The Emerging “Knowledge Worker”

We have been hearing about the vision of the Knowledge Worker for years. A “Knowledge Worker” is a person whose main capital is what they know. Engineers, analysts, technology developers, architects, researchers, accountants, medical personnel, lawyers, and education professionals—those whose jobs require a high level of thinking and processing information—are all Knowledge workers.

Knowledge work emphasizes non-routine problem solving and requires a combination of unconventional thinking skills. In 1983, Time magazine announced that the “Man of the Year” was the personal computer—the first ever “Machine of the Year.” I imagined the Knowledge Worker sitting, staring at a computer screen. This was how we were going to do work from now on.

The Knowledge Worker idea goes back further than 1983. Peter Drucker first coined the term in 1959. He suggested, “The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.”

“But, despite the amount of research and literature on knowledge work, there remains to be a succinct definition of the term.” —Vincent Mosco and Catherine McKercher

In 1995, Charles Savage described the Knowledge Worker’s evolving in three distinct waves:

“The first wave was the Agricultural Age with wealth defined as ownership of land. In the second wave, the Industrial Age, wealth was based on ownership of capital, i.e., factories. In the Knowledge Age, wealth is based upon the ownership of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge to create or improve goods and services. Product improvements include cost, durability, suitability, timeliness of delivery, and security.”

This introduces two questions:

  1. Is the domain of the Knowledge Worker reserved for engineering, medicine, hard science, and other arenas requiring an advanced degree?
  2. Are we still managing business and manufacturing operations with Industrial Age practices despite being in the Knowledge Age?

I will argue that Knowledge Worker jobs should not be reserved solely for the best educated. By definition, everyone in every organization should be considered a Knowledge Worker. For this to happen, however, we must let go of past practices limiting the true know-how of how business works to the organization’s upper echelon.

As an example, I need look no further than Milliken & Company, where I have worked for over 40 years. Milliken is a privately held company that has been enhancing people’s lives since 1865 with expertise across disciplines including specialty chemical, floor covering, and performance materials.

When I started with Milliken, we did not have employees. We had “hands.” That’s right, our hourly employees were reduced to what was considered their most essential part. In fact, it was an official HR term. The term was a carryover from a century of producing textiles, but I have found it used in other industries too. By excluding other aspects of en employee’s contribution, the name implies, “Don’t think”; “Don’t get involved”; and “Management knows best—we’ll tell you what to do with your hands.”

The terms “labor” and “help” send similar messages: “Don’t think. Don’t invest. Just do what you’re told.”

At Milliken, being in an industry under siege forced us to change. We had to engage the hearts and minds of every individual in the organization. It was difficult in the beginning. There was little trust between Management and Hands. Management worked hard to solicit ideas. Very few came in, but we stayed the course. We began involving associates (eliminating “hands” from our HR lexicon) in corrective action teams. We then moved to self-led teams and, in doing so, began to transition first-line supervisors to managing technology rather than associates. In the late 90s, we implemented the Milliken Performance System (similar to TPS) to push knowledge and decision-making to as many levels as possible in the organization. Now, we consider every associate a problem-solver.

Is everyone capable of being a Knowledge Worker? Think about what your associates do when they leave work. They volunteer in their communities, coach Little League, run small businesses, lead in their religious organizations. Most people are heavily involved outside of a single work context. Your associates need ways to be engaged at work. In fact, our data says they want to be engaged, want their ideas heard and implemented, and want to be thanked in a timely way.

Taiichi Ohno, founder of the Toyota Production System said of TPS in 1978, “It is a system that says there is no limit to people’s creativity. People do not go to Toyota to ‘work.’ They go there to ‘think.’”

Milliken, like many other companies, benchmarked Toyota. We saw them getting hundreds of ideas from their associates, and we set out to do the same. Today, Toyota does not expect hundreds of ideas. They expect only two to three a month, but those will be implemented in a significant way. Thinking — harder and smarter — is mandatory at Toyota and should be in every organization.

The emerging Knowledge Worker’s tools will include everything from a computer tablet to a wrench. There is no need to quarantine knowledge at the top of the organization. In reorganizing the access to company knowledge, roles and responsibilities need to be rethought, since some no longer add value.

Here are five things to think about:

  1. Maslow had it right. Looking at Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we tend to historically think of “hands” at the bottom of the pyramid, their concerns only about food, clothing and shelter. Look at the top of the pyramid, and you see “self-actualization.” There are many interpretations of this phrase. The one I like the best is by Chris Glover, Senior Client Director at Milliken, who believes this means we now can control our destiny and can do that only as problem-solvers.
  2. Education is a must. Ongoing training in hard skills and soft skills is required. Soft skills are the most overlooked but probably the most critical. They provide tactical abilities. Training topics might include “How to Run a Meeting,” “How to Resolve Conflict,” and “Giving and Receiving Feedback.”
  3. Trust is a must. Creating a trust environment takes time. After years of being told that management makes all decisions, associates are understandably concerned that every mistake will be punitive. Moving knowledge throughout the organization is about management slowly moving from the front of the room to the back of the room — but not leaving altogether. The role of management is now providing support and acting as an invaluable resource.
  4. Roles and responsibilities change. This involves asking whether management is still managing in an Industrial Age manner. I know Milliken was. The largest single management function at the time was frontline supervision, by far. It became an unintended consequence of championing company-wide problem solving that frontline supervision was no longer of value. Most organizations need to rethink this role.
  5. The right system is critical. To truly optimize the hearts and minds of everyone in the organization, a well-conceived operating system needs to be in place. It gives context, discipline, and a standard of work for everyone in the organization to reach their full potentials. Toyota has one as does Milliken and many other successful companies.

The challenge and opportunity to engage the emerging Knowledge Worker is not just a United States challenge. It is a universal challenge. For the past five years, I have worked with over 350 operations in 23 countries. The world is changing, and those organizations that can figure out how to fully involve the new Knowledge Worker will benefit from more engaged, more invested associates.


This article was originally published on LinkedIn by Craig Long. Craig Long is the Performance Solutions by Milliken Fellow. Previously, he was the Vice President and Executive Director of Performance Solutions by Milliken at Milliken & Company, headquartered in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Milliken is a leading, privately held, technology- based company with businesses in the performance material, floor covering and chemical markets.

Craig has spent the last 40 years at Milliken is a variety of leadership roles, including engineering, development, marketing, business management, education, recruiting and quality. In 2007, while acting VP of Quality, Craig started Milliken’s consulting practice, Performance Solutions by Milliken, to assist others organizations in their operational excellence journey.

Craig has served on the Quality Council of the Conference Board, The South Carolina Quality Forum Advisory Board, the United Way of Spartanburg Board and has chaired the Parents Advisory Council for Wofford College. In 2014, Craig was presented the Milliken Medal of Quality by the Governor of South Carolina.