Portrait of the modern knowledge worker

The brain of a knowledge worker - and that is just the beginning (Credits: unclear)
The brain of a knowledge worker – and that is just the beginning

The concept of ‘knowledge worker’ which Peter Drucker coined in 1959, is perhaps not so clear (as shown again in a recent LinkedIn discussion – access potentially limited) and can be understood at least in two different ways: dedicated and other knowledge workers.

Dedicated knowledge workers are the persons whose job it is to organise ‘knowledge work’, in relation with the processes that their colleagues are working on – a sort of knowledge work maestro, as is the case with a knowledge manager.

Other knowledge workers are people who ‘do’ knowledge work: their job strongly involves using information and engaging in knowledge interactions (identifying knowledge needs, sharing knowledge, applying it, evaluating it etc.).

Our entrance to the knowledge era means that nowadays most people in a service-providing company are knowledge workers. Now, let’s forget about the dedicated knowledge workers and ponder: what is the portrait of a modern day knowledge worker? We’re talking about pretty much us all here in the blogosphere…

Let’s really focus on the specific know-how (not the specific knowledge) that s/he should possess and the attitude that supports their work. Let’s also assume that for us knowledge workers, the main objectives of combining those characteristics are a) to become ever more relevant and effective in our field of expertise, by deepening it or expanding it on its edges (i.e. making new connections with related fields to create a bigger picture and to be more likely to follow ever innovative approaches) and b) to help others become ever more relevant and effective in their own field through our interactions with them.

What is the profile of a balanced knowledge worker anno 2012? (Credits: fr.123rf.com)
What is the profile of a balanced knowledge worker anno 2012? (Credits: fr.123rf.com)

I can think of a few traits and characteristics that relate to the desired gifts, skills and attitudes of such a modern day knowledge worker.

Gifts and skills:

  • A synthetic mind that can ingest a lot of information and summarise it in clear and concise ways, perhaps using mnemonics.
  • A pair of intently listening ears and eagerly observing eyes to pick up the signals around (and question them);
  • Outstanding interpersonal communication skills helping to get in touch with a variety of people (in the same field of expertise and beyond);
  • An open heart giving the emotional capacity to connect with others at a deeper level and build trust authentically;
  • Good speaking and writing skills allowing to express oneself articulately so as to share knowledge more effectively – both with other people verbally and in writing;
  • The capacity to read quickly and to remember things well;
  • Typing blindly to write more quickly;
  • Ideally, good facilitation skills to be able to tease out knowledge and information from other people and apply/combine them – but that is just an extra.


  • An open, curious, humble mind that keeps inquiring about everything, and does not settle for finished, definitive answers – the way a child would do rather than a self-engrossed expert – to keep on learning;
  • A true curiosity to try new things out and add them to an array of experiences;
  • A vision of one’s own development pathway and next priorities;
  • Reflecting continually: every day, week or after every significant event, taking the time to ponder what just happened and what could have been done better, perhaps following the after action review principles;
  • Reflecting in single, double and triple-loop learning, in practice;
  • An attitude of ‘documenting on the spot’ (typing as people speak, live blogging, taking pictures and videos as things happen etc.);
  • A strong self-discipline to systematically act upon all the above and reflect to improve again.
Good all-round knowledge of information tools and information management processes also helps keep track of one’s own field of expertise, sharpen reflection and engage in more extensive social learning with others than just face-to-face.

This is an ideal picture, not easy to find in any one real person of flesh… But it sums up a number of characteristics many of us knowledge workers have to focus and improve on to remain relevant and adapt as we cruise through ever more complex paths in the knowledge era.

Related blog posts:

Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Thank you Sue for your comments. I also wonder if I’m an introvert or extrovert. Most people would think the latter but since I was a child I’ve always enjoyed being on my own, reading a lot, reflecting alone also (though I do enjoy very much reflecting with others)… The way I see it: What matters is for us as knowledge workers to reach out to everyone that matters in a context and to adapt to their personality and preferences as much as possible while preserving our own authenticity. But it’s not always easy…
    If you’re interested in this topic of introverts and extroverts, you might want to check these 2 posts:

  2. I really enjoyed Susan Cain’s talk on the importance and value of being an introvert–because I am a teacher, I’ve always considered myself an extrovert, but now I realize that I’m an introvert inside an extrovert’s skin–and I am that for the reason you gave–that I realize the need for me to be extroverted in teaching situations . Thank you for being in the right place for me to see you.

  3. Thank you Dhurjati!
    Was there any particular aspect of this portrait that resonated perhaps more strongly with you? Was there any reason for this?
    At any rate, thanks very much for your engagement!

  4. Dear Ewen excellent reading!! thanks for sharing your thought on the concept of ‘ knowledge worker”.

  5. Bonjour Arnaud,

    Thank you for your comment! I’d love to hear what you have in mind indeed. I recognise that it can be difficult to be able to connect and engage with others when you’re working as self-employed, though I also have a lot of consultant friends who keep each other virtual company and form a peer support network to find that energy that they need when they have to work against deadlines and in isolation.

    Look forward to reading you!


  6. Great… Unfortunately, it may be very hard for a “knowledge worker” to do business as a self-employed. And a knowledge worker feels, paradoxally, often alone perhaps because he has to be very concentrated on his job. I think knowledge workers have a very specific state of mind. I know about that so much. I’ll be glad to share ideas on the subject.

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