The era of the knowledge worker is passing;

the era of the knowledge meshworker, or 1% knowledge worker, has arrived.

Peter Drucker, around 1959, coined the term knowledge worker(1). Most of you reading this are knowledge workers, whatever your title. Examples include executive, subject specialist, or manager; and of course entrepreneur or social entrepreneur! The knowledge worker is pivotal in today’s organisations. (Knowledge workers make up 80% of the American workforce (1)) Especially the role of manager as knowledge worker has emerged over the past 50 years as the building block of large organizations.

Knowledge workers originally knew everything they needed in order to do their job well. Their roles, accountabilities and most important self-identity revolved around them knowing the knowledge. All the knowledge, once they were senior enough.

This was especially true up to 50 years ago. Then, few people worked in large organizations. Most knowledge workers were subject specialists like lawyers or doctors or mechanics. People who, in some type of apprenticeship, learnt the knowledge from their mentor. Knowledge that they then passed on, largely unchanged a generation later.

This is now fundamentally impossible, and the essence of the knowledge worker has changed. In part because the evolution of humanity is naturally bringing us higher-order organisations (larger, more fluid, more complex). Also because the same evolution is bringing ever more knowledge into our civilization. So the total knowledge needed for a manager, say, to do his or her job is 100 times more than it was 50 years ago; and the useful knowledge for the individual’s role is changing 100 times faster; but the human being is the same.

Compounding this, their job descriptions, accountabilities and self-identity has not yet changed either. They are trapped in a catch-22 situation, where they cannot fully succeed. These roles are no longer fit for human consumption. So organisations are in stress, their knowledge workers are stressed, suffering a self-esteem crisis, and results are poor.

In 1986, the individual knowledge worker (read manager, or entrepreneur) knew, on average, 75% of the knowledge needed (2). The really good ones could realistically target 100% knowledge. By 2006 the average had dropped to 8%. Today it is around 5% and will be 1% in the next decade. An absolutely brilliant 1% knowledge worker can, at best, get to perhaps 2%. Still far short of what is needed to feel successful, to avoid stress and burnout, if your identity is defined by knowing.

Today’s knowledge workers are still trying to reduce their stress by getting more knowledge; but this can no longer work. It is actually increasing their stress. We are in a new paradigm, as different from the old as water is from ice, with the same kind of phase transition between the old knowledge work and the new knowledge work.

Where the old knowledge worker is static and self-sufficient, the new knowledge meshworker, or 1% knowledge worker, is fluid and comfortable relying on countless others. Today’s knowledge worker accepts he or she cannot know enough. What I call the 1% knowledge worker, or knowledge meshworker, is emerging.

For the biggest, most critical roles, we are already approaching or even below 1%.

The difference between the 1%KW, or knowledge meshworker, and Drucker’s original knowledge worker:

  • The knowledge worker is extremely good at acquiring and retaining specialist knowledge. Then at deploying that knowledge in isolation or with a few other people who are specialists in different fields. They succeeded or failed depending on their knowledge being right and complete.

  • The 1% knowledge meshworker gains negligible benefit from acquiring and retaining knowledge. Nor does success depend very much on their own knowledge being right and complete. It depends on their ability to connect, to Meshwork. Their ability to facilitate dialogue, thinking etc. processes with many people that lead to a sufficient synthesis of collective knowledge. And the criterion for sufficient is what works, not what is right and complete; because usually you can not define right until long after the fact.

This is paralyzing for many of our current senior, most successful knowledge workers (managers and leaders). Everything in their belief system, everything that has given them success up to now, is being turned on its head.

Generation Y, Generation Me, knows this intuitively, is already working differently. The current generation of senior, successful knowledge workers now has just as much to learn from their juniors as they have to teach them. Very hard if your ego is defined by how much you teach and how little you need to learn!

Here’s what the leaders and managers of the new knowledge workers need to be and do. Especially if they are managing the youngest generation of knowledge workers. They need all the capabilities of a knowledge meshworker.

To succeed the 1% knowledge worker, the knowledge meshworker, needs at least these characteristics:

  • Low ego. The knowledge meshworker has little need to prove themselves, does not define themselves against other people. The needs of their ego; especially those driven by the calculating self saying “not enough” of something; play a small role. Collective intelligence is what you get when enough 1% connects to have a viable prototype; but collective intelligence is destroyed in any group with one or more strong egos active.

  • Low level of survival anxiety, which means life-long learning in order to stay employable is far more important than being employed for life. Hence retention requires companies to focus on developing their knowledge workers in the direction of the knowledge worker’s interests. Otherwise they will leave for another job.

  • Ability to use and share their feelings to generate higher order cooperation and bonding within groups of knowledge workers.

  • Ability to say “I don’t know” and see it as good, not a deficiency. They define being good by saying 99 times in 100 I don’t know, what do you know?

  • They use dialogue processes capable of bringing all the 1% bits of knowledge together. Circle, open space, appreciative inquiry are their operating systems. These processes are their critical tools, and they define their identity identity self esteem as their ability to flow in the process, not through the content (knowledge) they put into the process. Especially they embrace processes that can deliver collective intelligence even if there are egos active, like Holacracy.

  • Virtual and physical connections are equal and seamless. Someone engaging via Facebook is just as engaged, and part of the process, as someone physically in the room.

  • They integrate. Data and intuition, mind and body, feelings and thoughts; all must be brought into all their activities, especially work. They think and, not or. They also demand the same from their peers and managers.

  • Hierarchy, respect is based purely on what someone can contribute to the current question. It’s fluid, not static; based on how you show up in the process now, not what you’ve done or know.

  • They focus more on what works, and on opportunities; less on what’s perfect, less on removing deficiencies.

  • They are naturally conscious of the bigger picture, transcend boundaries in order to do the right task right. Inside vs outside the organisation, business vs society, humanity vs nature are seen as arbitrary boundaries. Useful to orient from, but not a barrier to collaboration if that is right for the bigger picture. They work as easily across as within national and cultural borders. They collaborate seamlessly with colleagues, clients, and customers; the organisational membrane is there, but very permeable.

  • They require just in time learning that transfers directly to performance, in an environment that supports them applying what they’ve just learnt to the task in hand. (For more on our experience helping companies do this see here and here.)

All of this has big implications for today’s leaders, managers and organisations. Those that get it right will step beyond the war for talent, embracing knowledge meshworking as a new way of tapping into abundant talent. I lived this a decade ago when we in P&G turned from internal R&D to externally focussed connect and develop. Letting go of the success rule “invent here” was painful; but has revolutionized P&G’s business results.

“Know here” is the next rule that will go. It is hard to let go of the rules for success that used to work; but if you want to succeed tomorrow there is no alternative.

References and related reading:


(2) Robert Kelley, Carnegie-Mellon University: 20 Year Longitudinal Study of Knowledge Workers


(4) Donald Taylor, Learning and development at the crossroads;