Managing Knowledge Workers

Getting the Most From People Who "Think for a Living."

Managing Knowledge Workers - Getting the Most From People Who

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Find out how to manage your knowledge workers.

Knowledge workers are often the core of your organization.

Frequently described as people who "think for a living," 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.

But how do you measure the amount of knowledge a person creates or uses? This type of work is mostly intangible – and often invisible.It's hard to quantify the value of the relationships they develop, or the ideas they inspire.

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?

Renowned business analyst and academic Thomas Davenport 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.

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.

As a manager, make sure your knowledge workers are provided with the appropriate technology to access the data and information they need (and the training to use it). For example, a survey showed that knowledge workers themselves put cloud-based technology at the top of their wish list of tools for managing data.

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. Many knowledge workers are comfortable working remotely, so ensure they have the digital workplace tools to perform at their best.

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.

To maintain knowledge workers' trust and respect, stay aware of the work they're doing, and coach them as needed. Develop a 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," and see the opportunity for leverage, 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.

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.

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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Comments (3)
  • Over a month ago BillT wrote
    Hi Ibrahim,

    We hope your meeting goes well. Thank you for the positive comment.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Ibrahim wrote
    I have a production meeting and this article is just what I need to make my point.
  • Over a month ago Midgie wrote
    This is an interesting article related to stimulating / challenging, motivating and rewarding knowledge workers. And much of the same ideas and strategies apply to many other types of workers, including the knowledge worker.

    I particularly like the idea of 'explaining the big picture' as it keeps the employee in the loop of what is going on and how they contribute. Plus, with treating knowledge workers as individuals, you determine the unique and individual motivational drivers of each and can get the most from your employees, rather than simply treating them all the same in the guise of 'fairness'.

    Interesting food for thought!