Knowledge Workers

Peter Drucker, celebrated by BusinessWeek magazine in 2005 as “the man who invented management,” is credited with a concept that has created confusion for me throughout my work life:  the distinction between knowledge work and manual work.   In 1959, (The Landmarks of Tomorrow) Drucker defined knowledge workers as “high-level workers who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal training, to develop products and services.”  The term “high level” has always made me bristle because of what it implies about manual work.   Drucker’s thesis, perhaps inadvertently, reinforced a 20th-century predisposition that manual work was comprised of mostly low-level repetitive tasks requiring only eyes and hands.  Problem-solving, creativity, and innovation were in the domain of someone with a college degree. In his 1969 book, The Age of Discontinuity, Drucker predicted that new industries would employ mostly knowledge workers, which in light of the explosion of all things digital was probably on the mark.  Then, in 1999, in an article entitled “Knowledge Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge,” (a 10-minute read) Drucker advised  “The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is … to increase the productivity of knowledge work and knowledge workers . . .” similar to what had been done in the 20th century to the factory (the manual work.)  Implicit in Drucker’s argument was that additional focus on the manual work was relatively less important. 

This perspective was well-ensconced in corporate policy by the time I joined the workforce,  by Drucker’s definition as a knowledge worker, an assistant manager in a marketing department.  At the age of 23, knowing nothing about manufacturing, and located in an office building a half-mile from the factory, I began my “high-level” career.  A moment of truth that still burns indelibly in my memory is my boss’s response when I asked about visiting the factory to learn about the company:  “There’s nothing there to learn.  It’s all cut and dry.”

Years later, when my career journey landed me on that same factory floor, I learned first-hand who the real knowledge workers were: the people handling the product.  My friend and mentor, Steve Spear, penned a short article in 2016 posing the question: what is “The Face of the Real Knowledge Worker?”  (a 5-minute read). It made the same point:  The persons doing the work not only know the work better than anyone else; they also know the problems better than anyone else.  This is true for every job: in the factory and in the office and the warehouse and the O.R. and at the check-out counter.  Managers that get this, see everyone as a knowledge worker, not just the persons whose work is information rather than material related;  and not just the persons with degrees and belts.  Everybody who is engaged in continuous improvement has a professional challenge to remove problems and improve the work. 

Oddly, Drucker’s 1999 article missed this point, as do many organizations today:  The future of Lean and continuous improvement lies with the real knowledge workers.  Yet, at this writing, 85% of jobs posted on Indeed relating to continuous improvement require four years of college!   Isn’t it about time to reconsider, as Steve Spear suggested, what we mean by “knowledge worker”? 

Please, share your thoughts.


Speaking of knowledge workers, with the 2023 Northeast L.E.A.N. Conference in Worcester, Mass just two months away, we are still accepting nominations for the Silver Toaster Award, a recognition given to non-managerial employees from any part of your organization who have shown a strong commitment to continuous improvement.  These are the folks to whom we’ll pass the baton at some point.  Let’s give them some recognition.  Here is the link to download the Nomination Form.    Please send along your nominations by Friday, August 11.

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This entry was posted in continuous improvement, Knowledge Worker, peter drucker on August 04 , 2023.