A knowledge worker is a person who works in the knowledge-based economy, or knowledge economy, which is believed to be the next step of economic development in the progression from agriculture to manufacturing to services and then to information or knowledge. The existence of the knowledge economy is predicated on the fact that in most consumer goods markets, supply of goods and services now exceeds demand and so, for sales to take place, some form of high-value knowledge should be embedded in the product involved or in its creation. This allows the product to be differentiated from its competitors and hence to appeal to consumers more, because it provides a value proposition.
The types of activity included in the knowledge economy vary from country to country, reflecting different historical and cultural factors that have contributed to the production of unique items. While in Western countries the knowledge economy is expected to concentrate on media or creative productions, information provision in advanced banking products, and so forth, in other countries the knowledge might be related to jewelry creation or rug-making. The concept of knowledge work is the same in both cases, since they feature the use of knowledge that is asymmetrically available—whether from the heritage of a long tradition of artisanship or through sophisticated dredging of databases—in order to produce items that are unique in a way that appeals to consumers. Put another way, this indicates that the knowledge economy is not quite such a modern concept as it might sometimes be portrayed.
Irrespective of the type of knowledge used, there are some characteristics of the nature of knowledge work that unite all those people involved in it. First, there must be some degree of freedom in the process of working that permits more information gathering, experimentation, and innovation and the recognition therefore that this can lead to failure from time to time. No one can predict accurately what innovations will succeed in the marketplace, which is evident from the number of new product failures associated with even the best-resourced companies in consumer goods markets. There should therefore be some freedom for the knowledge worker and different criteria for determining personal success.
Since people learn in different ways, there should also be some latitude in hours and workplace behavior. This is well known in high-tech firms in the United States, for example, which encourage many kinds of nonstandard behavior at work as a means of stimulating creativity. There is, nevertheless, something of a contradiction inherent in companies requiring designated individuals to be creative to order, especially when the company expects to retain all the benefits of that creativity. Individual compensation deals and performance assessments are common in this kind of arrangement and can lead to some lack of solidarity with colleagues.
There is an argument that the benefits of the products of knowledge workers are in fact useless, because they stimulate otherwise nonexistent demand by creating unique items that have no other appeal other than their unique nature. In such cases, the knowledge workers involved are wasteful of resources and the process unsustainable.
—John Walsh, PhD
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