But Wait, Professionals Aren’t Knowledge Workers

In light of my last post on Human Capital (not Cattle), this one is sure to cause some cognitive dissonance. My VeraSage Institute colleague Dan Morris thinks I’m wrong about professional firms being filled with knowledge workers; he believes the majority of them are more akin to factory workers.

Now I know this is a heretical view, but Dan assembles a very powerful argument to support his assertion. He doesn’t deny professionals have the potential to be knowledge workers. His argument is they are not largely because of the incentives and structures of the firms in which they operate, which function like sweatshops of yore.

Now this is a powerful argument, and it made me pause to reexamine my core assumptions about automatically asserting that just because someone is a credentialed professional they are automatically a knowledge worker.

There’s no doubt they can contribute a certain amount of creativity and innovation to the jobs they perform and the customers they serve, but being a knowledge worker also requires that the leaders of your organization recognize and treat you like one.

Stephen Covey writes about exactly this in his latest book, The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness: “It’s the leadership beliefs and style of the manager, not the nature of the job or economic era, that defines whether a person is a knowledge worker or not.”

When you consider the metrics used by most firms to measure their team members, they all come from the Industrial Revolution’s command-and-control hierarchies (realization, utilization, billable hours, etc). Yet as I discussed in my posts on The Firm of the Past and The Firm of the Future, the metrics we use to measure a knowledge worker’s effectiveness are woefully inadequate.

Dan further supports his argument by stating that true knowledge workers:

  • Don’t have billable hour quotas;

  • Understand knowledge workers are paid for ideas, not hours, like union employees;
  • Spend at least 15% of their time innovating and creating better ways to add value to customers (this destroys efficiency under the old metrics!);
  • Understand that judgments and discernment are far more important than measurements in assessing performance;
  • Are focused on outputs, results and value, not inputs, efforts and costs; Don’t fill out timesheets accounting for every 6 minutes of their day;
  • Are trusted by their leaders to the right thing for the firm and its customers;Recognize that individuals, not jobs, have value;
  • Are able to monetize the value of their output, through incentives that share the wealth created by minds, not machines;
  • Are passionate and self-motivated, and don’t need constant supervision.

If the above describes your firm, congratulations—you are a true knowledge organization. Perhaps nothing illustrates the value knowledge workers can add to a business than last week’s purchase of Pixar by Disney for $7.4 billion in Disney stock.

Disney will have to respect Pixar’s culture and continue to let it make quality movies at its own pace, in its own way.

Otherwise, if Pixar’s creative talent leaves, “Disney just purchased the most expensive computers ever sold,” according to Lawrence Haverty, a fund manager at Gabelli Asset Management.

Unfortunately, most professional firms we’ve come into contact with around the world do not fit Dan’s criteria, which is why he makes such a strong case they function more like manual laborers than knowledge workers.

UPS founder Jim Casey remarked in 1947: “A man’s worth to an organization can be measured by the amount of supervision he requires.”

The moment you feel the need to hover over your knowledge workers, either physically or metaphorically with the Sword of Damocles—the timesheet—you’ve made a hiring mistake.

Until professional service firm leaders begin to grant their team members autonomy—Greek for self-governance—and treat them like self-respecting knowledge workers, I think Dan’s argument trumps mine.

What do you think?


  1. I agree with a lot of your post, however, I’m not sure I’d go quite as far as saying, “The moment you feel the need to hover over your knowledge workers, either physically or metaphorically with the Sword of Damocles?the timesheet?you?ve made a hiring mistake.” In fact, this quote, if I am understanding you correctly, seems to fly in the face of the rest of the post.

    If the leadership beliefs and style of the manager determines whether someone is a knowledge worker or not, it’s the manager, not the worker, who needs to change (assuming that the goal is to become a firm filled with knowledge workers). The problem is not the hiring, but the supervision. Just because a manager feels the need to hover over a lower level professional doesn’t necessarily mean that the professional actually requires that level of supervision, or that the professional was wrong for the job.

    I’m not entirely sure why you think this post is in conflict with your previous post on human capital, either. In your previous post, you note that in order to attract knowledge workers, firms need to think differently. They need to recognize the value of knowledge workers and attract them by offering the kind of atmosphere and benefits true knowledge workers will respond to.

    The current post explores the current state of affairs in the majority of firms – what happens when the firm doesn’t value and attract knowledge workers. Instead of treating professionals as knowledge workers, giving them more autonomy, recognizing the worth of individuals, rather than jobs, etc., firms are sacrificing everything to the billable hour, including the potential benefits to the firm of treating professionals like knowledge workers. As a result, the firm ends up with ‘factory workers.’

    Unfortunately, I agree that most firms do treat their professionals like factory workers, rather than knowledge workers, which means, by definitition, that those firms are filled with ‘factory workers.’

    Most firms are not ‘lightning rods for talent.’ They don’t understand that things like passion, desire, etc. determine the ultimate fate of the firm, in part because these things cannot be measured – or are not being measured if they can. As you say, it’s time that firms “respect the dignity and earn the rewards” of their human capital.

    Your original post seems to recognize that a change needs to be made in order for firms to attract true knowledge workers. Dan’s point that firms are now filled with ‘factory workers’ rather than knowledge workers is the result of the current mindset. It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy: firms that recognize the value of knowledge workers will treat their professionals like knowledge workers, which will attract more knowledge workers. Firms that value jobs, inputs, values, efforts and costs will attract ‘factory workers.’ And it’s much more likely that they’ll need to supervise those ‘factory workers,’ not because the hiring decision was wrong, but because they attract what they value.

  2. This still leaves the issue of measuring in the context of customers/clients. Such systems can be developed I’m sure and it is good to see HR professionals weighing in.

    All we’ve now got to do is find common ground between HR and finance. That’s a tough bridge to cross as they each come out of very different mindsets.

    I still remember the disdain with which analysis my firm had produced in connection with HR metrics was received by a large group of HR professionals.

    I get the sense it starts with communication and a mutual respect that has to be earned between HR and accounting professionals in particular.

  3. Bruce Dwire says:

    I agree that we have the potential to have an industry of knowledge workers because we still seam to be able to attract some bright people. However, when you put bright people into the billable hour model our industry holds so dear, you stifle all creativity and force people to either become a slave to the billable hour or leave the profession (and I believe the best are leaving).

    If you want to have knowledge workers, you have to have a system that nurtures the use of knowledge and intelect. The system in use by most of the profession done more to drive people away than to encourage people to use their creativity.

    After trashing timesheets several years ago I was amazed at some of the thoughts our team members were capable of. Our profitability has never been higher; our people do not work over 50 hours per week any time and everyone has fun at work. We are seriously considering a policy of having one hour per day where everyone just sits quietly and thinks. If a person has an idea that he or she thinks should be shared with the group then that person calls a team meeting then and there to discuss that idea – just a thought.


  1. Professional Firm, Decouple Thyself

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