Competitiveness in the Cognitive Economy: Rethinking the Knowledge Worker.

Author:Swiercz, Paul


In 1959, Peter Drucker coined the term, knowledge worker, to describe those whose job it is to work with intangible resources. As was Drucker's habit, he soon revisited the idea expanding it include technologists as knowledge workers who do both manual and knowledge work.

Thirty-five years later, in 1994, Drucker again revised his idea. In this final formulation he identified knowledge workers as high-level employees who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal education, to develop new products or services.

In the quarter century since Drucker's last revision, a number of researchers have attempted--unsuccessfully--to refine his definition and transform it into a tool for improved talent planning and Human Resource system design.


Knowledge Management as a subject of inquiry entered the vocabulary and experienced exponential growth as part of a broad effort to understand and capture the intellectual capital contributions of knowledge (information age) workers. Publications, meetings, seminars and consultants proliferated for the next decade.

In a comprehensive review of the literature, Finnish researcher Pasi Pyoria discovered that despite the massive increase of interest in knowledge management--knowledge work, is still missing a formal and accepted definition. A number of plausible explanations account for the absence of a workable definition.

Firstly, the complexity of modern labor markets renders a unitary definition all but impossible. Babson Professor Thomas Davenport, arguably one of most advanced thinkers on the subject, like many others, was only able to solve the problem by abandoning the search. Instead of concise definition, Davenport created four categories of nonindustrial workers using his matrix of knowledge-intensive processes. Davenport's categories are based the level of work complexity and the degree of collaboration required. A transaction worker, for example, might find work in a call center; an integration-process worker as an information system development specialist; a collaboration worker in investment banking; and an expert worker as a primary-care physician.

A second explanation for the missing definition of knowledge workers might be that the information age is simply not yet mature enough to allow for a detailed role description of its core workforce. This line of thinking argues that the 18th century agricultural economy was replaced...

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