The 6 Factors of Knowledge Worker Productivity: Chapter 2 – When is a worker a Knowledge Worker?

As we continue into Knowledge Worker Productivity, it is appropriate to define what a knowledge worker is. The term ‘Knowledge work’ was originally coined by the great Peter Drucker in 1956. Even back then he saw the emergence of new forms of organisation that relied on the creativity, ingenuity and competence of a new breed of workers, Knowledge Workers, people who ‘think for a living’. The outputs of Knowledge Workers are often intangible, their task may be simply generating ideas. Sometimes the Knowledge Worker is contributing knowledge to others, sometimes papers, reports or designs that lead to the creation of something else – this is the nature of knowledge work. Obviously, eventually the Knowledge Workers performance and  endeavours must lead to something that someone can purchase for money.

So the first question we asked ourselves was ‘when is a worker a Knowledge Worker’!

Of course all jobs have some element of  necessary skills and knowledge needed to deliver tasks. So everyone is in some way a Knowledge Worker, however what we’re really talking about are ‘extreme’ Knowledge Workers, where people ‘think for a living’ and where their output is less tangible than a physical good or service. In these roles people are being paid to think, fusing their knowledge with that of others to provide new knowledge which ultimately translates into a commercial value.

Within our Workplace PIN Research Group, we found it helpful to describe a spectrum of Knowledge Work. At the right hand other end of the spectrum, jobs require much less dependency on knowledge and a greater dependency on adherence to a well-defined process. These might include delivery drivers, check out operatives in a supermarket or someone who routinely inserts a particular component on a production line. At the left hand side of the Spectrum we have the ‘extreme’ knowledge workers such as researchers, development staff, designers, information technology staff, engineers and creative experts.

Knowledge Worker Spectrum Graph - awa - advanced workplace associates - london - uk

Between these two ends of the spectrum there are of course many roles with differing levels of ‘Knowledge’ content. We had great fun in trying to decide where an orthopaedic surgeon lay on the Spectrum. The surgeon may be routinely replacing hip joints where a reasonable amount of knowledge is needed, but where, by and large the process is the same time after time. But when we thought more about it more we realised that the orthopaedic surgeon’s knowledge really came into its own when something was non-standard or went wrong.

The reason for our exploration of this definition was simple. Whilst what we found could be used as the basis of good management, it has a much more profound impact the further left your job is on the spectrum. To make this research more specific, we had to be specific on the type of work we refer to.

In the next article we’ll explain the answer to our first research question: What is known about the measurement of Knowledge Worker Productivity?

If you’re a knowledge worker in an office work environment, you should check out our research on cognitive performance.

Improve your workplace productivity for your knowledge worker by getting the foundations right. For more information contact a workplace management consultant on +44 20 7743 7110 or email with your inquiry. Advanced Workplace Associates are based in London, United Kingdom but now work internationally across the United States of America, Asia and Europe.

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