CIO Development

Blog The digital what? What’s a knowledge worker?

“Knowledge worker” is a term coined by the great management commentator Peter Drucker as he observed post-war western economies begin transforming into their post-industrial forms through the 1960s and 70s.

The industrial age was characterised by the application of factory processes to most aspects of modern society, most notably into agriculture and manufacturing. But the emerging knowledge worker didn’t make “things”; he or she worked primarily with information rather than physical objects or tools, aided by information technology and services. This shift was profoundly perplexing to organisational management, the theory and tools for which had been developed primarily for manufacturing.

The most important and unique contribution of the new profession of “management” in the 20th century was the 50-fold increase in manual worker productivity in manufacturing, and most of our “science” of management is handed down from that era.

And according to Drucker, the current challenge of management is to achieve a comparable increase in the productivity of knowledge workers. He identified the major factors that determine knowledge worker productivity:

The task must be well-defined; the knowledge worker must accept responsibility for achieving it and must be allowed sufficient autonomy to achieve it. Quality of output, innovation, continuous learning and teaching, are all the responsibility of the knowledge worker, who should be seen as an asset rather than as a cost.

And since the knowledge worker owns the asset (herself), she needs to keep it up to date and use it to deliver the greatest contribution. This requires a massive shift in management thinking.

None of this is new! This concept of the knowledge worker has been around for 60 years, and most of us in this room, and the people who work for us, qualify for the title. What is new is our unparalleled opportunity to connect and network in a global economy, which will add enormously to our personal asset values and which promises to give us the productivity increases we so badly need.

This is the promise of the digital knowledge worker, or what LEF research refers to as the “double-deep” knowledge worker.

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