Knowledge workers are people who make their living understanding, analyzing, developing, applying and/or communicating their expertise in a specific subject area. Peter Drucker is credited with coining the term knowledge worker in his 1959 book Landmarks of Tomorrow to describe a person who works mainly with information. Although knowledge workers are commonly associated with computers and information technology, they are employed in many professions in fields such as education, medicine, law and engineering.
Teachers, medical researchers, lawyers, architects and technical writers are all knowledge workers, as information is the cornerstone of these careers. Teachers impart information to students, while medical researchers gather it as part of the scientific process. Lawyers argue cases based on information coupled with their knowledge of the law. Architects use their knowledge to design buildings, bridges and other structures.
A knowledge worker is usually expected to have high-level thinking and analytical skills. He or she must not simply gain knowledge through memorization, but expand on it through critical thinking, such as by applying the principles of cause and effect. Reflecting on why and how things happen as well as what the result will be is routinely done by all types of knowledge workers. People who make their living working with knowledge and information must often handle the responsibility of dealing with unique situations. They are expected to be problem solvers, not merely methodical workers.
Analyzing and learning from past and present problems often differentiates knowledge workers from other types of employees. They also manage information in that, if something isn't working, they usually must make any necessary changes to complete objectives. For example, if a lawyer's court case isn't turning out to be as convincing and effective as he or she planned, the attorney is responsible for returning to the facts or information in the lawsuit to look at new angles to bring to light.
Knowledge workers don't usually do simple, routine job duties. Drucker asserts that a knowledge worker's worth isn't measured by quantity and productivity nearly as much as it is by quality. Knowledge professionals are valued for their expertise as well as the innovation for which they're capable. Both learning and teaching may be part of a knowledge worker's job. A high degree of self-management skill is needed in knowledge work as the focus is usually on the process of analyzing and developing information and the worker must figure out the best methods of accomplishing objectives.