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What is a Knowledge Worker? Defining the Modern Workplace
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What is a Knowledge Worker? Defining the Modern Workplace

A headshot of Adam Wignall
Adam Wignall
24th October, 2023
An illustration of a brain to represent a knowledge worker
A headshot of Adam Wignall
Adam Wignall
24th October, 2023
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How did the term come about?
What is a Knowledge Worker?
The Knowledge Worker Environment
What do Knowledge Workers want?
Kolekti and Knowledge Workers
Reading list

If you've ever asked, 'What is a knowledge worker?', here's your answer! We've defined them and traced their journey from relative obscurity to their pivotal role in the modern workplace.

Kingsley Amis' book, The King's English, is an essential and witty guide to tricky words and phrases. In it, one word that Amis picks out is 'jejune'. Initially, this meant scant or arid, but because the word looks imported, some users thought it was related to 'jeune', the French word for young. As such, people began to use it synonymously for callow or juvenile. When it made that move, the next set of users definitely thought it was a descendant of 'jeune' and so decided it needed all the things French loan words need: italics, accents, and even an extra vowel… and so, purely because of misplaced user sentiment, this purely English word became jéjeune, and its migration was complete.

Jejune's journey is not uncommon; words and phrases travel. But I want to talk about the trip - and destination - of a term that popped into being back in 1959. That term is 'knowledge worker'.

At Kolekti, we're obsessed with the world of knowledge workers and work management. Because we create the tools and apps that help people navigate that world.

How did the term come about?

The 1950s were a simpler time. Back then, the labour economy fell into two camps:
  • Blue-collar workers: manual labourers who typically worked in places like factories or construction sites; and
  • White-collar workers: clerical workers who were usually employed in offices to perform tasks like accounting and filing.

Then, in 1959, came management theorist Peter Drucker. Drucker had identified the emergence of a new economy and predicted a world where knowledge would become that economy's primary asset. In this world existed a new class of professionals that he named 'knowledge workers'. Drucker defined knowledge workers as ”high-level workers who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal training, to develop products and services".

After Drucker, another management analyst, Boisot, appeared. By the 1990s, the phrases blue-collar worker and white-collar worker had fallen into disuse, and the space between them had become very fuzzy. In 1995 Boisot drilled into the idea of knowledge as an asset and tracked its generation, flow (and stagnation) through companies. Part of his enquiry was: if knowledge workers create knowledge (and therefore value), should they be considered equal to external investors? He was keen to show companies how to track and use knowledge as they would any other asset, and that ultimately came down to how knowledge workers collaborated. In short, Boisoit pointed out that knowledge and knowledge workers were vital to the new economy.

Then, in 2005, Davenport created a guide to keeping the knowledge worker happy, and his definition was: "Knowledge workers have high degrees of expertise, education, or experience, and the primary purpose of their jobs involves the creation, distribution, or application of knowledge".

From Drucker to Davenport, the odyssey of the knowledge worker hasn't been as monumental as jejune, but there has been movement.

With Davenport, the knowledge worker's scope broadens from the simple application of knowledge to include its creation and distribution. Nevertheless, in both definitions, the knowledge worker is still bound by having a high level of expertise, education or training. The knowledge worker remains exceptional.

So we have the 64-year-old and 18-year-old definitions, but what does that translate to today? Here goes:

What is a Knowledge Worker?

A knowledge worker is a professional whose central role involves creating, applying, and sharing knowledge.
But it's a bit more complex than that. In fact, at Kolekti, we believe there should be a new classification of knowledge workers, their actions, and roles. But before we get to that, let's see what others are saying about knowledge workers:
"A knowledge worker is a professional who generates value for the organisation with their expertise, critical thinking and interpersonal skills."
Again, there's that focus on expertise and exceptionalism.
"Knowledge workers create value by using knowledge and understanding – they think for a living, rather than carrying out physical labour."
Here, the CIPD seeks to differentiate - what is not a knowledge worker? According to this definition, a manual labourer is not. But while a manual labourer may not be a knowledge worker, someone like a zookeeper undertakes both manual labour and knowledge work.

Other examples of knowledge workers often also focus on digital, IT, and SaaS spaces - which, of course, do have knowledge workers, but that isn't their exclusive domain. We could say that knowledge workers could potentially be defined simply as workers in the age of knowledge.

The Knowledge Worker Environment

Looking at how the workplace has transitioned in recent decades, we can see how the knowledge worker environment that Drucker predicted has come about. For example, in the '80s, the newspaper trade transitioned from hot metal to desktop publishing. And then, with the rise of the computer, email, mobile phones, and the internet, the industry transformed even further to keep up. So a newspaper journalist  (most definitely a knowledge worker) would now consider themselves web, social and app-first, and right now, they'll be wondering where AI fits into the bigger picture.

This tale of digital transformation leads us to the door of the modern office: the knowledge worker's environment. The office has adapted to the internet, suffered COVID-19, and risen through the gig economy; it endures constant technological advances; it's agile, increasingly automated, and increasingly flexible.

And if being agile, increasingly automated, and flexible rings a bell, that's because those are also the skills of the knowledge worker who, at this point, appears to be simply a product of their environment.

But the knowledge worker's environment extends beyond the office. Here's an example: you want to plan an evening out with workmates, a new shuffleboard place has opened in town, and the food trucks have been given a superb write-up in your favourite foodie newsletter. You suggest a team outing to workmates in the #Playtime Slack channel, sharing the review and a link to the online menu. A colleague shares information about a nearby tiki bar and suggests pre-shuffleboard cocktails: "The Mai Tais look delish!". You all vote on the best date, book return cabs, and everyone has a fantastic and memorable night. The following day, you all share your photos of the night on Slack to share with the rest of the company. It's a tale of research, collaboration, content creation, and strategic thinking; for a knowledge worker, it's all in a day's work - or play.

What are knowledge worker skills?

Innovation, autonomy, continuous learning, knowledge creation and sharing, strategic thinking, project management, idea generation, problem-solving, an agile mindset, flexibility, and initiative. Sound like anyone you know?

These skills map to multiple roles and fit in IT, education, health, consulting, legal, and finance - but also zoology, construction, agriculture, and fishing. It's difficult to name a place where you can't find those skills.

What do knowledge workers want?

Kolekti's parent company, The Adaptavist Group, surveyed knowledge workers to see what matters most to them. The message was clear: workers want autonomy, flexibility, growth & support. Give that to your employees, and they'll see you as a keeper. Check the infographic for the details.
An infographic with arrows pointing to the most important things that knowledge workers want
Click to enlarge the infographic

Kolekti and Knowledge Workers

Right, it's time to wrap this up. What have we learned about what a knowledge worker is and does? Roll up your sleeves. Knowledge workers…
  • Deal with knowledge.
  • Are products of the age of knowledge.
  • Work in ever-changing environments.
  • Are sometimes only knowledge workers in their spare time.
  • Work in every sector.
  • Want autonomy, flexibility, growth, and support.
  • Were once uncommon but are now the backbone of many industries.

In Drucker's time, knowledge workers were rare; by 2005 and Davenport, they were increasing but relatively exotic. Today, knowledge workers are abundant (according to Forbes, there are currently one billion), and soon, they will be universal. Knowledge workers perform manual labour today, but tomorrow, what we call manual labourers, or blue-collar workers, could be knowledge workers, too. And in time everyone we call a worker will be a knowledge worker. We will all create and share knowledge, we'll all use digital tools for collaboration and problem-solving, and the idea of work being a destination will disappear. In time, work will stop being something we put our lives on hold to go and do. Instead, it will become a much more integrated activity. As knowledge workers ourselves, we at Kolekti understand the challenges you face. That's why we're here to give you and everyone like you the tools to thrive and get the job done.

We create tools to help people work efficiently

Check out our Confluence Apps to see how we can help you with your workload - free trials are available now.

Reading list

Amis, K. (1998). The King's English: A Guide to Modern Usage. HarperCollins Publishers.Drucker, P. (1959) The Landmarks of Tomorrow. Harper and Row, New York.
Boisot, M. H. (1995). Information Space: A Framework for Learning in Organizations, Institutions, and Culture. Routledge.
Davenport, T. H. (2005). Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performance and Results from Knowledge Workers. Harvard Business Review Press.
Written by
A headshot of Adam Wignall
Adam Wignall
General Manager
Adam has a rich background in product management and professional services. He has led teams in developing and implementing technology strategies and concept-to-launch in dynamic environments. As General Manager for Kolekti, Adam leads the team in their mission to end inefficient work.

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