Managing Knowledge Workers

Getting the Most From Them

Ensure people use technology in the right way.

© iStockphoto/track5

Knowledge workers are often the core of your organization.

It can be their ideas, experiences, interpretations, and judgments that keep your business – and your economy and society – moving forward.

They invent new products, develop new strategies, lead negotiations, and help keep you ahead of your competitors.

We've come a long way since management expert Peter Drucker first created the term 'knowledge worker' in the late 1950s. At that time, we were just starting to see a change from manual labor to jobs that need high levels of expertise, education, and experience. Now, anywhere from 25% to 50% of jobs require people to create, use, and share knowledge.

What does this mean for the managers and leaders of these workers? And how do you measure the amount of knowledge a person creates or uses? This type of work is mostly intangible – and often invisible. You can't count how many judgments people make in a day. It's hard to quantify the value of the relationships they develop, or the ideas they inspire.

This is where a problem arises: because it can be difficult to measure knowledge work, many managers simply don't manage these workers at all. Managers often feel that if these workers have so much knowledge, they must know what they're supposed to be doing! Others may treat knowledge workers like any other staff, applying rules that frustrate them, and damage their productivity.

So, how can you manage knowledge workers productively? Before we answer that question, let's define what a knowledge worker is.

What is a Knowledge Worker?

The term 'knowledge worker' is somewhat controversial. Some people are uncomfortable saying that some workers use knowledge, and others don't – for example, “Our marketing team members are knowledge workers, and our production staff are not.” Statements like this may create the impression that some jobs (and people) are better than others. On the other hand, you could say that all work is knowledge work, to a greater or lesser degree.

Thomas Davenport, who has studied knowledge workers for more than a decade, offers a commonly used definition of the term: “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.” For our purposes, we'll use this definition.

At its most basic level, knowledge work is often the source of new ideas. So, to get the most from your knowledge workers, and to create an environment where new ideas can flow and flourish, follow some of these basic leadership and management practices. They will help you build trust, and improve the link between the work your knowledge workers do and your organization's success. This may help to create the competitive advantage you need.

Link Technology to Knowledge

There's a tremendous amount of knowledge out there, and new discoveries are made every day. Knowledge workers have to use technology to keep track of everything they need to know. They don't have to create everything themselves, or waste time looking for information that may or may not exist. As a manager, make sure your knowledge workers have access to appropriate technology. This could be something as straightforward as providing them with PDAs, or with access to the Internet.

However, simply providing the technology isn't enough. You'll need to train people to use the technology, and you may even require them to use it. For example, it's pointless if you buy a software program that automatically searches the Internet for new information on specific subjects, but your workers still spend hours doing their own web searches.

Find ways to provide the right technology, and make sure knowledge workers use it. This is the first way for managers to improve their knowledge workers' performance.

Manage Knowledge

Develop a strategy to manage knowledge within your company. Create a wiki containing organizational knowledge, along with systems that support and encourage the sharing and retention of knowledge in your workplace.

It also helps to provide workspaces where knowledge workers can share and collaborate with their colleagues. And they often need space where they can go to think privately, without distractions.

Be a 'Coach,' Not a 'Boss'

The nature of knowledge work varies with each profession – from software developers to lawyers to pharmaceutical researchers. However, most knowledge workers like at least some level of autonomy. They usually don't want someone closely overseeing and supervising their work. Instead, they probably prefer managers to clear the way for them to work productively.

As a manager, you're responsible for things like budgeting and planning, and this takes you further away from 'doing' things yourself. To maintain knowledge workers' trust and respect, stay aware of the work they're doing, and coach them as needed.

Bosses of knowledge workers are often knowledge workers themselves. This makes the role of coach even more important. Develop a coaching relationship in which you give knowledge workers the freedom and support they need to do their work.

Explain the Big Picture

Knowledge workers often need to know 'why' as much, if not more, than they need to know 'what.' Don't ask knowledge workers to improve a product's design without telling them why it needs improving – and how the improvements will benefit the performance of the company. When knowledge workers understand 'why,' they're more likely to offer solutions that are innovative and insightful.

This deeper insight often leads to an increase in 'connectedness.' The more connected knowledge workers feel to a project, the more motivated they're likely to be. Greater motivation means more collective brainpower that will be used to make the project a success.

To ensure high motivation levels, you may have to consider carefully which projects you assign to knowledge workers. Find out what their interests and goals are, and then aim to align those to the work they do within the organization. Be willing to customize projects to a knowledge worker's interests.

Get Creative With Performance Metrics

Knowledge work is mostly unseen, and therefore difficult to measure. You can't watch knowledge being created in the same way as a physical, tangible product. With knowledge work, it's the final output that matters, and the steps along the way are often less important.

Because it's almost impossible to measure the inputs, look instead at the outputs, and decide which results are most important to your organization. For example, a marketing company might decide that campaign awards are the most valid measurement of performance. Obtaining patents might be the measurement system in product development companies. Results of participant evaluations might be the determining factor used in training companies. (Be careful here not to reward quantity at the expense of quality – one spectacular success may be worth many middle-ranking ones. Also, be flexible in the way you apply metrics so that you don't end up motivating perverse behaviors.)

By looking at what's most valuable in terms of output, you can usually identify some key performance indicators. Remember to make sure these indicators are tied to the 'big picture' that you communicated earlier.

When you're happy with a set of performance metrics, experiment with changes that are designed to improve performance. For example, if you introduce a new technology, evaluate how it impacts performance. Or, if you change the layout of the workspace to improve collaboration among knowledge workers, measure before-and-after results to determine how successful the change has been.

Treat Knowledge Workers as Individuals

Different people use their knowledge in different ways. Some people like to sit and think in a quiet space, while others like to have roundtable discussions to generate ideas. Fairness in the workplace can be interpreted as making things 'the same' for everyone. But when you treat all of your knowledge workers alike, you may miss opportunities to discover what motivates them individually – and what each one needs to be more creative and productive.

Everything can be personalized – the technologies you make available, the work environment, the work schedule, and so on. Your knowledge workers get results in ways that are very different from traditional workers, so be open and flexible with their work resources, terms, and conditions.

Key Points

Knowledge workers are usually responsible for exploring and creating ideas, rather than implementing and managing existing processes. New products, new designs, new models for doing business – these are typical outputs of knowledge work.

Because knowledge workers are expected to produce results that are different from traditional workers, you should also manage them and measure their performance differently. Have an open mind, and recognize the different needs and motivations of knowledge workers. This will make it much easier to find creative and effective ways to keep their productivity high.

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