“Knowledge workers,” as defined in 1959 by Peter Drucker, are “those who generate value through their minds rather than through their muscles, and their labour would be both dynamic and autonomous.” In knowledge work industries, workers need to have a range of technological, social, emotional, and higher cognitive skills, and often require training on a regular basis to keep their skills updated. 

In the last of a series of four whitepapers created by The Economist and sponsored by Microsoft, the authors note the correlation between knowledge work and higher education. In the whitepaper, called “Leveraging technology to humanise the learning experience: Key lessons higher education can learn from ‘knowledge worker’ companies,” the authors also suggest best practices that education institutions can implement from knowledge work to better engage and connect with students.

Although educators and students aren’t typically referred to as “knowledge workers,” there are many parallels between the way information is created, stored, and shared in higher education organizations and in traditional knowledge-focused industries. Therefore, the way these knowledge-focused industries have technologically adapted to increasingly hybrid work is highly applicable to higher education, where more hybrid courses are being offered to accommodate ongoing pandemic-related safety concerns and provide greater flexibility for students to be remote.

Workers in many industries have leveraged innovations in technology to complete their tasks effectively away from traditional office settings, and a high percentage of them expect that some of the flexibility regarding where and when they do their work will continue. Of course, the experience of connecting and collaborating with one another is important as well, so managers and executives are trying to find the “sweet spot” between allowing remote work and creating opportunities for in-person interaction.

In higher education, a similar phenomenon is taking place: students crave the experience of campus life but also enjoy and expect the flexibility provided by a hybrid combination of synchronous and asynchronous classes. In recent years, faculty and staff have become proficient in strategies and digital tools used to create remote learning environments, but they also see the need for additional training and guidance to maximize the tools and techniques used for hybrid instruction.

“The data over the last 40 years—and what we can see into the next 20 and 40 years—shows [that] the number-one way to be successful in this economy will be to be an agile learner.” - Rachel Romer Carlson, CEO of Guild

According to Julian Birkinshaw, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at London Business School, some of the best learning is interwoven and embedded with workplace experience. Managers often embed training into regular workplace tasks, and to be successful, workers need to be agile and open to ongoing learning. Therefore, a valuable skill that will help students be successful in the present and future is being a lifelong learner. To prepare their students for the future, universities must help build students’ durable and non-durable skillsets and cultivate a learner’s mindset.

Technology has an immense ability to personalize and humanize learning, but to realize this potential, it’s key to upskill instructors and faculty. When institutions invest in both technology and training for their faculty, instructors often feel more confident using and innovating with digital tools, which can create opportunities for more connection with students.

Among the most promising and exciting innovations that can be applied both in industry and education are AI powered chatbots. The power of artificial intelligence can automate mundane tasks like answering questions while still providing a human feel. In education, AI and analytics can also create personalized learning options for individual students.

“Tools from big tech companies, such as enterprise collaboration and productivity platforms, should be used to scaffold increasingly digital campuses in much more innovative and comprehensive ways.” - Dr. David Conrad Kellermann, Senior Lecturer, School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering, University of New South Wales

Along with advanced applications that use AI and machine learning, successful hybrid learning requires a tech stack of common software. “Tools from big tech companies, such as enterprise collaboration and productivity platforms, should be used to scaffold increasingly digital campuses in much more innovative and comprehensive ways,” says Dr. David Conrad Kellermann, Senior Lecturer at the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at the University of New South Wales. Despite the availability of these tools, many higher education institutions aren’t yet making use of them. This is limiting the schools’ ability to modernize collaboration, gather useful data, and engage students in a personal way.

Hiring and onboarding workers virtually has been one of the biggest challenges for businesses. Colleges and universities have struggled with the similar challenge of attempting to demonstrate school culture and create a sense of belonging in online student orientations. In both cases, a mix of technology and in-person meetings can help. Initial introductions and group events can be held via virtual meeting applications, while campus tours can be recreated through video, virtual reality, or in-person gatherings for those who want and are able to attend.

Burnout is another challenge faced by both knowledge workers and students who work and learn remotely. There is truly no substitute for in-person connection, and living life behind a screen can take a toll. Experts note that a primary reason for this is that when we work, learn, and live in the same place, it’s harder to unplug.

Experts recommend that business and education leaders recognize that mental health is as important as physical health, and that they implement strategies to promote well-being. This can mean breaking work into “sprints”, limiting or automating administrative or repetitive tasks, and ensuring opportunities for conversation and feedback. These approaches are effective for business leaders and educators too, especially when assisted by technology.

Hybrid working and learning may present challenges for knowledge worker companies and higher education institutions, but it can also provide opportunities to create balance and flexibility. When workers and learners can complete tasks and accomplish their goals on their own terms, productivity and well-being are likely to increase. Of course, establishing community and empowering creative collaboration is as important in education as it is in industry, so technology that humanizes interaction and personalizes experiences provides the greatest benefit.

Want to read more from the whitepaper? “Leveraging technology to humanise the learning experience: Key lessons higher education can learn from ’knowledge worker’ companies,” is available now.