Knowledge worker

worker whose main capital is knowledge

Knowledge workers are workers whose main capital is knowledge. Examples include software engineers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, engineers, scientists, public accountants, lawyers, and academics, whose job is to "think for a living."

An architect is an example of a typical "knowledge worker"

Contemporary also speaks of the information worker, while early works on organization and management spoke of mental labor or mental labour.


Quotes are arranged in chronological order

19th century

  • We have already mentioned what may, perhaps, appear paradoxical to some of our readers, — that the division of labour can be applied with equal success to mental as to mechanical operations, and that it ensures in both the same economy of time.
  • The product of mental labor — science — always stands far below its value, because the labor-time necessary to reproduce it has no relation at all to the labor-time required for its original production.
    • Karl Marx, "Relative and Absolute Surplus Value" in Economic Manuscripts (1861–63).
  • I now proceed to open up unto you the three great powers with which God has endowed Man, whereby Man has become fully capable to labour, to the fulfilling the destiny whereunto God has appointed him. These are :—Powers of mind, or genius; powers of intellect, or knowledge ; and powers of body, health and strength ; otherwise mental, intellectual, and physical. As Time is the basis, so these three powers are the foundation stones of all useful labour. If one or other of these powers be wanting in any social system, there can be‘no‘ completion or perfection of labour. Now, Sir, mental labour can only be performed by the mind whom God has gifted ‘with genius—‘a power so evidently of divine origin, so beyond man to give or take away; a power flowing forth from the inward thought, calling up on the retina of the mental vision scenes of surpassing beauty, phrases of the most truthful perfect‘ness, harmonies of the highest cadence. Would that I could say that although it is not in Man to create this power, it was also not in him to abuse it. Yet great as this power is, mental labour is but the creation of ideas.
The progress of civilisation, according to Dr. Thompson, brings with it many countervailing evils, though, happily, not irremediable. We live in an age when taste is more fastidious; the battle of life more trying; the struggle for professional or other eminence almost a disease in itself, or at least (especially in barristers, clergymen, etc.) a condition which every day induces disorder. The author cited a case of an accountant in a public office, who, when overworked, was attacked by symptoms like hysteria, with tingling of the skin as if bitten by fleas, horrible dreams, etc., but who had really no disease: under quietness, tonics, cod-liver oil, etc., he recovered. Clergymen are peculiarly liable to these attacks, from their somewhat monotonous mode of life and intense mental application; the moral restraint placed on all their movements exaggerates this, as do also confinement to study, the frequent impressions on their emotions and sympathies even when they go abroad, the quiet college life, etc...
Dr. Richardson thought a good deal of the condition arose from bad hygienic arrangements...
Mr. Ross referred to two prominent classes of cases in the paper just read—one set of patients injured by "shock", and another by the effects of continuous labour on the nervous system...
Dr. Webster thought that mental labour is like food, only wholesome when varied; and that the great cause of the evils mentioned by Dr. Thompson is too much consecutive labour...
Mr. J. F. Clarke agreed with Mr. Ross that mental labour, per se, is not injurious; but it struck him that emotional influences are not...
  • W.D. Chowne. "Reports of Societies: Medical Society of London." in: . Association medical journal. Provincial Medical and Surgical Association, Dec. 13, 1856. p. 1064

20th century, first part

  • The person who merely watches the flight of a bird gathers the impression that the bird has nothing to think of but the flapping of its wings. As a matter of fact this is a very small part of its mental labor. To even mention all the things the bird must constantly keep in mind in order to fly securely through the air would take a considerable part of the evening.
    • Wilbur Wright, Speech to the Western Society of Engineers (18 September 1901); published in the Journal of the Western Society of Engineers (December 1901)
  • The term division of labor has, from long usage, become associated in the public mind with manual processes. But productive labor is, in general, both manual and mental and just as there may be division of manual labor so there may be division of mental labor or division of thought. Modern productive methods tend constantly to separate mental labor from manual labor and then to subdivide each into smaller and smaller parts. The subdivision of manual labor is greatly furthered, as has been seen, by the extended use of tools. Subdivision of mental labor on the other hand is hastened by an increase in the amount of knowledge and mental development necessary to successfully perform the work in hand. Thus the mental labor of designing machinery is performed largely apart from the actual production; and this mental labor has become very closely specialized as the scientific basis of engineering has grown. This process of subdivision is greatly hastened in both manual and mental operations by increased quantity since this, of itself, enables the manager to avail himself of the inherent advantages of division of labor already discussed.
    • Dexter S. Kimball, Principles of industrial organization. New York : McGraw-Hill, 1913; 1919
  • In recent years many scattered attempts have been made to apply physiology and psychology to economic processes. Business men by scientific observation and experiment have brought criticism to bear upon the traditional and empirical modes of organising and conducting ... more recently the detailed technology of manual and mental labour has been made material of physiological and psychological investigation.
    • John A. Hobson (1913). "Scientific management," in: The Sociological Review, (4)3 ; 197-212

20th century, second part

  • What we will need from now on are, increasingly, "effectiveness centers"', that is, organized efforts to make fully effective and productive the new workers, the knowledge worker, the employed middle-class professional.
    • Peter Drucker (1961) "Fifty Years of Management—A Look Back and a Look Forward." Journal of Engineering for Industry 83.3 (1961): 366-370.
  • To make the right decision the knowledge-worker must know what performance and results are needed... He cannot be supervised. He must direct, manage and motivate himself.
    • Peter Drucker (1964), Managing For Results, Harper & Row, New York, p. 222
  • A related difficulty arises in the managerial training process because the educational system cannot at present entice those with the most creative abilities into such careers; Galbraith refers to this as the problem of "reproducing the technostructure." Similarly, Drucker maintains that the determination of the social status of the "knowledge worker" will present the developed societies with their most significant social question in the coming decades.
    • William Leiss, "The Social Function of Knowledge." Social Theory and Practice 1.2 (1970): 1-12.
  • The knowledge worker is paid extremely well. He gets to do interesting work. Yet no group is more subject to job dissatisfaction and "alienation." Why? Direct production workers — machinists, bricklayers, farmers — are a steadily declining portion of the work force in a developed economy. consists of “knowledge workers” — accountants, engineers, social workers, nurses, computer experts of all kinds, teachers and researchers. And the fastest growing group among knowledge workers themselves are managers. People who are paid for putting knowledge to work rather than brawn or manual skill are today the largest single group in the American labor force — and the most expensive one. The incomes of these people are not, as a rule, determined either by supply or demand or by their productivity. Their wages and fringe benefits go up in step with those of manual direct-production workers.
    • Peter Drucker, "Managing the knowledge worker" in: Stephen J. Carroll, Henry L. Tosi (eds.). Organizational Behavior. Saint Clair Press, 1977. p. 410
  • In the United States, the "knowledge worker" values his or her independence. This is translated into the desire to have personal databases, some influence in how work is performed, as well as control of environmental features such as lighting and HVAC systems.
    • Arthur I. Rubin (1991), Intelligent Building Technology in Japan. p. 7
  • This society in which knowledge workers dominate is in danger of a new "class conflict" between the large minority of knowledge workers and the majority of workers who will make their livings through traditional ways, either by manual work... or by service work. The productivity of knowledge work - still abysmally low - will predictably become the economic challenge of the knowledge society. On it will depend the ability of the knowledge society to give decent incomes, and with them dignity and status, to non knowledge people.
  • In The Organization of the Future, the contributors show... how organizations need to support work-life balance and provide flexibility to knowledge workers
  • The most important contribution of management in the 20th century was to increase manual worker productivity fifty-fold. The most important contribution of management in the 21st century will be to increase knowledge worker productivity—hopefully by the same percentage. So far it is abysmally low and in many areas (hospital nurses, for instance, or design engineers in the automobile industry) actually lower than it was 70 years ago. So far, almost no one has addressed it. Yet we know how to increase—and rapidly—the productivity of knowledge workers. The methods, however, are totally different from those that increased the productivity of manual workers.
    • Peter F. Drucker, "Knowledge-worker productivity: The biggest challenge." California management review 41.2 (1999): 79-94.

21th century

  • This new knowledge economy will rely heavily on knowledge workers. ...the most striking growth will be in “knowledge technologists:” computer technicians, software designers, analysts in clinical labs, manufacturing technologists, paralegals. ...They are not, as a rule, much better paid than traditional skilled workers, but they see themselves as “professionals.” Just as unskilled manual workers in manufacturing were the dominant social and political force in the 20th century, knowledge technologists are likely to become the dominant social—-and perhaps also political—-force over the next decades.
  • 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.

See also

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