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What is knowledge work?

What is knowledge work and how does it apply to medical practice.
A collection of books in a library
© University of York/HYMS

This course focuses on knowledge work. So we have to ask… what exactly is ‘knowledge work’?

Does it mean we are like computers, meant to remember all the knowledge we ever learned and regurgitate it on command? Don’t we have…err… computers for that?

Don’t worry, that’s not what it means. Knowledge workers do exactly the jobs that computers cannot. The concept of a knowledge worker is one that has gained traction in fields outside medicine such as IT and engineering but also fits with medical practice. It was originally developed by a management theorist called Peter Drucker, who defined a knowledge worker as knowledge workers as ‘high-level workers who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge, acquired through formal training, to develop products and services’1.

Knowledge work is about complex problem solving and crucially it means a person who not only knows things about their field of expertise but is also able to apply them in a social, organisational and relational context. We must recognise that knowledge cannot be defined as simply facts but encompasses what some have called the ‘tacit dimension’ – that is traditions, learned values and judgements, knowledge that we don’t always know we know2.

While some decisions we make may seem on the surface to be straightforward there is often a huge amount of tacit learning and judgement involved (for example, whether to send a child who seems unwell to hospital for observation or not). There are, of course, guidelines but a huge number of other factors come unconsciously into play – how worried the parents seem, your own ‘gut feeling’, geographical location of the practice, whether you think the parents will seek help if the child deteriorates, your own experience and comfort levels with this type of presentation. Your role as a clinician is to integrate all these pieces of information to create a new understanding of the situation. This is knowledge work.

After all, if it was just a case of reading the guidelines we could just have a cup of tea while the medical students did it all…


  1. Reinhardt, W., Schmidt, B., Sloep, P., & Drachsler, H. (2011). Knowledge Worker Roles and Actions—Results of Two Empirical Studies. Knowledge and Process Management, 18(3), 150–174.
  2. Ray, T. (2009). Rethinking Polanyi’s Concept of Tacit Knowledge: From Personal Knowing to Imagined Institutions. Minerva, 47(1), 75–92.
© University of York/HYMS
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