Knowledge workers are the present-day iteration of what used to be called “white-collar workers”. They’re the employees whose primary tool is their brain. Their value is in their education, training and experience. In short, their value is in what they know.
A Little White Collar Trivia
The 20th century author Upton Sinclair used the term white-collar workers to refer to employees who did administrative work versus manual labor. It referred to the detachable collars that mainly male office workers wore during most of the 19th and 20th centuries. They were in contrast to the blue collars that manual laborers wore. It was almost as if they were saying, “I can wear white because I don’t do dirty work.”
The reality is that white-collar workers probably didn’t smell any better after a tough day at the office than their blue-collared brethren. This is because the reason behind having a bunch of white collars and only one or two white shirts is that you could put a fresh collar on every day without the hassle of washing your entire shirt, which was usually covered by a vest anyway.
You Are a Knowledge Worker
The world would not work without knowledge workers and tradespeople and laborers. While the bricklayers lay brick and the custodians clean up after us, the IT guys’ brains are humming in the basement, the doctors are making us better and the lawyers, well, they’re cleaning up too.
Even if you have a small neighborhood sandwich shop, you use knowledge workers all the time. Knowledge workers include your accountant and lawyer. The pharmacist who dispenses your anti-anxiety medication is a knowledge worker too. You are a knowledge worker.
Sure, you roll up your sleeves and wash dishes when the dishwasher you hired no-shows, and you sweep the floors before you lock up at night. However, your main function is keeping your business running and thriving. That takes dedication, energy and knowledge.
It’s a Blurry Line
Although there are still professions that can be definitively labeled as knowledge or labor, the line is becoming increasingly blurred. Automation and robotics have eliminated a lot of traditional labor jobs at the same time that technology has demanded more sophisticated knowledge of those who are left.
An auto assembly line used to be made up of a huge conveyor belt with long rows of workers on each side, almost elbow to elbow. Each worker screwed or welded the same piece of car all day long. Talk about carpal tunnel syndrome.
Now, there’s an occasional knowledge worker/laborer overseeing a robot that does multiple tasks simultaneously. Few jobs are strictly outside the realm of knowledge worker — farm workers and car wash employees, for example.
Today’s Knowledge Workers
In his 1959 book "The Landmarks of Tomorrow," author Peter Drucker wrote about changes that occurred in American society in the 20 years spanning 1937 through 1957. He first used the term knowledge worker and observed that they were beginning to outnumber laborers.
He predicted that knowledge workers would be one of the 21st century’s most valuable assets. His prediction could not have been more accurate. It’s hard to think of any aspect of running a business today that does not rely on some form of technology, the largest knowledge worker field of all.
IT pros like technical writers, website designers, analysts and programmers are our lifeblood. Even other knowledge professions like health care workers, scientists, architects and engineers rely heavily on IT. All of this leads you to one of the most common ways that knowledge workers can help your business.
IT Knowledge Workers Can Help
If your business is large enough to have its own IT department, you already know the workers' value. If you’re still growing, you’re more likely to periodically be in the position of wishing you had an IT department. However, with individual IT professionals’ salaries running upward of $85,000 a year, having one of your own is out of the question for most small businesses, but there are affordable options.
Look into outsourced IT services like FRS Pros and OneNeck. They specialize in IT support for businesses. They offer everything from consulting to monitoring and maintenance to security and database management too. You can effectively hire an entire staff of IT knowledge workers without breaking the bank.
As a business owner, you are always hyper aware of the bottom line. It’s only natural to look at what some of these services cost and think, “That will buy a year’s worth of toilet paper and hand towels for the bathroom.” However, consider how much money you can lose if you’re down for a couple of days.
Consultant Knowledge Workers Can Help
IT knowledge workers are professionals who are the most obvious example of knowledge workers that can help your business, but there are others like consultants, for example. If your business has stagnated and you're just too tired to think outside of the box anymore, hiring a business consultant may be the answer. Business consultants fall into six main categories: operations, IT, management, strategy, sales and marketing, and human resources.
Operations consultants help with processes. They’ll look for ways to make what your business does every day more efficient and cost effective. An IT consultant can help you change or upgrade your computers and software. She can create and maintain a website for you or set you up with your own virtual private network. A management consultant can assist with implementing your industry’s best practices for your business and help you update and reorganize to be more competitive.
A strategy consultant's role often overlaps with a management consultant's role. They can help you increase your market share and analyze the wisdom of changing or expanding the products or services you offer. A sales and marketing consultant can guide you through creating a marketing plan that covers everything from branding your business to social media strategies.
HR Consultant Knowledge Workers
HR consultant knowledge workers are one of the most valuable for small businesses. Yes, they can help you with things like improving retention and recruitment, but of utmost importance is that they can also help ensure that everything you’re doing is well within state and federal labor law requirements. Labor lawsuits can be ugly and extremely costly.
As a business owner, knowing a lot about a lot of things is what you do, but laws and regulations change. Politics and economics can shift employees’ attitudes. Before you know it, you’re threatened with a labor law dispute. Even if you’re in the right and prevail, there will still be attorney’s fees.
An HR consultant can set you up to do everything possible to prevent such issues. He can work with your IT consultant to automate procedures and critical documentation as much as possible so that it doesn’t become another full-time job for you. Even if you’re confident in your HR knowledge, it’s a good idea to hire a pro once a year to confirm that all your ducks are in a row.
An Added Benefit
Sometimes, all it takes is a knowledgeable outsider to give you a new perspective on your business and how you run it. For a small business, you might rely on friends or family for this kind of input, but they’re not exactly the most unbiased sources for advice.
When you prepare your annual budget, it would be wise to add a line for knowledge workers. You won’t regret it.
LeDona Withaar has over 20 years’ experience as a securities industry professional and finance manager. She was an auditor for the National Association of Securities Dealers, a compliance manager for UNX, Inc. and a securities compliance specialist at Capital Group. She has an MBA from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts and a BA from Mills College in Oakland, California. She has done volunteer work in corporate development for nonprofit organizations such as the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She currently owns and operates her own small business. In addition to writing for PocketSense, she writes for Bizfluent, Budgeting the Nest, Legal Beagle, PocketSense and Zacks.