Leading Knowledge Workers: Do You Want To Know A Secret?


The Beatles sang

“Listen

Do you want to know a secret?

Don’t you promise to tell?

wow oh oh”

I’m going to tell you a secret and I hope you’ll spread it.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a knowledge worker as “a worker whose job it is to develop and use knowledge rather than to produce goods or services.” In his 2001 article The Next Workforce: Knowledge workers are the new capitalists, Peter Drucker writes: “The terms ‘knowledge industries’, ‘knowledge work’ and ‘knowledge workers’ are only 40 years old. They were coined simultaneously but independently around 1960; the first by a Princeton economist, Fritz Machlup, the second and third by this author.”

In 2019, the number of global knowledge workers surpassed one billion. According to statistics, the US has a high percentage of knowledge workers – 60%. As the digital age progresses, we will see a more widespread use of knowledge work. Knowledge workers need to think carefully about how they are rewarded.

What do the stories of creators teach us?

The story of Picasso’s demand for a large sum for his drawing on a serviette, which was made at the request of a fan, is legendary.

In examining this story and its many variations, The Quote Investigator, Garson O’Toole states:

“A similar remark, interestingly enough, was made by the well-known painter James McNeill Whistler during a court hearing in 1878. Whistler was asked by a lawyer about the proud price he had charged for a work of art he had created in two days:

“Oh, two days! So two days’ work is what you’re asking two hundred guineas for!’

,No; – I ask for the knowledge of my life.’”

Of course, not all knowledge workers are Picasso or Whistler. The takeaway from this is that knowledge workers use the thinking, expertise, and skills they have accumulated over time to produce valuable results. It’s not the time they spend on a specific problem or task.

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In his paper, Drucker identified two key needs of knowledge workers—formal education to get them into the workforce and continuing education to keep up with new knowledge in their fields.

I would add a third, the secret of guiding them:

“Knowledge workers are creators. Pay for the result, not the process.”

Most knowledge work involves not only the time physically spent in the office, but also thinking, deliberating, using mental models, and applying prior knowledge and skills that have taken years to perfect. In my 30+ years as a software executive, I have worked with many knowledge workers, many of them programmers. We measured them by what they built—elegant pieces of code that did what was needed with sparkling performance and maintainable elegance, delivered on time, not by how many hours they spent in the office.

Tips for managing knowledge workers

Here are some handy tips to take advantage of the secret.

  1. Give knowledge workers the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere at the times that suit them.

    A) Allow individual team leaders to lead their teams based on this principle. Empower these team leaders and their teams to get their jobs done. Let them decide how often they want to get together physically and what times they will all be there together to work together.

    B) Such empowerment requires the organization to articulate clearly defined goals, mission and strategy, as well as a well-articulated and widely held set of principles (or doctrines) embedded in the organizational culture. A team leader’s job is to bridge the gap between them. Terms and conditions change daily, sometimes dramatically, as we saw when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. There is no blueprint for how we should do our work in volatile situations. We have to be flexible and adapt. We sure could use a framework that can help. This framework includes a code of conduct stating that this is our culture and we operate within these parameters. Empowerment gives everyone the autonomy to do what needs to be done, and the framework helps you stay true to company values.

  2. Establish clear metrics to measure results.
    A) The output of knowledge workers should not be measured by how many hours they work, but by results. However, many executives mistakenly insist that employees show up at the office and be there from nine to five because it’s easy to measure time spent, while it requires knowledge to evaluate what’s being delivered.

    B) Results of knowledge work, e.g. B. a software program or a text, have several quality attributes and require a new set of metrics. For example, Google measures programmer productivity using metrics created with the help of a team of researchers. These researchers come from diverse backgrounds—software developers, cognitive psychologists, and behavioral economists. They created a framework called Goals/Signals/Metrics (GSM) for developing the metrics. A goal is the desired outcome, and a signal, as you know, shows that the outcome has been achieved. The metric is a proxy for a measurable signal.

    C) Be transparent about the metrics and align rewards (payment) with results.

  3. Hold the team accountable.
    A) If you want to hold your employees accountable, you must be held accountable by fulfilling your obligations, supporting employees, and being responsive and available.

    B) Communicate expectations concisely and clearly. When communicating expectations, make sure to have a conversation, understand each team member’s abilities, and coach them to meet the expectations.

    C) Support the team with the necessary resources. Remove roadblocks.

    D) Provide continuous feedback on performance.

    E) Provide a psychologically safe environment for team interactions and questions.

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Conclusion: Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, says in his blog post Knuth: Computer Programming as an Art:

“A programmer who subconsciously sees himself as an artist will enjoy what he is doing and he will do it better.”

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Organizations will be very successful when all knowledge workers feel like creators, and to get the most out of them, follow the tips provided.


Written by Shantha Mohan Ph.D.
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