Probably the most important contribution of Peter Drucker to modern management is his study on knowledge workers.
For most of us, the term “knowledge worker” may just be a fancy term for “white collar professional”, people with specialized training tasked to use information for different goals. For example, an engineer uses a client’s requirements to design structures, and a doctor interprets the symptoms of a patient to find the best way to treat the disease. But as Drucker would point out in his writings, most companies do not understand that knowledge workers are fundamentally different from their blue collar counterparts.
Here is a small (and by no means exhaustive) list of things about knowledge workers:
- As mentioned in my previous Drucker post, the knowledge worker is the primary resource of a company. They are the company’s assets, not liabilities. They should be valued as much as the other expensive and irreplaceable machines in the company, if not more.
- Speaking of machines, knowledge workers are not machines, but human beings (my apologies to the androids in the audience). Each has strengths and weaknesses, dreams and aspirations, needs and wants, beliefs and biases. And as a friend puts it: “We’re not machines; don’t try to ‘optimize’ us!“
- The productivity of a knowledge worker cannot be measured through traditional means. While you can measure the productivity of a shoe maker by shoes made per week, programs or (gasp!) lines of code coded per week by a software developer is a flawed productivity metric. Even a developer “doing nothing” might actually be doing more work than one who frantically coding, as seen in The Parable of Two Programmers.
- Knowledge workers need continuous training to improve their craft. This is especially true for fields whose bodies of knowledge are constantly expanding e.g. software engineering, medicine, management, etc.
- Knowledge workers are hired and trained for their specialized skills. As such, they should be better at their field than their managers–otherwise they are no good at all. This leads to a shift in thinking about the manager-subordinate relationship. Knowledge workers should not be thought of a “subordinates”, but as partners or “associates“. They should also be given the responsibility to decide the best course of action in most scenarios related to their field, as opposed to the stereotypical micromanagement attitude of stereotypical PHBs.
- Since knowledge workers are not subordinates, they cannot be “managed” via traditional means i.e. by the crack of a whip or by promises of more cash. They need something more, namely, to get more satisfaction from their work. They need, above all, challenge. They need to know the organization’s mission and to believe in it. They need continuous training. They need to see results. Otherwise they can just leave anytime and take their (profit-generating) skills and knowledge somewhere else. To put it bluntly, if your knowledge workers are “just doing it for the money”, you probably have mediocre employees.