What is a knowledge worker and what do they do?

Knowledge workers, typically those with advanced training and years of experience, have become a valuable asset for companies worldwide. Businesses lean on these people who “think for a living” to drive innovation, solve problems and manage personnel.

Yet, empowering knowledge workers to stay productive can be a constant challenge. Too often, these skilled workers get bogged down in managing day-to-day tasks or the bureaucracy of the business, leaving less time for creative thinking. When knowledge workers leave the company, businesses face another challenge—finding a way to document, share and retain their knowledge to extend its benefits throughout the company.

Making the most of the skills, creativity and insights of knowledge workers requires thoughtful business management, from integrating company data to deploying well-documented processes. This article looks at how emerging tools can help.

What is a knowledge worker?

A knowledge worker is a professional who generates value for the organization with their expertise, critical thinking and interpersonal skills. They’re often tasked with developing new products or services, problem-solving, or creating strategies and action plans that will drive better business outcomes. Knowledge workers have formal training or significant experience, are skilled communicators and can learn and adapt to a shifting work environment.

Knowledge workers are an essential part of the evolving digital workplace. You can find them playing the role of a department leader with extensive institutional knowledge or acting as a subject matter expert called in to consult on a specific business challenge. The agility and adaptability of knowledge workers can help organizations foster collaboration and quickly respond to changes and challenges, from technological advances to major global events.

Though they would seem to mean the same thing, knowledge workers differ from information workers. Knowledge workers take existing information and use it to create new information. Information workers, on the other hand, apply information to perform a task. In the hierarchy of today’s workplace, knowledge workers oversee the daily work of the information worker.

The rise of the knowledge worker

The term “knowledge worker” was coined by business consultant Peter Drucker in 1959 as a new iteration of the white-collar worker in his book, The Landmarks of Tomorrow. In it, he argued that by the 21st century, the most valuable asset to any organization would be its knowledge worker productivity. In a 1999 Harvard Business Review article, Drucker noted that when people perform the work they are good at and that fits their abilities, they can not only cultivate a more successful career in the knowledge economy, they can ultimately bring more value to the organization.

At the time, Drucker saw how the type of work was shifting from primarily blue-collar jobs using manual labor to white-collar jobs that rely upon the intellectual skills and knowledge of employees to create and execute tasks. Drucker foresaw the impending shift toward information technology and a new class of workers whose valued skill was their knowledge. This increased focus on information and new technology would help the economy grow, but at the cost of many blue-collar jobs, Drucker predicted.

While many of the jobs considered to be knowledge workers today existed when Drucker coined the term (e.g., pharmacists, teachers, construction managers), there are countless other job titles that have emerged from our new information age, such as computer programmers or IT consultants.

Benefits of using knowledge workers

Whether it’s analyzing business metrics, reevaluating processes to find new opportunities for automation or encouraging more collaboration in a team’s daily work, knowledge workers bring a number of advantages to a company, including the following:

  • Providing leadership: Many knowledge-based job roles include managerial and decision-making tasks, such as overseeing employees, providing guidance or generating ideas that team members then execute. Knowledge workers have advanced experience, work collaboratively and are often asked to view problems in a holistic way; these are traits that can also make them good leaders.
  • Fostering teamwork: When persistent problems arise, organizations can benefit when someone provides new knowledge or applies strategic thinking to a team, process or workflow. Knowledge workers are able to take a “birds-eye view” of challenges to fully understand and solve them. This approach can help find new ways of bringing different stakeholders and co-workers together, encouraging collaboration across departments and throughout the organization.
  • Enhancing communication: When knowledge workers have great interpersonal communication skills, it helps foster a sense of community and better understanding of the purpose behind an initiative. This work environment also encourages people at all levels to share their expertise and work collaboratively to achieve company goals.
  • Building a growth mindset: Because of today’s rapidly changing digital landscape, companies need knowledge workers who provide a “growth mindset” approach to business, encouraging flexibility and the ability to see problems as opportunities for growth.

Knowledge workers and knowledge management

Most organizations today see value in leveraging the expertise of knowledge workers; however, using that information effectively often poses a challenge. How do you scale up knowledge-sharing throughout the organization, throughout the country or across the globe? How do you retain that information when employees are free to take their “know-how” to another company at any time?

Knowledge management offers a solution. It creates a process of identifying, organizing, storing and disseminating information created and used by knowledge workers within an organization. When companies create pathways and processes for sharing knowledge, it increases collaboration, identifies opportunities for efficiencies and helps keep valuable knowledge secure.

Here are some different tools organizations can use to help knowledge workers store, share and use information more efficiently.

  • Generative AI: Rapidly evolving generative AI tools have capabilities far beyond writing content and code. Knowledge workers can use them to quickly gather information about a topic, search for solutions to business problems and flesh out innovative ideas.
  • Business analytics: Data and insights help knowledge workers make informed decisions and find new opportunities. While Big Data and artificial intelligence (AI) provide the numbers, knowledge workers are key to understanding them.
  • Data integration and democratization: Data democratization is an approach to data architecture that allows people throughout the organization to access, use and talk about the data they need with ease. The aim is to break down silos between departments with better data management and integration. The result? Fostering innovation—typically a task driven by knowledge workers.
  • Content management systems (CMS): Knowledge workers need a system for creating and managing documents that disseminate information, insights and data, both internally and with outside stakeholders.
  • Collaborative tools: Intranets, wikis and other collaborative ways to share data help foster data sharing and idea generation in real-time, while also providing a unified knowledge base and place for documenting processes.

Knowledge worker productivity

Knowledge workers are known for being highly creative and productive employees; however, their productivity and ability to think about “big-picture” business solutions can be stymied when they have to shift their focus to other tasks.

The challenge for many may simply be time. For example, when scientists, data analysts and computer engineers have tight deadlines and managerial tasks, it limits the time they have available for brainstorming, testing and sharing knowledge.

As McKinsey observed, these challenges typically fall into one of five categories:

  1. Physical: Often physical distance, different time zones or hybrid offices can prohibit the collaboration opportunities needed for knowledge workers to share information and develop new ideas.
  2. Technical: Knowledge workers need to have the right tools and infrastructure set up for sharing the data they need to collaborate and innovate.
  3. Social/cultural: When companies fail to create a culture of collaboration, it hinders the ability of knowledge workers to work with disparate groups to find efficiencies and new processes.
  4. Contextual: Silos can also occur when different departments within a company have different systems and ways of looking at business objectives. Companies need to create a common language for talking about goals to break down contextual barriers.
  5. Temporal: Time is a challenge regardless of industry or role, yet it can be particularly challenging for knowledge workers who need space for creativity, collaboration and gathering insights from others in their field.

IBM and knowledge worker productivity

As mentioned earlier in this post, there are a number of advantages that knowledge workers bring to their organizations—from strategic leadership to innovation. But the benefits can only be realized if their productivity isn’t locked up in non-knowledge work tasks. In other words, it’s better to have your knowledge workers synthesize the information and provide actionable insights than pull the data.

Part of the problem is the number of tools knowledge workers use to do their job—endless screen switching leads to inefficiencies and distraction from the important. Good news: AI and automation technologies are evolving to provide easy, conversational access to the information and task automations knowledge workers need to better serve customers and generate value with their expertise, critical thinking and interpersonal skills.

Pre-built to add value quickly, IBM Watson® solutions provide ever-expanding skill sets, AI models that constantly learn, and automations that can be orchestrated in real-time so knowledge workers can do the following:

  • Hand off time-consuming tasks, such as pulling reports, to personalized digital workers.
  • Get the right information at the right time—in the right context—with intelligent document understanding and enterprise search.
  • Remove the friction of providing traditional support and deliver great customer experiences.

From HR to procurement to customer service, IBM Watson solutions are augmenting work to improve customer care and boost knowledge worker engagement and productivity. Customers get an accurate and efficient self-service experience and knowledge workers get the intelligence and tools they need to free up time for higher-value work.

Unlock knowledge worker productivity with AI and automation

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