Peter Drucker’s View of Knowledge-based Work

Peter Drucker is one the most famous management consultants. Business Week even called him “The man who invented management”).  He coined the term “knowledge worker”. During his life he emphasized that economic growth has to come from knowledge-based work rather than from the industrial revolution’s thinking about manufacturing.

What Drucker meant was that the difference between manual work is visible, specialized, and stable; knowledge-based work, on the other hand, is invisible, holistic, and ever-changing. Unlike manual workers, knowledge workers use their situational knowledge to get things done in a dynamic environment. They are almost always formally educated and are called upon to run and change their functions and organizations simultaneously.

Knowledge workers acquire knowledge through a combination of education, experience, and personal interaction, and then use that knowledge to holistically achieve organizational goals in changing environments. This work is generally much more project-oriented than manual work.

To understand Drucker’s view on knowledge-based work, let’s analyze Frederick Taylor’s view of manual work and how it differs from Peter Drucker’s view of Knowledge Work.

Frederick Taylor on Manual Work Peter Drucker on Knowledge Work
Define the task Understand the task
Command and control Give autonomy
Strict standards Continuous innovation
Focus on quantity Focus on quality
Measure performance to strict standards Continuously learn and teach
Minimize cost of workers for a task Treat workers as assets and not as costs

(Source: Reinvent Your Enterprise, by Jack Bergstrand)

One of the most important messages from Drucker is that productivity comes from very different factors rather than from physical or manual work.

Manual Work Productivity Knowledge Work Productivity
Work is visible Work is invisible
Work is specialized Work is holistic
Work is stable Work is changing
Emphasis is on running things Emphasis is on changing things
More structure with fewer decisions Less structure with more decisions
Focus on the right answers Focus on the right questions

(Source: Reinvent Your Enterprise, by Jack Bergstrand)

Another observation that Drucker made was that knowledge-based work is difficult to manage because of its nature:  it expands and takes up all the available time. This is a natural consequence of focusing on quality instead of on quantity. If you combine quality with a non-deterministic process, time estimations will become very difficult unless you have a crystal ball. This is one of the big challenges for managers who administer business value in knowledge-based companies.

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