Definition – What are Knowledge Workers?

In every company, there are those employees whose jobs mainly involve acquiring and using information in a creative way.  Peter Drucker referred to these individuals as knowledge workers in his 1959 book, Landmarks of Tomorrow.

Drucker argued that knowledge has become the most important resource that is not limited by geography. He taught that people are a company’s most valuable asset and that a manager’s job is to cultivate and encourage creative problem-solving in all employees.

Drucker was ahead of his time in his recognition of the importance of knowledge workers. In the late 1950’s, society was experiencing a shift from manual labor to jobs that required more formal education and training.

Now, roughly 50 percent of jobs require employees to use and share knowledge. Data analysts, programmers, researchers, lawyers, and teachers are all examples of knowledge workers.

Knowledge workers are the people who are developing new strategies and coming up with ideas for new products and services.

What are Knowledge Workers?

There is some debate around how to accurately define the term “knowledge worker”. Some people feel it is a controversial term that implies that certain jobs are better or more important than others.

Many will argue that even the most routine work requires creativity and improvisation. After all, the internet has given us all the opportunity to be creative in new and exciting ways. By putting labels on certain employees, companies could be undermining their potential in the workplace.

For the purpose of this article, we will define knowledge workers as individuals with a high level of education and experience. The main focus of their job is to use and apply knowledge in a creative and innovative way.

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The Characteristics of Knowledge Workers

Knowledge workers can be identified by the amount of time they spend engaged in coming up with new ideas and strategies, as opposed to more repetitive work. They will often spend their time focusing on things like product design rather than manual processes.

This type of work is often complex and requires a certain set of skills. All employees may display these skills to one degree or another but these five characteristics are common to nearly all knowledge workers.

Here are the five main characteristics that are present in most knowledge workers:

Specialized knowledge of a subject

Most knowledge workers have a specialized set of knowledge about a particular subject. They often have spent years developing and gaining their skills and resources either through formal education or in the workplace.

The ability to find and access new information

In our society, information is constantly changing at a pace that is hard to keep up with. There is a lot of material employees will need to be familiar with to perform their jobs well. Knowing how to find and access the resources and information they need is a crucial skill to have.

The ability to utilize new information

Just having the information is not enough if you don’t know how to apply it in a useful way. Employees must be able to take the information they accessed and use it to solve problems in new and innovative ways.

Good communication skills

Successful knowledge workers are usually able to communicate effectively through both speaking and writing. They can work well in one-on-one and group settings and are able to collaborate with others to meet company goals.

A growth-motivated mindset

Because the nature of technology and information is that it is constantly changing, employees must have a growth-motivated mindset. They are interested in learning and applying new information to change the way they work and use their talents.

Managing Knowledge Workers

It can be difficult to measure and analyze the work performed by knowledge workers. Knowledge workers are expected to produce creative ideas. You can’t measure the productivity or efficiency of knowledge and ideas the same way you can with more repetitive tasks.

Although it poses a unique challenge, managing knowledge workers can be done. Their performances and output must simply be measured in a different way. Here are five ideas for how you can effectively manage knowledge workers:

Encourage them to think outside of the box

Create a workplace environment where employees are encouraged to think outside of the box. Invite them to share new ideas in group settings but also give employees the space they need to generate those new ideas. Many employees could benefit from having more private spaces available to think and accomplish their work.

Come up with creative ways to measure performance

It is impossible to measure ideas and creative input the way you can manage physical steps in a process. And because the finished product is what is important, the steps along the way are largely irrelevant.

For this reason, you will need to come up with creative metrics for measuring performance. Look at establishing longer periods for measuring performance as opposed to every quarter.

Offer support as needed

Most knowledge workers will require a certain level of autonomy. Offer knowledge workers the freedom they need to accomplish their work and provide support and encouragement as needed.

Treat everyone as an individual

Knowledge workers will come up with new ideas and use information in different ways.  Allow them to personalize their work environment, the technologies they use, and even their schedules to a certain extent.

Focus on big picture thinking

Knowledge workers are often motivated by the bigger picture. Explain your motivation, goals, and the ultimate “why” behind every new project. This will allow them to have a greater sense of connection to the project and will increase their motivation to add to its success.


In a 1992 essay written called The New Society of Organizations, Peter Drucker stated that every 100 years or so, society completely rearranges itself. The result is that 50 years later the new society is completely different than the society that preceded it. For Peter Drucker, the newest shift was to that of a knowledge society.

In today’s society, there is an increasing need for employees to perform creative and non-traditional work. This presents an exciting opportunity for a growing number of people to do work that they find personally meaningful and fulfilling. This also means that opportunities for leadership and greater mobility will be available to more people.

If you enjoyed this blog post you may also enjoy this one looking at digital transformation and the future of work.

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