Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, Vol. 9, No. 1, March 2008

Effectively Managing The 21st Century Knowledge Worker

Donovan A. McFarlane. The Donovan Society LLC



This paper explores the relationships between the knowledge worker, leadership roles, and organizational capability by attempting to describe and discuss the effects of leadership and organizational-based knowledge management strategies on the knowledge worker as a value-adder to organizational innovativeness and competitiveness. Organizational performance is seen from the perspective of knowledge-sharing resulting from effective human resource planning practices that integrate knowledge worker needs-considerations into organizational development processes.


Keywords: Strategic Knowledge Stocks, Knowledge Leaders, Knowledge Workers, Human Capital, Knowledge Management

1.         Introduction

1.1.      Knowledge As A Key Strategic Resource

The knowledge worker is a product of education, technological marvel, and modern development in organizational practices and theories. Emerging out of value and process theories, the idea of knowledge in the form of human capability or human resources as key in driving organizational performance and success has received more than adequate attention in the academic literature on management and organizational development since its invention and inception. Knowledge workers are important and key strategic resources in modern learning organizations; they are value creators and value adders whose major contributions come from their abilities to process and apply knowledge and information to completing essential tasks, making decisions, and solving problems. The management of the knowledge worker coincides with the competitive challenges of human resources management identified by Bohlander and Snell (2007): going global, embracing new technology, managing change, managing talent, or human capital, responding to the market, and containing costs.

1.2.      The Human Capital Approach To Competitive Advantage

The development of human capital; “the knowledge, skills, and capabilities of individuals that have economic value to an organization” (Bohlander & Snell, 2007; p. 14) is of vital importance in the modern competitive age of the new global economy where organizations must be either of two types: market driving or market driven (Mujtaba & McFarlane, 2007). Those firms or organizations that fail to be other than market driving or market driven are those that are battling for survival and losing the war on the battlefield known as the “hypercompetitive market” (Hitt, Keats, & DeMarie, 1998). The knowledge worker offers great hopes and prospects for the modern learning organization that is functioning in an environment of turbulence and change. Dealing with crisis and change is the key in propelling modern organizations to new heights, and quality human capital is a strategic imperative in meeting this requirement. According to Bohlander and Snell (2007), to build human capital in organizations, leaders must continually develop superior knowledge, skills, and experience within the workforce by identifying, recruiting, and selecting the “best and brightest talent” for work. Furthermore, they communicate the importance of sustainable training programs in knowledge worker development within multiple organizational settings. Training programs should be assessed by organizational leaders to ensure that they facilitate the needs of the knowledge worker in meeting job requirements (McFarlane, 2006; Kirkpatrick & Kirkpatrick, 2006).

Leading and managing the knowledge worker requires organizations to provide unique developmental assignments (Bohlander & Snell, 2007) that improve knowledge workers’ performances in all areas; social, cognitive, and physical, by positively affecting behavior, bringing about new learning experiences, developing the appropriate reaction and producing expected results even above what they have been implemented to yield, and all this with appropriate rewards (McFarlane, 2008). Effectively managing the knowledge worker requires finding and fostering the linkages between leadership and organizational capability in constructing proper knowledge management systems, and making organizational mission and vision, as well as critical strategies parts of the learning process and intrinsic motivational factors driving the knowledge worker toward information acquisition, internalization, integration and reproduction.

1.3.      Knowledge Workers: Creation And Sustenance Of Knowledge Management Systems

According to Ichijo and Nonaka (2007), the knowledge based management of organizations is at the heart of what management must do today in a fast changing environment. Ikojiro Nonaka is the guru who developed the idea of “knowledge management” in a 1991 Harvard Business Review article. Since the inception of the idea of knowledge management, Nonaka (2007) feels that organizations of the 21st century are far from creating adequate knowledge-based competence necessary for gaining the competitive advantages they require in the hypercompetitive market. Thus, creation and sustenance of knowledge-based management competencies is a requirement for managing the knowledge worker and knowledge systems in the modern organization.

Bohlander and Snell (2007) contend that technological inventions and advancements have led to the increase in a variety and number of jobs requiring advanced knowledge and considerable skills, thus transforming human capital platforms “from touch labor to knowledge workers” (p. 8). Knowledge workers are “Workers whose responsibilities extend beyond the physical execution of work to include planning, decision making, and problem solving” (p. 8). The new need for knowledge workers has led to a requirement for knowledge-based management systems and strategies, as well as what Bohlander and Snell refer to as “knowledge-based training.” The creation of knowledge-based management systems and training programs often includes considerations on technology applications, business skills, and telecommunications integration.

Kjaergaard and Kautz (2008) have proposed the idea that a process model is the key to establishing sound knowledge management practices and systems in 21st century organizations. Using longitudinal field study, they treat information technology (IT) as a decisive element in managing knowledge, and argue that rather than conducting knowledge management, organizational leaders and managers should seek to “establish” knowledge management. Kjaergaard and Kautz (2008) argue that “organizational members make sense of the action and behavior of management, and how this understanding influences their own perceptions and actions in the process of establishing knowledge management” which leads to “an understanding of knowledge management as an autonomous venturing process” (p. 282). Knowledge management must become part of strategic business process orientation in organizations, and must seek to integrate human capital considerations as the foremost factor driving IT and other technology and socio-technical systems and processes.

Afiouni (2007) states that, “knowledge management (KM) has become a must to ensure organizational effectiveness” (p. 124). Afiouni argues that effective knowledge management requires combining human resources management (HRM) initiatives and knowledge management to improve organizational performance by focusing on knowledge workers. Similar to Bohlander and Snell (2007), Afiouni (2007) emphasizes the importance of human capital requirements and development as part of knowledge management practices and systems, by arguing that, “not enough attention has been paid to human capital and its role in the competitive advantage of business in today’s knowledge economy” (p. 124); similar also to the contentions of Ichijo and Nonaka (2007).

The importance of human and social factors in knowledge management creation and sustenance has been increasingly recognized (Afiouni, 2007). Nevertheless, Ichijo and Nonaka (2007), Bohlander and Snell (2007), as well as Afiouni (2007) believe that further development and integration between knowledge management systems and human capital considerations and practices must become the key in developing core and distinctive competencies; essentially, competitive advantage. Afiouni (2007) recommends integrating human capital resources and organizational capital resources in establishing effective knowledge management systems. Afiouni defines human capital resources as including “the training, experience, judgment, intelligence, relationships, and insight of individual managers and workers in a firm” (pp. 124-125), and organizational capital resources as “a firm’s formal reporting structure, its formal and informal planning, controlling, and coordinating systems, as well as informal relations among groups within a firm and between a firm and those in its environment” (p. 125).

Focusing on the needs and requirements of the knowledge worker is the key to create and sustain effective knowledge management systems that yield competitive advantage, since “The personal nature of knowledge means that the agency of the person who possesses it is required for it to be shared” (Afiouni, 2007; p. 126). Knowledge sharing systems are thus key aspects of knowledge management systems within organizations. In order to motivate knowledge workers to share their skills, knowledge, and talents with others, organizational leaders and managers how the potential loss of knowledge could affect organizational performance. The knowledge worker must become the key resource around which the entire system is built and revolves. This stands to reason, since knowledge is the creative power of learning and market driving organizations where innovation and creativity are tools of progress. This is acknowledged by Mujtaba and McFarlane (2007) and Hislop (2003) who states that knowledge represents an important potential power resource inclining one to be straightforward in requesting knowledge sharing.

1.4.      The Human Capital Approach And Knowledge Stocks

The human capital approach to knowledge management and sustenance has been advocated by several theorists who assert that human capital, intellect, and knowledge are key to understanding the core of knowledge management functions within organizations (Afiouni, 2007; Nonaka & Takeuchi, 1995, Marsick & Watkins, 1999; and Edvinnson & Malone, 1997). Further support to these theorists’ contention is given by Garavan, Morely, Gunnigle, & Collins (2001) who argue that inclusion of key knowledge workers into knowledge management systems add value to organizations. Human capital is the core of any knowledge-based enterprise (Bontis, 1999; 2001; and Serenko, Bontis, & Hardie, 2007).  Furthermore, Barney (1991) agrees that an organization’s human capital is an important source of sustainable competitive advantage. In creating, building, and or establishing effective knowledge management systems that will accumulate value, organizational leaders and managers must recognize the interdependence of human capital, relational capital, organizational capital, and technological capital as strategic knowledge stocks that contribute significantly to the development of long-term competitive advantage in the knowledge economy (Ordonez de Pablos, 2003). Finally, Afiouni (2007) believes that as organizations rethink and redefine their business strategies in the hypercompetitive business environment of the 21st century, they will sooner or later establish the connection between human capital – the needs and importance of knowledge workers as key variables in the development and sustainability of effective knowledge management systems and practices across organizations.

2.         The Roles of Leadership And Organizational Capability In Knowledge Worker Management

2.1.      Leadership Roles In Knowledge Worker Management

As we have seen above, effective leadership is a salient requirement in organizations where the knowledge worker is the key to developing as well as unlocking the sources and potential for sustainable competitive advantage in the knowledge economy. [The author of this paper uses the term “knowledge economy” very casually with deep philosophical refrain, since in the American economy specifically referencing, there is more information than knowledge – that is, it reflects more of an information economy or what Laudon and Laudon (2004), and Johnson and Weinstein (2004) describe as a “service-based and information-led economy” than an economy characterized by a full workforce or people of knowledge. There is information available at the tip of the fingers, but only very few have real knowledge by strict Aristotelian definitions]. The management of the knowledge workers in today’s organization and society where there are increased educational and learning opportunities requires organizational leaders and policy planners to rethink and redefine their roles as “knowledge leaders” whose very duties and responsibilities are to develop a system of participative knowledge sharing in attempting to solve organizational problems, accomplish mission and vision, critical tasks, and manage effectively and survive crises and change. Afiouni (2007) attests to this by stating, “Many organizations are operating today in a complex and dynamic environment that is urging them to rethink and redefine their business strategies and the source of their competitive advantage” (p. 127).

While organizational leaders and managers must manage as knowledge leaders, they must be aware of the relationship between knowledge and those who possess it. Obtaining individual cooperation and motivation to be part of teams and groups is essential in making knowledge sharing the core of effective knowledge management. Knowledge workers are so-called because they possess valuable knowledge that drives organizational performance and success. As such, they can refuse to share their knowledge depending on perceptions of responsibilities and rewards within the organization. If knowledge workers feel that organizational rewards are not congruent with their knowledge levels and inputs, then perhaps a there will exist a decreased tendency or inclination toward knowledge sharing on a person-to-person basis. Thus, it is important that knowledge leaders align compensation and reward systems, as well as organizational strategies and tasks with knowledge workers’ needs. Serenko, Bontis, and Hardie (2007) understand this process as they describe three major barriers to knowledge-sharing: individual, organizational, and technological.

2.2.      Organizational Capability And Knowledge Management Strategies

Organizational capability affects the management of knowledge workers. Organizational capability simply refers to “the capacity of the organization to act and change in pursuit of sustainable competitive advantage” (Bohlander & Snell, 2007; p. 81). Bohlander and Snell believe that successful human resources planning (HRP) is a vital construct in increasing organizational capacity. Incorporating the knowledge worker needs and considerations into HRP practices will further help to integrate knowledge workers value into all other aspects of organizational-salient activities and programs. Organizational capabilities characterize the dynamic, nonfinite mechanisms that enable the firm to acquire, develop, and deploy its resources to achieve superior performance relative to other firms (Afiouni, 2007; and Dierickx & Cool, 1989). As such, organizational capabilities involve the acquisition, development, and deployment of knowledge workers knowledge or “inputs” and the further development and innovation of knowledge as a value-adding process in enhancing organizational capability of the abilities of firms to effectively acquire competitive advantage and sustain such advantage in the global marketplace and marketspace.

While there have been inconclusive results in linking the relationship between knowledge management (KM) strategies and organizational performance (Choi, Poon, & Davis, 2008), there is clearly a relationship between knowledge management strategies and organizational performance implicit in knowledge workers inputs, and the increasing tendency toward organizations become learning centers for managing innovation and dealing with change as competitive exercises that affect survival.  Knowledge-based systems are the major platforms upon which these competitive networks are established as knowledge workers utilize cognitive skills to devise new and innovative strategies to give products and services leaps over their competitors. Choi, Poon, and Davis (2008) communicate the relationship between knowledge management strategy and organizational performance as one of “non-complementarity” “non-critical symmetric complementarity” and “asymmetric complementarity” (see Choi, Poon, & Davis, 2008). The relationship between knowledge management strategies and organizational performance is one which is obvious in consideration of the fact that we are living in an information-based economy (McFarlane, Britt, Weinstein, & Johnson, 2007) where knowledge is a key resource input into productivity and competitive processes.

3.         Conclusion

The knowledge worker is the core factor in organizational knowledge flow, and organizational knowledge flow helps determine the degree to which leaders and managers can effectively mold knowledge inputs into harnessing a collaborative strategy for developing competitive advantage. Knowledge leaders are needed to effectively manage knowledge workers using integrative knowledge-based management systems that are reflective of progressive organizational capacity. The need to be flexible and responsive to environmental and competitive changes is a main feature of an organization with keen knowledge workers that are innovative and creative value-adders and value-providers in a global learning environment. Knowledge workers are productive and indispensable to organizational survival because they use technology, diverse networks, multitasking, and access to new information to enhance productivity (Aral, Brynjolfsson, & Van Alstyne, 2006, 2007; Mangelsdorf, 2008).

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Meet the Author:

Dr. Donovan A. McFarlane M.B.A., Msc.D., Mpsy.D., Ph.D. is currently an Adjunct Professor in Business Studies at City College in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He holds several degrees in business, holistic health, and philosophy and has taught at the University of Fort Lauderdale in the capacity of Professor of Business. He is the Founder, Chancellor, and Preceptor General, holding the title of Professor Hermes Trismegistus in THE DONOVAN SOCIETY LLC, a newly incorporated Florida-based company whose major purpose is academic and business development through higher educational pursuits and consultation. E-mail: