing press, mail delivery, the telegraph, telephone networks, and the Internet (Mumford, 1961).
  • Knowledge management programs link the generation of knowledge (e.g., from science, synthesis, or learning) with its use (e.g., policy analysis, reporting, program management) as well as facilitating organizational learning and adaptation in a knowledge organization. Knowledge management emerged as a discipline in the 1990s (Leonard, 1995).
  • Knowledge organizations transfer outputs (content, products, services, and solutions), in the form of knowledge services, to enable external use. The concept of knowledge organizations emerged in the 1990s (Davenport and Prusak, 1998).
  • Knowledge services support other organizational services, yield sector outcomes, and result in benefits for citizens in the context of knowledge markets. Knowledge services emerged as a subject in the 2000s. (Simard et. al, 2007).
  • Social networks enable knowledge organizations to co-produce knowledge outputs by leveraging their internal capacity with massive social networks. Social networking emerged in the 2000s (Tapscott and Williams, 2007)

The hierarchy ranges from the effort of individual specialists, through technical activity, professional projects, and management programs, to organizational strategy, knowledge markets, and global-scale networking. This framework is useful for positioning the myriad types of knowledge work relative to each other and within the context of organizations, markets, and global economies. It also provides a useful context for planning, developing, and implementing knowledge management projects as well as positioning organizations to participate in the global network economy.

Information Literate Knowledge Worker

Information Literate Knowledge Workers are able to conduct a number of activities that are unclear in their benefit to an outsider, but are extremely valuable to the overall success of a business. They have the ability to use the best sources to gain the information they need, which are both accurate and current. Next, with the data on hand they excel at extracting the key information, comprehending it, and then manipulating it to provide the organization the greatest benefit possible.

An example of an Information Literate Knowledge Worker is an analyst given the task of developing a database of companies that fit the target customer profile of the business. The analyst must perform data mining for information by using sources such as websites, print and professional associations. The best sources must be used, and only the pertinent information taken, so that maximum efficiency is achieved. In order to produce an acceptable final product, the analyst must be able to define the information that is accurate and current, against that which is not, so that the database provides the greatest advantage to the organization. Finally, the analyst must be able to explain the information that has been compiled so that the end-users of the database can employ it effectively.

Technology Literate Knowledge Worker

A Technology Literate Knowledge Worker is educated when it comes to the correct applications of technology. The individual understands what type of technology best suits the company by knowing the technology available and weighing the benefits of each option before making the final decision. The worker is also aware that there must be adequate technological infrastructure in order for the product to work effectively. The worker's most important ability is the knowledge of when to apply technology. If the Technology Literate Knowledge Worker applies technology at the correct time it can make, or save the organization a significant amount, while using technology when it isn’t needed can be costly.

An example of a Technology Literate Worker is a database administrator who is responsible for ensuring that the databases are functioning properly, while attempting to maximize the databases value to the organization. The database administrator must incorporate a database management system that is compatible with the company’s existing systems and goals. Their primary objective is to maintain a system that is effective and efficient, while keeping it easy to operate. They are also given the task of remaining current with the new technologies available, so that any opportunity to improve the company’s technology can be capitalized on immediately.


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See also

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