So, what is it to be a knowledge worker? Lots of people have taken aim at variations of this question, and Martin Roell has taken a crack at it after blog comment conversation with Geoffrey Rockwell and Florian Heidecke.
I've always thought of a knowledge worker as a person who uses their brain more than their hands in the course of their work. More specifically, someone whose knowledge and ability to learn is critical to what they do, even if they do it with their hands. Just as with knowledge management, I suspect the term gained a lot of traction with the development of technology that made a lot of the information work much easier than it had been in the days of paper or of mainframes. And some writers claim that we have all become knowledge workers, though that is a bit of a stretch in my mind.
The Wikipedia has an entry on Knowledge worker, though it could probably be updated with a lot of the discussion that is happening in these threads. Anyone want to volunteer?
I have been in the Association of Knowledgework (AOK) for several years, and we've had many interesting discussions about the nature of knowledge and knowledge work, but I couldn't find any good consensus description from those discussions.
In doing a quick Google, I turned up some additional useful definitions below, including more from Drucker. Martin will be happy to know he is the top hit for this phrase.
Everyone gives credit to Peter Drucker for coining the term in his Landmarks of Tomorrow, published in 1959. He continues talking about the topic, as I discovered in a 1994 talk at Harvard, Knowledge Work and Knowledge Society: The Social Transformations of this Century. He talks about knowledge workers being uniquely identified by the fact that they "gain access to work through formal education," while still acknowledging that some knowledge work requires excellent manual skill as well (neurosurgeons). He also talks about the knowledge we need becoming more specialized: the age of the generalist is over because there is too much to know before one can contribute in a given area. People that can learn new things are still important, but Drucker claims the "know a little about a lot" model no longer means much. Drucker also says here that knowledge workers are primarily employees. Given that I am an independent consultant these days, I am not sure if I like this or not.
A knowledge worker definition from searchCRM at Techtarget.com:
A knowledge worker is anyone who works for a living at the tasks of developing or using knowledge. For example, a knowledge worker might be someone who works at any of the tasks of planning, acquiring, searching, analyzing, organizing, storing, programming, distributing, marketing, or otherwise contributing to the transformation and commerce of information and those (often the same people) who work at using the knowledge so produced. [snip]
An amazing article from Kit Sims Taylor on The Brief Reign of the Knowledge Worker: Information Technology and Technological Unemployment from a 1998 presentation. It focuses on the technical transformation of work and the economy and on "what's next," but has this interesting description of what we do and a longer discussion deeper in the article:
It matters little what we decide to call ourselves - we are the masters of the information technology revolution and the creators of the information that seem to be the driving force behind a long boom.
[snip, read, read, read]
As knowledge workers, we like to think that most of our work involves the creation of new knowledge -- of knowledge that would not exist without our mental efforts. Unfortunately, this is actually a fairly small part of our work. When we examine the work pattern of knowledge workers, we find six more or less distinct types of work:
- Routine work that is hard to separate from knowledge work. Formatting an article, for example, is work that might be done by a typist, but would be done by the knowledge worker when that takes less time than preparing the document and formatting instructions for the typist.
- Networking, promoting, socializing.
- Finding the data needed to produce the knowledge.
- Creating what others have probably already created when this would take less time than to search, find, and appropriate what has been produced by others.
- Truly original knowledge work -- creating what has not been created before.
- Communicating what has been produced or learned.
The Specialist Library has a number of definitions and thoughts about knowledge workers.
There are always Amazon books on Knowledge Workers (currently 58 titles).