The Rise of the Knowledge Worker & How To Boost Their Effectiveness

The importance of Knowledge Workers in today's business has never been greater. Ensuring their time is properly utilized should be a paramount concern for any IT leader.  

I think we can agree Peter Drucker was correct back in 1959, when he first coined the term "knowledge worker" and predicted their rise in his book, Landmarks of Tomorrow.  He is often viewed as the founder of modern management, highly regarded for his Landmarks_of_Tomorrow.jpgobservational forecasts on global socioeconomics.  In many of his publishings, he adeptly predicted the rise of the knowledge worker, believing that this new class of worker would reshape the core of modern business. Mr. Drucker considered their productivity to be the next frontier of management.   

But what exactly is a knowledge worker?  Largely, it's any person who works with and relies on information (acquired knowledge) to perform their duties. Today, that seems like a pretty large swath of people across the World's business landscape- and that was exactly his point.  He predicted that as we moved out of the Twentieth-century and through the Twenty-First, an ever increasing separation would occur between the role and importance of manual labor and those who work with information.  

Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an 'executive' if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results."  



- Peter Drucker - The Effective Executive (1966)

While the term is sometimes used for lawyers, doctors and accountants, today "knowledge worker" is predominately a label given to those operating inside the information technology sector of business. Drucker saw these resources as assets rather than liabilities and believed it was management's duty to ensure their continued education and development. He believed knowledge workers would be more effective in networks, instead of more typical corporate hierarchical structuring. He must have been on to something, as it sounds like the structure of the IT organizations in some of the world's most successful companies today.  

Of course, the largest challenge for leadership when it comes to managing knowledge workers, is utilizing them effectively so they may be as productive as possible. Managing manual labor is a much more black and white affair, where the affects of productivity are easily tangible. Did the hole get dug four meters? Yes, the hole was dug four meters. Was today's packing quota met and loaded for shipment? Yes, the quota was met and the shipment has gone out.

These clear milestones aren't so easy to measure when it comes to the productivity of knowledge workers however. Since, by nature, the specialized, often highly-technical work of knowledge workers mainly occurs in their heads, it can be hard to tell how exact or efficient tasks have been performed. Sure, milestones and expectations can be set.  Just look at any good technology project plan. But right next to those you'll also find a large percentage of plans that went of the rails; with the why's and how's being quite difficult to account for, measure or predict. That is the nature of knowledge work.

As the digitization of business continues to transform companies across the globe, the need for knowledge worker productivity has never been greater. Leadership, specifically in the IT organization, must ensure their specialized knowledge working resources are using their time as effectively as possible. Though this isn't always easy, there are some steps management can instill to help optimize their knowledge worker's utility and productivity.


5 Ways to Boost Knowledge Worker Utilization and Productivity:

  1. Keep Track of Time - This simple steps is often not done within many organizations but there should always be some method in place to record, review and report on where time was spent. 
  2. Clearly Define Expectations - Both management and customer expectations should be well defined from the outset. When Knowledge Workers better understand what is needed from them they are in a better position manage their own time and communicate potential challenges. 
  3. Cultivate Collaboration - As Peter Drucker predicted, thanks to advancements in technology today's Knowledge Workers have the ability to operate as a network or a hive. By removing the constriction of communication, they're able to easily share new ideas and viewpoints benefiting their common goals. Champion this methodology and provide the tools to make it even easier. 
  4. Provide Delegation Partners - Your specialized Knowledge Workers have an intimate understanding of the challenges they'll face on the path to delivery. They also know which low-value tasks will cause them distraction and delay. Establish a channel with an internal or external delegation partner which allows them to easily hand off specific tasks they know will become a bottleneck preventing them from completing initiatives more efficiently.   
  5. Maintain Accountability - Management must do everything possible to not waiver from specified objectives. Consistently holding resources accountable for defined expectations is not only the best way to keep initiatives on track but it also helps to maintain the structural relationship between the Manager and the Knowledge Worker.