Business Transformation

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

The Beatles sang,


Do you want to know a secret?

Do you promise not to tell?

Whoa, oh, oh”

I will tell you a secret, and I hope you will spread it.

The Cambridge English Dictionary defines a knowledge worker as “an employee whose job involves developing and using knowledge rather than producing goods or services.” In his 2001 paper, The Next Workforce: Knowledge workers are the new capitalists, Peter Drucker writes, “The terms’ knowledge industries’, ‘knowledge work’ and ‘knowledge worker’ are only 40 years old. They were coined around 1960, simultaneously but independently; the first by a Princeton economist, Fritz Machlup, the second and third by this writer.”

In 2019, the count of worldwide knowledge workers exceeded one billion. According to statistics, the US has a high percentage of knowledge workers—60%. As the digital age advances, we are going to be seeing more proliferation of knowledge work. Knowledge workers require careful consideration in 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 napkin, done at a fan’s request, is legendary.

In investigating that story, and its many variations, The Quote Investigator, Garson O’Toole, explains:

“Interestingly, a thematically similar remark was made by the well-known painter James McNeill Whistler during court testimony in 1878. Whistler was asked by a lawyer about the stiff price he had set for an artwork he had created in two days:

‘Oh, two days! The labour of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas!’

‘No;—I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime.’”

Of course, not all knowledge workers are Picasso or Whistler. The takeaway here is that knowledge workers use their thinking, and expertise and skills accumulated over time to create valuable output. It is not the time they spend on a particular problem or task.

In his paper, Drucker identified two primary needs of the knowledge worker—formal education that gives them entry into the world of work and continuing education to keep up with new knowledge in their fields.

I would add a third, the secret to leading them:

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

Most knowledge work involves not just the time spent physically in the office, but thinking, rethinking, using mental models, and applying prior knowledge and skills that took years to perfect. In my 30+ years as a software leader, I worked with many knowledge workers, many of them programmers. We measured them by what they created—elegant pieces of code that did what was required with blinding performance and maintainable elegance, delivered on schedule, not by how many hours they spent in the office.

 Tips for managing knowledge workers

Here are some practical tips to use the secret.

  1. Give knowledge workers the freedom and flexibility to work from anywhere, at times convenient for them.

    A) Give individual team leaders the ability to manage their teams anchored on this tenet. Empower these team leaders and their teams to do their work. Let them decide how often they want to come together physically and during what hours they will all be present together to collaborate.

    B) Such empowerment requires the organization to articulate well-defined goals, missions, and strategies and a set of well-articulated and widely shared principles (or doctrines) embedded in the organizational culture. The job of a team leader is to bridge the gap between them. Business conditions change daily, sometimes dramatically, as we saw when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. There is no blueprint for how to do our jobs in volatile situations. We need to be flexible and adapt. We sure could use a framework that can help. This framework comprises a code of conduct that says 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 the company values.

  2. Set clear metrics to measure outputs.
    A) The output of knowledge workers should not be measured by how many hours they work but by results. Yet, many leaders mistakenly insist on workers showing up at the office and being there from nine to five because measuring time spent is easy, while it takes knowledge to evaluate what is delivered.

    B) Outcomes of knowledge work, such as a software program or a piece of writing, have multiple quality attributes and require a new set of metrics. For example, Google measures the productivity of programmers with metrics created with the help of a team of researchers. These researchers come from diverse backgrounds—software engineers, cognitive psychologists, and behavioral economists. They created a framework called Goals/Signals/Metrics (GSM) for developing the metrics. A goal is the desired output, and a signal is how you know the output is achieved. The metric is a proxy for a signal that is measurable.

    C) Be transparent about the metrics and match the rewards (pay) with the results.

  3. Hold the team accountable.
    A) If you want to hold your employees accountable, you need to be accountable by meeting your commitments, supporting the employees, and being approachable and available.

    B) Communicate the expectations precisely and clearly. In communicating expectations, be sure to have a conversation, understand the capabilities of individual team members, and coach them to meet expectations.

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

    D) Provide continuous feedback on performance.

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

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

“A programmer who subconsciously views himself as an artist will enjoy what he does and will do it better.” 

Organizations will be highly successful if all knowledge workers feel they are creators, and to get the most out of them, follow the tips provided.

Written by Shantha Mohan Ph.D.
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Shantha Mohan Ph.D.
Shantha Mohan Ph.D. is an Executive In Residence at the Integrated Innovation Institute, Carnegie Mellon University. Before that, she was a global software engineering leader and entrepreneur, co-founding Retail Solutions Inc., a retail analytics company. Shantha also has over 20 years of experience focused on mission-critical systems to support semiconductor and other high-value-added manufacturing. She is the author of Roots and Wings - Inspiring stories of Indian Women in Engineering and is a co-author of Demystifying AI for The Enterprise - A Playbook for Business Value and Digital Transformation. Her book, Leadership Lessons with The Beatles, was published by Taylor & Francis in May 2022.

Shantha Mohan Ph.D. is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn. For more information, visit the author’s website.