Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to discuss the nature of contemporary work. There is much discussion surrounding the meaning of the term knowledge worker and the value these workers generate for the organisation. This paper agrees that the value to organisations of workers who possess knowledge is increasing but argues that the nature of the knowledge worker is unclear within current literature. It acknowledges that there is a high level of knowledge in contemporary work and that many workers can claim to be knowledgeable, however these workers while necessary to the firm do not provide it with competitive advantage.
Design/methodology/approach – This paper argues that there are four tensions running through the literature on the nature of the knowledge worker and proposes that the elements that comprise knowledge work fall into three groups that are knowledge possession, knowledge activity and knowledge context. First, the nature of contemporary work and its relationship to traditional categorisations of work is discussed; second, worker types that have been proposed in the literature are discussed; third, the factors within work types that are relevant to knowledge are discussed; and a summary of the main points of contention and a proposal for the research direction that should be taken to progress this debate are presented.
Findings – This paper proposes that knowledge work should not be automatically associated with service work or new forms of work; the nature of knowledge work cannot be defined by one specific attribute; the elements that comprise knowledge work fall into three groups, knowledge possession, knowledge activity and knowledge context.
Practical implications – Based on these findings organisations must rethink their approach to identifying the characteristics that define the valuable activity that is knowledge work within their industry sector.
Research limitations/implications – Further study must be carried out into the nature of the worker, not only in their embodiment of skill and knowledge but also into how they use it, what their work context is and the support they should be given while engaging in their activities.
Originality/value – The value of the knowledge worker lies in combining these elements in a specific way and applying this formula to further our understanding of the nature of the knowledge worker.