Knowledge worker: Wikis


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Knowledge workers in today's workforce are individuals who are valued for their ability to interpret information within a specific subject area. They will often advance the overall understanding of that subject through focused analysis, design and/or development. They use research skills to define problems and to identify alternatives. Fueled by their expertise and insight, they work to solve those problems, in an effort to influence company decisions, priorities and strategies.

Knowledge workers may be found across a variety of information technology roles, but also among professionals like teachers, lawyers, architects, physicians, nurses, engineers and scientists. As businesses increase their dependence on information technology, the number of fields in which knowledge workers must operate has expanded dramatically.



The term was first coined by Peter Drucker ca. 1959, as one who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace.

Weiss (1960) said that knowledge grows like organisms, with data serving as food to be assimilated rather than merely stored. Popper (1963) stated there is always an increasing need for knowledge to grow and progress continually, whether tacit (Polanyi, 1976) or explicit.

Toffler (1990) observed that typical knowledge workers (especially R&D scientists and engineers) in the age of knowledge economy must have some system at their disposal to create, process and enhance their own knowledge. In some cases they would also need to manage the knowledge of their co-workers.

Nonaka (1991) described knowledge as the fuel for innovation, but was concerned that many managers failed to understand how knowledge could be leveraged. Companies are more like living organisms than machines, he argued, and most viewed knowledge as a static input to the corporate machine. Nonaka advocated a view of knowledge as renewable and changing, and that knowledge workers were the agents for that change. Knowledge-creating companies, he believed, should be focused primarily on the task of innovation.

This laid the foundation for the new practice of knowledge management, or "KM", which evolved in the 1990’s to support knowledge workers with standard tools and processes.

Savage (1995) describes a knowledge-focus as the third wave of human socio-economic development. 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. Using data (attributed to Ann Andrews, citation?), 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.

Knowledge work in the 21st century

Tapscott (2006) sees a strong, on-going linkage between knowledge workers and innovation, but the pace and manner of interaction have become more advanced. He describes social media tools on the internet that now drive more powerful forms of collaboration. Knowledge workers engage in ‘’peer-to-peer’’ knowledge sharing across organizational and company boundaries, forming networks of expertise. Some of these are open to the public. While he echoes concern over copyright and intellectual property law being challenged in the marketplace, he feels strongly that businesses must engage in collaboration to survive. He sees on-going alliance of public (government) and private (commercial) teams to solve problems, referencing the open source Linux operating system along with the Human Genome Project as examples where knowledge is being freely exchanged, with commercial value being realized.

Due to the rapid global expansion of information-based transactions and interactions being conducted via the internet, there has been an ever-increasing demand for a workforce that is capable of performing these activities. 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[1]).

While knowledge worker roles overlap heavily with professions that require college degrees, the comprehensive nature of knowledge work in today's connected workplace is requiring virtually all workers to obtain these skills at some level. To that end, the public education and community college systems have become increasingly focused on lifelong learning to ensure students receive skills necessary to be productive knowledge workers in the 21st century.

Knowledge worker roles

Knowledge workers bring benefits to organizations in a variety of important ways. These include:

  • analyzing data to establish relationships
  • assessing input in order to evaluate complex or conflicting priorities
  • identifying and understanding trends
  • making connections
  • understanding cause and effect
  • ability to brainstorm, thinking broadly (divergent thinking)
  • ability to drill down, creating more focus (convergent thinking)
  • producing a new capability
  • creating or modifying a strategy

These knowledge worker contributions are in contrast with activities that they would typically not be asked to perform, including:

  • transaction processing
  • routine tasks
  • simple prioritization of work

There is a set of transitional tasks includes roles that are seemingly routine, but that require deep technology, product, or customer knowledge to fulfill the function. These include:

  • providing technical or customer support
  • handling unique customer issues
  • addressing open-ended inquiries

Generally, if the knowledge can be retained, knowledge worker contributions will serve to expand the knowledge assets of a company. While it can be difficult to measure, this increases the overall value of its intellectual capital. In cases where the knowledge assets have commercial or monetary value, companies may create patents around their assets, at which point the material becomes restricted intellectual property. In these knowledge-intensive situations, knowledge workers play a direct, vital role in increasing the financial value of a company.

Additional context and frameworks

Drucker defines six factors for knowledge worker productivity (1999):

  1. Knowledge worker productivity demands that we ask the question: "What is the task?"
  2. It demands that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves. Knowledge workers have to manage themselves.
  3. Continuing innovation has to be part of the work, the task and the responsibility of knowledge workers.
  4. Knowledge work requires continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker, but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker.
  5. Productivity of the knowledge worker is not — at least not primarily — a matter of the quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.
  6. Finally, knowledge worker productivity requires that the knowledge worker is both seen and treated as an "asset" rather than a "cost." It requires that knowledge workers want to work for the organization in preference to all other opportunities. [2]

Another, more recent breakdown of knowledge work (author unknown) shows activity that 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, with references for each are cited.

  1. 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)[3].
  2. 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).
  3. 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[4].
  4. 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).
  5. 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).
  6. 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).
  7. Social media networks enable knowledge organizations to co-produce knowledge outputs by leveraging their internal capacity with massive social networks. Social networking emerged in the 2000s [5]

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 the global knowledge economy. It also provides a useful context for planning, developing, and implementing knowledge management projects.

See also


  1. ^ Haag, S., Cummings, M., McCubbrey, D., Pinsonneault, A., & Donovan, R. (2006). Management Information Systems For the Information Age (3rd Canadian Ed.). Canada: McGraw Hill Ryerson
  2. ^ Drucker, Peter F.. Management Challenges of the 21st Century. New York: Harper Business, 1999.
  3. ^ Drucker, Peter F, 1973. Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. Harper & Row, New York. 839 p.
  4. ^ Mumford, Lewis. 1961. The City in History. p275.
  5. ^ Tapscott, Don and Anthony D. Williams. 2006. Wikinomics. Penguin Group, New York. 324 p.

Further reading

  • Bil, Ton and Jean Peters (2001). De breineconomie (hardback ed.). Amsterdam: FinancialTimes Prentice Hall. ISBN 90-430-0419-7. 
  • Barbrook, Richard (2006). The Class of the New (paperback ed.). London: OpenMute. ISBN 0-9550664-7-6. 
  • Davenport, Thomas H. And Laurence Prusak. 1998. Working Knowledge. Harvard Business School press. Boston, MA. 197 p.
  • Ikujiro Nonaka (1991). “The Knowledge Creating Company”, in Knowledge Management. Harvard Business School Press, 1998.
  • Leonard, Dorothy. 1993. Wellsprings of Knowledge. Harvard Business School Press, Boston MA. 334 p.
  • Alan Liu (2004). "The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, University of Chicago Press
  • Mcgee, James and Lawrence Prusak. 1993. Managing information Strategically. John Wiley & Sons. New York. 244 p.
  • O'Brien, James. 2006. Introduction to Information Systems, 13th ed. McGraw-Hill. Page 31.
  • Sheridan, William. 2008. How to Think Like a Knowledge Worker, United Nations Public Administration Network, New York.
  • Simard, Albert, John Broome, Malcolm Drury, Brian Haddon, Bob O’Neil, and Dave Pasho. 2007. Understanding Knowledge Services at Natural Resources Canada. 82p (in press, preprint available).
  • Thorp, John. 1998. Information Paradox. McGraw-Hill Ryerson Publishers, Toronto CN, 273 p.
  • Tapscott, Don and Anthony D. Williams. Wikinomics. 2006. Penguin Group, New York, NY. 324p.

External links



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