Struggling to Manage Knowledge Workers

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 26, 2020

By Mark Vickers

Peter Drucker, who died in November 2005 at the age of 95, was not only a legendary management thinker but among the most prescient as well. Back in 1969, for example, he was already writing about something he called “knowledge work,” saying that one of the greatest management challenges of the 20th century would be figuring out how to make such work more productive (“Survey,” 2006).

As it turns out, he was understating the difficulty of the challenge. Into the 21st century, organizations are still trying to get a handle on the best methods of managing knowledge work. In fact, just trying to define the term “knowledge worker” can be difficult. Drucker defined such a worker as “someone who knows more about his or her job than anyone else in the organization” (Hammer, Leonard and  Davenport, 2004).

Others have tried to narrow the focus. In his new book Thinking for a Living, Thomas Davenport states that although most jobs require a base of knowledge, 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” (“Horses,” 2006). It’s estimated that anywhere from 28 percent to 45 percent of the U.S. workforce is now made up of knowledge workers (McKellar, 2005).

One key problem is that a lot of these knowledge workers are not using their time as well as they might. In fact, many are just plain exhausted from working long hours, some of which are misspent. “Professionals are still being managed as if they were in factories, in organizations designed to keep everybody siloed. At less well-run companies, you’re struck by how frustrated people are,” notes former Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff. “They work like dogs and are wasting time” (Mandel, Hamm, Matlack and Farrell, 2005).

But exactly how they’re wasting time is an important management question, and what techniques will allow them to work more productively is an even bigger one. There’s evidence that knowledge workers are burdened with lots of low-value internal communication. Therefore, one theory is that companies have got to help their knowledge workers manage social networks more efficiently. Some organizations are seeking high-tech methods such as online directories that help knowledge workers pinpoint knowledge experts within their organizations. The Economist, which points to examples such as Hewlett-Packard’s Connex and IBM’s Blue Pages Plus, reports, “To some extent, the effectiveness of these systems can be measured in a Taylor-like way. How many connections did they enable to take place during a certain period? How valuable do users find them, on a scale of one-to-ten?” (“Survey,” 2006).

Some information systems help knowledge workers round up the business data they need to do their jobs more effectively. Professor Davenport and Charles Seeley (2006), a knowledge strategist at Intel, write about Intel’s Technology Management Group knowledge enablement program. Intel has created a set of tools, collectively known as a “dashboard,” that integrates traditional business intelligence and knowledge management information. “The dashboard solution is basically a productivity enhancer,” they write. Engineers and capital purchasing specialists no longer have to spend so much of their time corralling business data because the dashboard does much of this work for them. They are free to focus their attention on resolving business issues.

But other experts prefer to focus on tacit knowledge and wisdom rather than the kind of information that can be transferred via technologies. Dorothy Leonard, coauthor of Deep Smarts: How to Cultivate and Transfer Essential Business Wisdom, writes, “Technology has immensely improved access to, and transmission of, information, but it cannot create shortcuts to the most valuable kinds of knowledge. That dilemma explains much about why organizations still have trouble managing knowledge.” Expert knowledge tends to be tacit knowledge, she argues, and it generally is based on experience. One solution is for companies to rely more on “knowledge coaches,” experts who can help guide the experiences of novices (Hammer, Leonard and Davenport, 2004, p. 17).

Then there are experts such as Michael Hammer, coauthor of Reengineering the Corporation, who believes that focusing on the productivity of individual knowledge workers is misguided. “The goal is not to get more out of individuals but to get more out of the entire organization, and the way to do that is by improving the end-to-end business processes to which individual workers of every stripe contribute,” he writes. He thinks that the emphasis should be on the ways in which individuals interact and work together. Hammer agrees that today’s knowledge workers wind up doing far too much non-value-added work, and he suggests designing wasted work out of the system (Hammer, Leonard and Davenport, 2004).

As for how to motivate knowledge workers, studies indicate that nonfinancial factors are at least as important as financial ones. For instance, one recent study of people working in the research and development field found that they tend to be motivated by challenging work, investments in future capabilities (such as excellent equipment and people), a vision of the future and clear recognition for the value of their work (Jordan, 2005).

The research indicates that organizations are unlikely to find a silver bullet that allows them to get the most out of people who think for a living. Employers have to engage in multi-faceted and sometimes experimental approaches to the problem—approaches that take into consideration not only fast-changing technologies and new insights but also age-old wisdom about human beings.

For more information on knowledge management matters, visit

Documents used in the preparation of this article include:
Hammer, Michael, Dorothy Leonard and Thomas Davenport. “Why Don’t We Know More About Knowledge?” MITSloan Management Review, Summer 2004.

“Horses That Pull the Plough of Economic Progress.” Businessline. ProQuest. February 20, 2006.

Jordon, Gretchen B. “What Matters to R&D Workers.” Research Technology Management. ABI/INFORM Global. May/June 2005.

Mandel, Michael, Steve Hamm, Carol Matlack and Christopher Farrell. “The Real Reasons You’re Working So Hard...” BusinessWeek. ProQuest. October 3, 2005.

McKellar, Hugh. “The Knowledge (Worker) Economy.” KM World. ProQuest. October 2005.

Seeley, Charles and Thomas Davenport. “KM Meets Business Intelligence.” Knowledge Management Review. ABI/INFORM Global. January/February 2006.

“Survey: Thinking for a Living.” The Economist. ProQuest. January 21, 2006.

About the Author(s)

Mark Vickers is an associate with the Institute for Corporate Productivity.