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Archived Articles


7 Skills of Knowledge Work

August 24, 2017 | By Joel Gardner
Instructional Design

We are now working in the knowledge society, in which information and knowledge are the primary commodity. The majority of employees in this society are knowledge workers, which means their primary function is to gather and create new knowledge. The nature of work in the knowledge society is cross-disciplinary, complex, varied, and ambiguous, and knowledge workers must be able to access and use broad knowledge in flexible yet disciplined manner.

General Skills for Success in the Knowledge Society
Because I work in the field of education, specifically instructional design, I am constantly thinking about what knowledge and skills our students need to grasp to be successful in their knowledge work. What do they really need to know? I have reviewed several reports and studies on what these skills are, and I describe them below. I then postulate what I believe organizations and leaders should do to enable successful knowledge work in their employees. Finally, I share a self-evaluation tool which can be used to evaluate your own capacities in each of these skill areas

7 Skills of Knowledge Work
The following skills and abilities are crucial to success in today's society. I use the work of Cochran and Ferrari (2009) as the framework, though the themes they share are repeated in the several articles and documents I reviewed. I have added in my own thoughts and insights, and also added the "Personal Management" skill as my own.

  1. Thinking Skills - the ability to work with information effectively to solve problems, perform tasks, and design solutions. Thinking skills include:
    1. Critical thinking - drawing appropriate conclusions based on data
    2. Systems thinking - seeing the big picture, including how parts of a system affect and influence one another
    3. Analysis skills - breaking down information and technologies into pieces to understand and categorize individual parts; identifying the root cause of a problem
    4. Problem solving - identifying solutions to complex issues
    5. Creativity - using imagination to combine existing knowledge into new knowledge to fulfill a need
    6. Design - planning out the implementation of solutions to learning and performance problems
  2. Communication - the ability to understand and share ideas effectively. This includes the following:
    1. Understanding and interpreting complex information from multiple sources through diverse media
    2. Communicating effectively and appropriately in a variety of formats, including visual, verbal, and written, both face-to-face and in digital formats 
  3. Teamwork and Leadership - the ability to work with others to achieve a common goal. This includes the following:
    1. Collaborating and working effectively with others to achieve goals
    2. Motivating others through appropriate strategies
    3. Working effectively with team and individual strengths to maximize the effectiveness of the whole
    4. Leading people to positive outcomes through persuasion, empathy, and effective management
  4. Lifelong Learning and Self-Direction - continual self-improvement through the constant gathering of knowledge. Setting one’s own direction in learning and growth. This includes the following:
    1. Developing general skills like those in this list 
    2. Developing field-specific skills  
    3. Gaining formal education to increase ability to sustain success in the knowledge society 
  5. Technology Use - use of technology to accomplish goals or tasks. This includes the following:
    1. Selecting the right tools and technologies for tasks and problem solving 
    2. Using tools and technologies to appropriately complete tasks and solve problems.
    3. Learning quickly how to use a new technology and be willing to adapt new technologies continuously
  6. Ethics and Professionalism - An ethical person makes him or herself personally accountable for their own actions and work. This includes the following:
    1. Having good work habits and perform assigned work consistently
    2. Interacting with others in a professional manner 
    3. Working effectively and professionally with people of diverse backgrounds 
  7. Personal Management - manage habits to maintain health (physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual). This management should seek to maintain proper balance in all areas of life (family, work, personal, community). It includes the effective management and use of time to accomplish work and achieve goals.

Organizations and Leaders in the Knowledge Society

Organizations and leaders must facilitate the acquisition and application of each of these skills. This means policies, procedures, and organizational structures that enable their employees to use these skills. It also means leaders and managers that encourage and facilitate their use. In the table below, I outline some of my ideas on how this can be done.


Organizations and Leaders Should…

Thinking Skills

Share and give access to relevant, useful knowledge.

Create systems and processes for knowledge sharing.

Teach and communicate regularly with employees.

Encourage and establish systems for knowledge sharing.


Continually communicate new knowledge to employees.

Provide professional development opportunities to improve communication skills.

Provide continuous opportunities to practice the skills of communication.

Teamwork and Leadership

Provide leadership and guidance in effective teamwork.

Provide opportunities to practice leadership teamwork.

Provide professional development opportunities to improve leadership and teamwork skills.

Lifelong Learning and Self-Direction

Provide many opportunities for learning and professional development.

Provide career coaching and development opportunities.

Provide access to relevant industry knowledge.

Technology Use

Demonstrate effective use of appropriate technologies.

Provide professional development opportunities to improve employee technology capacities.

Ethics and Professionalism

Establish standards of ethical, professional behaviors through word and example.

Hold employees accountable for their professionalism.

Personal Management

Provide a healthy work environment, including reasonable workload.

Provide opportunities for development of personal management skills.

Instructional Designers in the Knowledge Society
It is critical for an instructional designer (or any member of our knowledge society!) to have a sound balance between these general skills and those skills that are specific to the field of instructional design. Some of these skills clearly overlap - thinking skills are the foundation of effective needs analysis, for example - but gaining competency in all of the above skills will contribute to an instructional designer's success in improving learning and performance.

This blog post was originally posted on Joel’s personal blog: http://joelleegardner.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-7-skills-of-knowledge-work.html

About the Author

Joel Gardner

Dr. Gardner is currently an instructional designer and department chair for the International Institute for Innovative Instruction at Franklin University.