More than 50 years ago, Peter Drucker predicted information would change the way people work — instead of generating value through physical labor with their muscles, they instead do it with their minds.
Drucker described this worker of the future as a “knowledge worker.”
At its most simple definition, a knowledge worker is someone whose job requires them to think for a living.
Drucker described the knowledge worker’s labor as “ever-changing, dynamic, and autonomous.” Knowledge work is all about problem-solving and requires both convergent and divergent thinking to answer all the simple and complex questions that arise in daily work.
Knowledge workers would be expected to innovate often, routinely coming up with new and better ways of doing things. And in their increasingly specialized roles, these employees would be expected to know more about their daily work than their managers — meaning autonomy is a necessity, not simply a nice-to-have.
While some may disagree, we argue yes. All of your employees can and should be considered knowledge workers. After all, everyone is an expert in something.
Even highly routine jobs require improvisation and the use of judgment in ambiguous situations — the workers in these roles are often just as capable of creative problem solving and adding value to the business. In fact, discounting their unique knowledge may cause you to overlook someone’s one-of-a-kind institutional know-how, and thereby cause the quality of your products and services to suffer or stagnate.
The Harvard Business Review (HBR) published an article nearly a decade ago asking this exact question — are all employees knowledge workers? Its authors came to the same conclusion, making the case against drawing artificial boundaries in your workforce and cautioning business leaders not to be quick to write-off some jobs as mindless and routine.
To illustrate why, HBR looked back to when Japanese auto manufacturers began treating all of their workers as knowledge workers in the 1980s. These companies began encouraging every employee — from managers to assembly workers on the factory floor — to help support the company in solving problems and continuously improving productivity. This move unleashed a passion in the factory workers assembling cars, giving new meaning to jobs often perceived as mindless and repetitive. It also significantly improved the quality of the final product, helping to win significant market share away from established car makers that still relied on the old management model of command and control.
Just a few years ago, researchers at Oxford University warned that technology would destroy nearly 47 percent of U.S. jobs in coming years. But so far, quite the opposite trend has been appearing — there are today more jobs in the U.S. than there are workers. Even as machines are made ever smarter, today’s jobs increasingly require social, emotional, creative, or relational skills — and these are not easily replaced by machines or automation.
Over the past three decades, almost all job growth has come from the two categories of work that are non-routine: knowledge work and work in service occupations. In fact, the growth in knowledge and service jobs is outpacing the number of jobs that are disappearing due to automation. And while some jobs may indeed be gone, they have been replaced by others that require employees to connect with other people, think on their feet, find information, and use their unique knowledge to problem-solve.
Drucker once observed that societal transformation can happen in a matter of decades — basic values, social and political structures, arts, and key institutions can all change in one generation. Now fifty years after Drucker initially constructed the idea of a knowledge worker, the system is changing again.
Today, we can instantly learn anything, anywhere. And the knowledge worker of the past is becoming the learning worker of today. Forbes recently noted, “how we value workers is changing, and the emphasis now is on an employee’s ability to learn and adapt, rather than their readiness to come into a job with the skills required to do everything.”
For businesses, this means establishing support (both culturally and tactically) for learning throughout the entire organization is even more critical than it’s been in the past. From onboarding to employee training to social learning, businesses must work to create and curate training ecosystems that enable continuous learning and rapid knowledge sharing among all employees.
While becoming a true learning organization has in the past required extensive dedication, time, energy, and resources, advancements in learning technology now present senior leaders with new tools designed to help make that nearly insurmountable task much more achievable.
When it comes to building a highly adaptable culture of learning within your organization, fully half the battle is simply finding a means to scale the way you share knowledge. If this is an area your organization has struggled with, consider the how an enterprise video platform can help you build a sustainable learning organization.
We all acquire unique knowledge over the course of our careers. That knowledge is why the first month at a new job is so much harder than the twenty-first. But because this kind of knowledge is so open-ended, we rarely measure its value. And when we take stock of what makes our companies productive, we tend to overlook it.
Find out how much your company is losing with our first-of-its-kind workplace productivity study by Panopto and YouGov.