When commentators refer to knowledge workers they consider all of those employees who create value for their organisations through the production and manipulation of any type of knowledge. Given this rather broad definition, a very diverse range of employees can be legitimately classified as knowledge workers. For example, this category probably includes researchers, designers, most professional groups, IT workers, engineers, teachers and scientists. Indeed, recent data from the USA suggests that, given this rather broad definition, about three quarters of the American workforce should be classified as knowledge workers.

Gottschalk (2005: 27) Defines knowledge workers as "An employee who is able to find, understand and use knowledge in the organisation on their own".

Brief Origins

Automation in factories and farms more than a century ago freed most of the workforce from having to perform physical labour. Over the last half-century, the advent of computers and the pervasive presence of information created a demand for workers who could produce information in the first place, extract meaning from it, and take action on it (Davenport, 2005).

Roles and Key Skills

Given this broad range of different workers, it should come as no surprise that knowledge workers perform many different and diverse roles. However, Reinhardt et. al. (2011) have made a useful attempt (based on a review of the current literature) to identify a pattern in this diversity and suggest that knowledge workers perform ten discrete different roles:

Type of Knowledge Activity
People who monitor the organizational performance based on raw information.
Analysis, dissemination, information organization and monitoring
Once they passed a problem, people who teach and transfer information to others
Authoring, analysis, dissemination, feedback, information search, learning and networking
People use information and practices to improve personal skills and capabilities
Acquisition, analysis, expert search, information search and learning
People who associate and ‘mash up’ information from different sources to generate new information.
Analysis, dissemination, information search, information organization and networking
People who create connections with people involved in the same kind of work to share information and support each other
Analysis, dissemination, expert search, monitoring and networking
People who are involved in personal or organizational planning of activities, e.g. to-do lists and scheduling
Analysis, information organization, monitoring and networking
People who search and collect information on a given topic
Acquisition, analysis, expert search, information search, information organization and monitoring
People who disseminate information in a community
Authoring, co-authoring, dissemination and networking
People who find or provide a way to deal with a problem
Acquisition, analysis, dissemination, information search and learning
People who monitor and react to issues that may become problems
Analysis, information search, monitoring and networking

At the heart of these roles are some key and essential skills that knowledge workers need to possess in order to be effective and successful in their roles. These include:

  • Developed cognitive skills
  • A capacity to be involved in creative and non-routine problem-solving (rather than just inputting data)
  • The manipulation symbols (rather than things)
  • Involvement in peer-to-peer work and collaboration in networks of expertise

knowledge workers/ manual worker
According to this news article there is no such thing anymore as a knowledge worker and manual worker. In these days everyone is a knowledge worker also the people that do the heavy lifting. The example given is from Dow Chemical a company that shares the day-sales figures and inventory numbers with everyone within the company.

Drucker (2001) argues that we are moving into a new knowledge economy which will rely heavily on knowledge workers (a term used to describe people with theoretical knowledge - doctors, lawyers, teachers etc). He states there will be an increase in "knowledge technologists", people who 'are as much manual workers as they are knowledge workers.' These include computer technicians, software designers, analysists in clinical labs, manufacturing technologists, paralegals. Though they can spend the majority of time working with their hands they use theoretical knowledge which can only be acquired through formal education.

Video on Knowledge Workers

This short video that I found on youtube is quite interesting.

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.


  1. Is the definition of knowledge workers too broad? Doesn't every worker - even somebody doing a low skilled manual job - employ knowledge? Wouldn't it be more useful to restrict the category to employees who have the highly developed skills - say, those working in high-tech industries?
  2. Do you possess the skills you need to be employed as an effective knowledge worker when you graduate?


Reinhardt, W, Schmidt, B, Sloep, P and Drachsler, H (2001) ‘Knowledge Worker Roles and Actions—Results of Two Empirical Studies,’ Knowledge and Process Management, Vol. 18.No. 3

Davenport, T. (2005). Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performance and Results from Knowledge Workers. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Drucker, P.F. 2001. The Next Society. [Online] available from: [accessed 17 November 2011]