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Are Academic Advisors Knowledge Workers? Yes!

David Freitag, Graduate Student, NACADA/Kansas State University Masters of Academic Advising Program 


Knowledge workers are different from other types of workers. They are recruited differently, they are managed differently, and they are retained differently. The term ‘Knowledge Worker’ was originally coined by Peter Drucker in 1959 as a person who works primarily with information or develops and uses knowledge in the workplace. He recognized that specialists would be needed in the future to make peoples’ lives less complicated. These specialists would have the most up-to-date information available and advise people about which direction to take.

Thomas Davenport (2005) defines knowledge workers simply as people who think for a living. He goes on to describe knowledge workers as having high levels of expertise, with the most important aspect of the jobs being the creation, distribution, or application of knowledge. Knowledge workers perform work that is extremely valuable to the success of an institution. Examples of knowledge workers include computer programmers, systems analysts, writers, doctors, lawyers, teachers, researchers, managers, and, as described in this article, academic advisors.

While many different types of workers think during their jobs, the primary purpose of a knowledge worker’s job is the creation, distribution, or application of knowledge. Academic advisors are the type of knowledge worker who learn and distribute information. The relationship between this type of knowledge worker and the person receiving the information is critical to the success of the knowledge worker’s job (Davenport, 2005).

If we substitute a few words pertaining to academic advising in Davenport ’s description of knowledge workers, it fits academic advisors perfectly: Advisors think for a living. Advisors solve problems; they understand and meet the needs of students. Advisors make decisions, and they collaborate and communicate with other people in the course of doing their own work. Advisors have high degrees of expertise and specialized education. It might even be said this combination of knowing a large body of specialized information and being able to communicate the information effectively to others is a distinguishing feature of the field of academic advising. Few types of knowledge workers can combine high levels of education and specialized expertise with effective communication skills.

So, why does recognizing academic advisors as knowledge workers matter? It matters because in industries outside of academic environments, the way knowledge workers are recruited, managed, and retained is different from other types of workers. If advising administrators are unclear about what type of worker an advisor is, they will continue to be unclear about the type of work advisors do and how to manage them. Compare the thinking behind the title of “Advising Supervisor” to the thinking behind the title of “Advising Coordinator.” Each of these titles implies something different about the advisors in their department – one says their advisors are expected to need supervision, the other says their advisors are knowledge workers and only need coordination to be effective.

Standard questions from HR may not identify the best and the brightest job candidates for knowledge work positions. Advising administrators should be ready to explore a candidate’s life experiences, in addition to their resume, to determine if the candidate is a life-long learner. Ask how they have demonstrated intellectual curiosity during their life and in prior jobs. Ask what they are learning now. Ask what they know about NACADA and how they intend to participate in advancing the field of academic advising. Advising administrators should hire individuals for advising positions who are self-motivated to continue to learn throughout their careers.

In the past, managers could observe the output of their manual workers – ten widgets an hour produced, two carts of apples picked, one ditch dug. Work started and ended at specific times. Workers worked and managers managed. The output of knowledge work is different – a characteristic of knowledge work is that the final product of knowledge workers is not easily observed or measured by their management.

Managing knowledge workers, such as advisors, is different from managing entry level minimum wage workers, administrative staff, clerks, and manufacturing workers. Knowledge workers should be guided to use the extensive knowledge they have to produce effective results for the organization. Knowledge workers don’t want to be told how to do their work. Why would an organization hire highly educated employees and then spend time and money in further education just to closely supervise them and tell them what to do and how to do it? (Davenport, 2005). Highly educated workers should require less supervision.

Commitment is a key concept in managing knowledge workers. In an industrial economy, a worker could do his job without fully engaging his brain or his heart. Working on an assembly line does not require the worker to think deeply about assembly lines. Knowledge workers, on the other hand, can only be effective when they are mentally and emotionally committed to their job. To give this commitment of their heart and mind requires that knowledge workers be given some say in what they work on and how they do it (Davenport, 2005). Without this commitment from the organization, knowledge workers will either leave or shut down intellectually / emotionally.

Management of knowledge workers focuses not on hiring and firing, but on recruitment and retention. The most important task for a manager of knowledge workers is to recruit and retain the best knowledge workers available who are committed to their field. The most successful organizations hire the best and most talented people they can find and then work very hard to keep them. While knowledge workers are frequently the best paid employees in an organization, a high salary is not their primary motivation to stick around – knowledge workers are motivated by the work they are doing and the differences they can make in their organization and in the lives of others.

Institutions that employ knowledge workers value employee retention because of the high cost of not doing so. Institutions whose knowledge workers require an extended period of education to be productive must work hard to retain their workers since every time a worker leaves, the cost of their education leaves with them. Thus a bill arrives with the cost of replacing them.

To maximize their effectiveness, advising programs should recognize that advisors are not only teachers, but they are knowledge workers too. When the academe connects the field of advising to knowledge work, advising administrators will improve the retention and effectiveness of their advisors.

David Freitag
Academic Advisor
Tucson, AZ
[email protected]


Davenport, T. H. (2004). Why don't we know more about knowledge? (learn from experiments). MIT Sloan Management Review, (Summer), 17-18.

Davenport, T. H. (2005). Thinking for a living: How to get better performance and results from knowledge workers. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.

Drucker, P. F. (1959). Landmarks of tomorrow, Harper & Brothers.

Johnson, D. (2006). Skills for the knowledge worker. Teacher Librarian, 34:1 (Oct), 8-13.

White, H. S. (2003). The successful future of the librarian: Bookman or knowledge worker?Australian Academic & Research Libraries, (Mar), 1-13.

Cite this article using APA style as: Freitag, D. (2008, September). Are academic advisors knowledge workers? Yes!. Academic Advising Today, 31(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.