6 Characteristics of Knowledge Work

Here are 6 great points I recently came across, summarizing Peter Drucker on what makes knowledge work different from (and more challenging than) manual work:

  1. “Knowledge worker productivity demands that we ask the question: “What is the task?”
  2. It demands that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves. Knowledge workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy.
  3. Continuing innovation has to be part of the work, the task and the responsibility of knowledge workers.
  4. Knowledge work requires continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker, but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker.
  5. Productivity of the knowledge worker is not – at least not primarily – a matter of the quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.
  6. Finally, knowledge worker productivity requires that the knowledge worker is both seen and treated as an ‘asset’ rather than a ‘cost’. It requires that knowledge workers want to work for the organization in preference to all other opportunities.”

Here’s the key point, and the key challenge: Knowledge workers must manage themselves. The manager can only be a source of help, not a boss.

This creates an incredible opportunity and challenge for us as knowledge workers. The challenge is that it means that we need to know how to manage ourselves now more than ever, which does not necessarily come naturally (which is one reason I wrote my book). But the opportunity is that knowledge work by definition presents a great opportunity to unleash your creativity and innovation and unique interests.

This also presents a challenge for organizations, however. Many organizations that consist of knowledge workers still manage their people as if they are doing manual work. This is why you still see tightly controlled leadership and management practices.

The news flash is that these approaches kill knowledge work. Organizations cannot take their management cues from how management was done in the industrial era (I’m not saying even manual work should have been managed in that way, but it’s even worse with knowledge work). Every organization needs to be built on the recognition that their people, especially their knowledge workers (which is most of the workforce today), must be given ownership in their tasks and be allowed to manage themselves.

(By the way, if you are reading this blog, you are a knowledge worker; also, even if your “paid” job consists in manual work, we are all knowledge workers in our personal and home lives.)