Thursday 16 March 2017

"Knowledge Worker" - an illustration and definition

Peter Drucker introduced the term "Knowledge Worker" - but what exactly IS a Knowledge Worker?

Image from Wikimedia Commons
When Drucker introduced the term in 1959, in his book "Landmarks of Tomorrow", he was primarily writing about people working in IT - the programmers, systems analysts, academics and researchers.  However this was before the field of Knowledge Management was developed, and as Knowledge managers we often see the Knowledge Workers as one of our primary stakeholder groupings.

So we need to know who the knowledge workers are, and how they differ from other workers.

Here is an illustration that might help.

When my wife and I first moved into our current house, we employed a local gardener. He was a very nice fellow, very happy and cheerful, but he knew nothing about gardening.  
 He was very good if you gave him detailed instructions, and would work hard mowing the lawn or trimming the hedge. However anything that required decision or judgement, was risky. There was the day that he weeded out all of the newly-planted border plants. There was the day my wife left some house plants by the car to take into school, and an hour later found them all planted out in the garden. There were many other examples of small scale garden disasters, and eventually we realised that we would have to replace him, as both of us work full time and are not able to supervise a gardener to the level that this guy required.   
Now we have a new team of gardeners. They are highly knowledgeable. We can give them a broad direction, such as “tidy up this border” or “prepare this area for soft fruit”, and they will do it, often adding bits that we had never considered, or giving us useful advice along the way. Sometimes they will even say “No, we shouldn’t be doing that, that’s not going to work; we should do this instead”.
The new team costs more than twice as much, on an hourly basis, as the first guy. That’s because they are knowledge workers, and he effectively was a manual worker. 

The simplest definition of a knowledge worker is “somebody who knows more about their job than their supervisor/client does”. (Or perhaps I should have said "Knows, or can find out,").

 So instead of the client or manager providing the knowledge and the worker providing the labour (gardener number one), the client/managers provide the direction and they provide both the knowledge and the labour (gardening team number two).  The Knowledge Worker takes over much of the task-related decision making from the manager/client, applying their knowledge to make correct decisions.

Because a Knowledge Worker uses knowledge as a core resource for doing their job, Knowledge Management can increase the productivity of the Knowledge Workers by providing them better access to the knowledge resource.

So in our story, the first guy was not a knowledge worker, and we had to tell him in detail what to do, and sometimes how to do it. The current guys sometimes tell us what they should be doing, and always know better than us how it should be done. Also in this we can see the value of the knowledge, represented by the difference in the two hourly rates. The asset that the new guys bring is their knowledge, and we need to pay double the base rate in order to get access to it.

Being a Knowledge Worker is no longer the preserve of the IT staff. Anyone who makes decisions and judgments for a living can be a Knowledge Worker - an engineer, a doctor, an architect, an oil driller, or a consultant.

In fact, even a gardener can be a knowledge worker.

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