You're More Than Just a "Knowledge Worker"

05/11/2015 07:32 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016

Did Peter Drucker ruin everything? Just six years before his 2005 death, the management guru published Management Challenges for the 21st Century. Having established himself as one of the great organizational thinkers of the 20th century, Drucker left us with some sage predictions and suggestions for management in the next century. In that book, he also left us with a term that has made its way into common usage.

He first introduced this concept back in 1966, and it took a long time to make its way into our lexicon. By now, however, it's reached the level of ubiquity that has caused it to lose a great deal of original meaning -- and it just might be having some unintentional negative consequences for folks trying to keep their heads and their hearts while keeping their office jobs. That term is "knowledge worker."

What Is a Knowledge Worker, Really?

Before I eviscerate a concept that came from someone I deeply respect and admire, let me give credit where it's due. Like so many concepts, Drucker's idea of the knowledge worker was far more complex than is its current incarnation.

Before we had "knowledge worker," Upton Sinclair gave us the term "white-collar worker." This was a way of describing administrative and clerical work done by men (it was men at that time) in white-collared shirts, and distinguished a "professional" category of worker from the blue-collar worker (so called because of the blue coveralls common to men doing manual labor at the time. And while a number of other terms have been coined for subsets of the workforce (pink collar, green collar, gold collar, and even no collar), these two fundamental distinctions have persisted.

Drucker envisioned the knowledge worker as a natural evolution beyond Frederick Winslow Taylor's scientific management of manual (i.e., blue-collar) labor and even the systematized and predictable white-collar work that characterized much of the latter half of the 20th century. Whereas work in the past could be quantified, prescribed, and controlled, the knowledge worker's labor was ever-changing, dynamic, and autonomous. In fact, Drucker foresaw six characteristics of knowledge work that describe a great deal of the most valuable contributions being made today:

  • Given a clear idea of the end goal (i.e, what and why), knowledge workers are able to determine the best way to accomplish it (the how).
  • To do their best work, knowledge workers need a great deal of autonomy and should be expected to manage themselves.
  • Knowledge workers should be expected to continually innovate -- coming up with new and better ways of doing things and of meeting customer needs.
  • Learning and teaching never ends for knowledge workers and is an integral part of their work.
  • A knowledge worker's productivity should be measured by both quantity and quality.
  • Knowledge workers should be viewed as assets instead of as costs.

These six characteristics have almost -- almost -- become second nature as a way of thinking about the modern workplace. However, the concept of knowledge work has become oversimplified to a point that could even be harmful.

What's Wrong With Knowledge Work?

Unfortunately, the term "knowledge worker" has now come to be interpreted in a rather narrow way. Much like the term "human capital," which envisions humans as instruments within economic systems (a perspective that's completely defensible if you're an economist, but also completely offensive if you're a human), knowledge work has reduced the value of the humans who do it down to the knowledge they possess. In other words, your worth at work is directly related to how much you know.

What's wrong with that? After all, knowledge is power and, most of the time, knowing things is infinitely better than not knowing them. In fact, our evolution as a society is absolutely dependent upon knowledge.

But if your value at work is determined by what you know, then knowledge is nothing more than another form of capital -- a fungible asset that makes you easily interchangeable and replaceable. And you are neither of those things. Your knowledge, while extremely valuable, is only a small part of the value you bring to work, to your friends, to your family, and to your community. Fugazi once said, "You are not what you own," and today, I say, "You are not what you know."

The 4 Es of Humans at Work

If your value -- the contribution you make to the world through the work that you do -- isn't dependent on what you know, what exactly is it? How can we make sense of the work that we do in a way that goes beyond the limiting duality of blue-collar/white-collar and builds on the original intention of Drucker's idea of knowledge work?

No matter what kind of work you do -- whether it's heavy assembly and industrial work (the traditional blue-collar occupations) or paper-pushing office drone work (the traditional white-collar plight) or the innovative, thinking-for-a-living work that Drucker had in mind -- you make a unique contribution to the organization that employs you. No one else would do that job in exactly the same way or get exactly the same results (and yes, I know that makes the Taylorists positively itchy with discomfort). This is exactly what I mean when I talk about bringing your whole self to work. The value you bring -- and the key to integrating your work with a meaningful, fun, and fulfilling life -- lies in four complex attributes that, fortunately for our shriveling memories and attention spans, all begin with the letter E.


Have you ever been passed over for a job or a promotion because you didn't have enough experience? If not, you will be. The traditional hiring process -- unreliable and fraught with opportunities for errors -- places an inordinate amount of weight on experience. This is a different kind of experience than what I'm talking about thought. This is a narrowly circumscribed, myopically conceived idea of relevant experience.

There is, however, a kind of experience that contributes a great deal to your value, and it's the inclusive, expansive kind that includes everything you've experienced. Everything. Your experience of your parents' divorce when you were 13. Your experience sanding printer parts in a plastics factory. Your experience moving away from home at 16. Your experience volunteering to build a house for Habitat for Humanity. No one else has had exactly the same set of experiences you've had. That makes you uniquely valuable -- not more valuable -- and that unique value is enhanced further by the second E.


Expertise can sound an awful lot like knowledge. It seems like something you get from formal education and training and reading books and listening to podcasts. And that's part of it. Expertise includes your knowledge -- that stuff that I could go get too, if I wanted to.

But expertise is about much more than knowledge. It's the knowledge, skills, and abilities you've accumulated from all those experiences we talked about before. It's those Excel macro skills that make you the fastest spreadsheet wrangler on the team. It's your ability to turn a clip art-filled PowerPoint presentation into a visual delight. It's the way you apply what you learned about human motivation in the Marines to how you manage your team. Expertise is everything you know and are able to do, and it's extremely improbably that your full range of expertise is exactly like anyone else's. If an employer doesn't have you, they don't have your expertise.


As I've said before, you're a weirdo. There are things about you that very few people know. Sometimes, you wonder if anyone else in the world looks at life the same way you do, hears the music in language the same way you do, notices the subtleties of human behavior the way you do, picks up on the body language cues that speak louder than words to you.

The answer is no. You're not like other people. Your opinions and perspective are slightly different -- and sometimes a whole LOT different -- from others.' No one else can see through your eyes, hear through your ears, or think through your brain. You have a way of approaching things that is as uniquely yours as a fingerprint. Bring that weirdness to work, to your relationships, and to anything else that matters in your life. It's irreplaceable.


The last E is perhaps the most powerful of all. It's the thing that makes knowledge simultaneously more of a commodity and more valuable than ever. It's the attribute that is the difference between exploring the depths of your dreams and treading the surface of the water. It is the one so-called "21st-century skill" that really matters.

Educability is your willingness and ability to learn. It's your capacity for acquiring, assimilating, and applying new experiences, new forms of expertise, and newly unearthed eccentricities. If you want to and are able to learn, your value -- to your employer, to your loved ones, to your neighbors -- will always increase. If you can learn, the possibilities for your professional and personal life are nearly limitless.

You Are More Than Just a Knowledge Worker

Let's be clear. Knowledge is awesome. You probably know some really impressive stuff. You probably have some kind of specialized knowledge about medieval Macedonian aquaculture -- and I'd love to hear about it some time over drinks. But you are not what you know.

When you bring your whole self to work, you and your employer get the full benefit of your unique value. You dig into all of your experiences, all of your expertise, and all of your eccentricities to find better, faster, cheaper, and more effective ways of improving the world -- or even just a corner of it. When you don't know something, you learn more. You even learn about stuff you didn't know you didn't know. When you embrace the 4 Es of human at work -- experience, expertise, eccentricity, and educability -- you create unprecedented solutions to unprecedented problems. You love your work more, and it loves you back.

Don't just be a knowledge worker. You're worth so much more.