What Exactly is Knowledge Work?

We’ve all heard of knowledge work but what exactly is it?  Doesn’t all work require some level of knowledge?  What then distinguishes knowledge work from manual work?

The term “knowledge work” was coined by Peter Drucker in his book Landmarks of Tomorrow which was first published in 1959.  More than half a century later, there still isn’t agreement on a clear and concise definition of the term.  Drucker first used the term to describe work that applies vision, knowledge, and concepts – work that is based on the mind rather than on the hand.

In their book Effective Knowledge Work, Klaus North and Stefan Gueldenberg suggest that knowledge work can be differentiated from manual work based on the contribution of knowledge to the value added.  If the value added is primarily achieved by tangible effort such as assembling a product, we are dealing with manual work.  If the effort involved is intangible and based on cognitive skills such as consulting, product development, or web design, we are dealing with knowledge work.  In summary, they define knowledge work as an activity based on cognitive skills that has an intangible result and whose value added relies on information processing and creativity, and consequently on the creation and communication of knowledge.

In his book, Reinvent Your Enterprise, Jack Bergstrand states that knowledge work is how individuals and groups use ideas, expertise, information, and relationships to get things done and that it includes tasks such as brainstorming, analysis, project management, and personal coaching.  He also contrasts the nature of knowledge work with the nature of manual work as summarized in this table:

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

Since knowledge work occurs in people’s heads and cannot be observed, knowledge work must be evaluated based on results.  According to Bergstrand, these results should be judged based on whether one of the following occurs:

  1. When something successful that never existed previously is now up and running 
  2. When something successful that existed previously has been improved or expanded 
  3. When something unsuccessful that existed previously has been stopped

So how does this description of knowledge work fit with your view of it?  How else would you describe the nature of knowledge work or contrast it with manual work?  I look forward to your comments!