The idea of the knowledge worker stems from Peter Drucker’s 1950 and 60s work. The term was first used in his book, The Landmarks of Tomorrow where Drucker explored the characteristics of workers who apply theory and analytics to their work. The theory and analytical mindset would derive from formal training.
In my work, I differentiate knowledge workers from information workers at the decision-making capacity. Knowledge workers make decisions about others and the world based on information. In the Serious Insights model, information is ephemeral, existing only at the time knowledge is applied in those situations. Otherwise, what most people call information, we think of as data.
Information workers transform data into information or work directly with the gathering and refining of data, but they are not directly involved in decisions about the use or application of the collected data. This does not reflect on the worker’s ability to be a knowledge worker, only their current role. In a retail store, a clerk scanning product prices is an information worker. He or she gathers data and uses that data to inform a pre-defined process. A department head of the meat department might look at that data and determine what orders need to be placed, or which processes to change based on returns. The head of the meat department is a knowledge worker.
Knowledge workers gain knowledge in a discipline in order to achieve an objective. Information work does not usually build to something beyond itself. Knowledge workers can be early good and evil. Nazi atom bomb scientists were as much knowledge workers as their American counterparts. Knowledge work changes the world. Knowledge work is amoral.
To become a knowledge worker one must be motivated to know, to continue to learn. Knowledge workers need to be part of the network of learners that keeps a discipline current and relevant.
How Do I Become a Knowledge Worker?
Knowledge work requires the ability to understand information, interpret it, and act upon it. There is no generalized knowledge worker course load. It can be argued that general education should be structured in such a way to empower all learners to gain the capacity for knowledge work.
Most commonly, people enter programs that teach them how to understand, interpret, and act upon a certain type of data. Nurses learn how to understand human vital signs and transform that into good patient care and collaborative diagnosis and treatment with doctors, who are also knowledge workers. Geologists read the data in rocks to identify oil-bearing strata or to suggest reinforcements for building foundations. Those are just examples. There are hundreds of roles that involve knowledge work. Many knowledge workers seek to align their passion with their pursuit of knowledge in order to not just be good at something but to be happy with their choice of vocation as well.
To become a knowledge worker one must study something. There are a wide variety of traditional and non-traditional opportunities for gaining knowledge. Knowledge workers do not need to have a college degree, though over the last several decades that path has proven the clearest and most recognized. Certification programs and apprenticeships also teach people domains of knowledge and how to apply them effectively. Curiosity, self-study, and practical experience remain valid sources of knowledge and are becoming more recognized by large organizations as “equivalent experience” complements the requirement for degrees.
Attributes of a Knowledge Worker
Beyond knowledge, knowledge workers require other characteristics for successful employment. To be clear, a knowledge worker can be very successful at his or her discipline without being prepared to be successful in a work environment. Those who want to contribute effectively in a work environment, need to also master these skills, which in many cases are knowledge work in themselves. Professors and consultants can gather data on these attributes and suggest improvements, and teach people how to be practitioners in each. Which makes them knowledge work.
Knowledge workers must be able to communicate their knowledge to peers, to learners, and to customers/clients in order to achieve a goal. Knowledge workers must be able to make logical arguments and build cases that demonstrate the value of what they know to others.
Knowledge workers must be able to work effectively with others who bring different disciplines, data, and information to large, programs, or to problem-solving that crosses domains.
Knowledge workers should be able to look beyond the current knowledge to discover new knowledge in the data. They should also be able to look at the breadth of knowledge available or the wisdom of the discipline and identify potential partners who can help solve problems that span domains. And they must be able to at minimum cooperate, if not lead, the implementation of innovative ideas.
Self-motivation, adaptation, and agility
Knowledge workers must be continuous learners. The wealth of data and information, from human and machine observation, challenges assumptions as much as it affirms them. Knowledge workers must be not just willing to change but to actively invest in learning in order to remain relevant to their discipline as the work conducted by their peers and themselves changes the world around them. Knowledge workers must adapt to change, and remain agile in the face of challenges to what they know.
Knowledge workers, unlike single-minded algorithms, are multidisciplinary. It proves difficult to automate knowledge work. While an algorithm may identify cancer better than an oncologist, and even suggest treatments, it cannot communicate that finding to a patient, or offer a comprehensive course of treatment inclusive of the whole patient. Algorithms may even discover innovative treatments, but they cannot bring those treatments to market.
For more on knowledge, information data, and wisdom, see our post that provides insight into the philosophical underpinnings of those ideas.