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Judgment workers – the next step beyond the knowledge worker

by Mark P. McDonald  |  June 27, 2011  |  5 Comments

Modern business relies on the creation and processing of knowledge.   Peter Drucker and others recognized the role of the knowledge worker as being a central challenge of the second half of the 20th century.  Enabling, enhancing and extending the reach and power of knowledge and knowledge workers has been the foundation of the information technology revolution.  While more of us work with knowledge than make knowledge, the role of knowledge worker represents an evolution of the nature of work from physical labor, inputs and outputs to information handling, assessment and decisions.

As knowledge work comes to dominate the workforce across industry, a new type of work is emerging and therefore a new type of worker – judgment work.

A judgment worker is someone who creates value through making decisions based on their experience, contextual awareness and subject matter expertise.

The key elements that differentiate judgment workers from knowledge workers include:

  • Judgment workers make unstructured decisions and take advantage of different sets of information at different times. Knowledge workers make structured decisions using the structured information consistently.
  • The goal of judgment work is to reach the best decision/direction possible.  There are no right answers, only some better than others.   Knowledge workers seek the right decision, which is often possible, as knowledge work has been incorporated into processes and procedures.
  • The value of judgment work centers on handling unpredictable situations that are not accounted for in enterprise strategy, policy and processes.  The value of knowledge work is to handle planned situations that require the participation and involvement of people to create results.

Judgment work occurs in your mid-office processes, which are the activities that shape how you go to market in the front office and deliver your business in the back office.

Judgment work has been off our radar screen as its apparent value declines when corporate strategies call for a single minded, heads down focus.  Judgment work matters less in the extremes where boom times and high demand cover over poor decisions and in times of extreme recession where one answer – generate cash.

A full appreciation of judgment work arises when we live in between the extremes.  When there is uncertainty, volatility, multiple forces, many opinions that require judgment and making a ‘tried and true’ decision creates commodity results. This is where experience, insight and information count and can create competitive advantage for your organization.

CIOs and IT leaders face the need to support judgment work and to exercise their own judgment as the fundamentals of IT are changing.  That is what we mean by re-imagining IT, the need to make the judgments that will redefine and reposition IT in the future. Without judgment, the CIO is left to define IT the same as everyone else.  In an environment of standardizing services (cloud) and choice that can put IT on the path to strategic irrelevance.

Judgment work is not new, but its role is becoming more apparent in an increasing structured and process-intensive world.  As information becomes broadly available, CIOs and IT leaders will need to provide new forms of information and technology as current business intelligence solutions support knowledge work rather than judgment work.   Without the business in business intelligence, BI is dead.  Increasingly that business involves judgment work that is different form knowledge work.

How do you support judgment work?

With what technologies?


Is there really no such thing as judgment work in your organization?

Are all decisions, options and information clear so it’s more about executing via intelligence?

Category: leadership  management  strategic-planning  

Tags: it-organization  knowledge-worker  mid-office  re-imagine-it  

Mark P. McDonald
8 years at Gartner
24 years IT industry

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a former group vice president and head of research in Gartner Executive Programs. He is the co-author of The Social Organization with Anthony Bradley. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Judgment workers – the next step beyond the knowledge worker

  1. Craig Roth says:

    Good point Mark.

    The contextual awareness part is key, as this kind of worker needs to have more feelers on internal (and external) social networks, blogs, collaboration rooms, be on more mailing lists, etc. Keeping up with what is going on is part of their job, not just the thing they do when they need a break.

  2. Ian Gomez says:

    Thanks Mark – I enjoyed the article.

    Your concept of ‘judgement worker’ is close to what I would simply term a ‘leader’ (as distinct from a ‘manager’, which is a whole other world to my mind). I would add two comments:

    – Business Intelligence generally tells you how your Business is operating. It takes wisdom to know how to apply this to maximise value. This is where the attributes of the judgement worker is of immense importance.

    – Experience and information are important, but insight is critical. The BI boom has made most organisational reporting more complex. The result is that increased BI can lead paradoxically to decreased business agility as it is more difficult to identify big opportunities in time to capitalise on them. Part of insight (and a challenge for good BI practices) is to find the nuggets and hide all the chaff.

  3. […] beyond the knowledge worker By RSS FEED, on July 20th, 2011 Author: Mark P. McDonald Source: Mark McDonald […]

  4. Mark,

    Your description of a knowledge worker appears to refer that of an information worker. Why wouldn’t knowledge workers make unstructured decisions, rely on heuristics and experience (tacit knowledge), and handle unpredictable situations? Your emphasis on CIOs and IT workers suggests a clear reference to information, not knowledge.

  5. Mark P. McDonald says:


    Thanks for your comments on the post. The blog’s audience is largely CIOs and IT professionals so that is where the focus comes from. The distinction between knowledge workers and information workers is appropriate, its just that in my observations and talking with companies the two ‘levels’ of information and knowledge have merged together, fused if you will. That fusion has made distinctions between data, information, knowledge blurry in the minds of executives and organizations. There are real boundaries between these levels but discussions at the business level merge them and when you try to make the distinction you are treated as an ‘academic.’

    We are after knowledge so that is where the focus is, is a common reply to concerns over data and information as precursors. Also information technology solutions have further erroded the mindset around the difference between the two. KM, BI, Data Warehouses, etc all automate data.information leaving knowledge as the focus.

    This comes to the distinction between knowledge and judgment. What we call knowledge workers today are those that largely work within the boundaries of their products, services and processes. Your right that they work with information, but they are expected to apply their knowledge to their work. Customer service representatives, sales, finance all work this way. They have some discretion but that discretion is bounded.

    Judgement workers are not bounded and in observation are rewarded for doing work that handles situations that are not well defined in products,processes, services or rules. Some of this work crosses boundaries all of this work has ‘no single right answer’

    One way to tell the difference is that you can scrutinize a knowledge workers decisions in reference to you processes, rules, policy ect. You can say wether or not a knowledge worker did the right thing. You can scrutize a judgement worker as well, but more against the context, the range of options, the potential risks and benefice. You can say that they made the best decision possible more than you can say it was definitively right.

    So a response to your comment that I hope builds the discussion around the two. Thanks again for your comment and for reading the blog.


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