Management guru Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” in his 1969 book, The Age of Discontinuity, differentiating knowledge workers from manual workers and insists that new industries will employ mostly knowledge workers.
The Work Foundation defines knowledge work as that which uses high level ‘tacit’ knowledge that resides in people’s minds, rather than being written down (or codified) in manuals, guides, lists and procedures. They also say that knowledge work cannot be adequately described simply by looking at job titles or education levels, two interesting facts emerge from their research:
- About 20 per cent of people engaged in jobs with high knowledge content – the core group of knowledge workers – are not graduates.
- Knowledge work is about equally likely to be done by men and women, but it’s interesting to note that the growth of more knowledge intensive work has not, of itself, overcome the gender pay gap.
The term ‘knowledge economy’ refers to a transformed economy where investment in ‘knowledge based’ assets such as R&D, design, software, and human and organisational capital has become the dominant form of investment compared with investment in physical assets – machines, equipment, buildings and vehicles. In essence our infrastructure and ways of working have changed the basis on which our organisations compete.
We often hear about ‘talent management’ and ‘high potential employees’ being groomed for great things, but these days even routine jobs require judgement and improvisation and the ability to deal with ambiguity and volatility. The performance of everyone on your team counts, we are all problem solvers contributing to the overall mission.
We all have our own talents and in a collaborative environment all employees help the organisation develop better products and services, improve business performance and increase profit, making better and faster decisions. Knowledge workers need to be empowered to work towards well-defined goals choosing their own routes and processes where feasible.
Manage workers as though they are volunteers
Drucker says we have to relearn how to manage people. We have to manage people as though they were volunteers.
“Volunteers get satisfaction from what they do because they are challenged and enriched by the work, not by the paycheck. They need a challenge, they need to know the organization’s mission and believe in it”.
I advocate creating an environment where knowledge sharing is encouraged, but where employees can also find space to work quietly when they need to. Give them the big picture and make sure everyone knows where they fit in. Career conversations between managers and workers, so that career management plans are shared and mapped are invaluable.
The truth is that the way we hire people has changed too. Now so many workers are contractors or freelance, we have perforce changed the way we manage and measure performance. It’s important that we create a workplace where these people want to work. Finding talented people is hard enough, keeping them is even harder, so it makes sense to show we value them.
Goffee and Jones, authors of Creating the Best Workplace on Earth suggest that you “think not about how much value to extract from workers but about how much value to instil in them”.