American Journal of Industrial and Business Management, 2013, 3, 557-564 Published Online October 2013 (
The Reaserch on Characteristics of Knowledge Workers
and Their Motivating Factors: A Review and
Comparison Study
Hong Zhan1, Tian Tang1, Yue Zhang2
1School of Management, Xiamen University, Xiamen, Fujian, China; 2California State University, Northridge. USA.
Received August 1st, 2013; revised September 1st, 2013; accepted October 2nd, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Hong Zhan et al. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License,
which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
The current study surveyed major studies on the characteristics of motivating factors for knowledge workers, both in the
USA and in China. Comparisons were made between studies in the two countries, and new perspectives were offered on
the motivating factors for knowledge workers. Future research directions were proposed.
Keywords: Knowledge Workers’ Characteristics; Motivating Factors; Comparison of Incentive Preference
1. Introduction
As early as in the 1950s, Peter Drucker pointed out that
“the most important contribution of management was to
increase the productivity of laborers by fifty times. In the
21st century, however, the most important assets of or-
ganizations are knowledge workers, and their productiv-
ity. The most important thing management needs to do,
therefore, is to improve the productivity of knowledge
workers” [1]. On entering the second decade of the 21st
century, the roles of knowledge workers are increasingly
prominent. CCP, the ruling party of China, explicitly had
“strengthening China through science and education and
through developing Chinese talents” as its strategy. By
the same token, The Mid-to-Long-Term National Educa
tion Development Program (2010-2020) of China further
emphasized the development of Chinese intellectual tal-
ents. The current study will review the literatures, both
Chinese and abroad, on the characteristics of knowledge
workers, and based on the review and comparison, iden-
tify the preferences of knowledge workers for motivating
factors. This paper will answer the 4 questions as below:
Who are knowledge workers? What are the typical char-
acteristics of knowledge workers? What are knowledge
workers incentive preferences?
2. The Definition and Characteristics of
Knowledge Worker
2.1. Defining the Knowledge Worker from
Different Views
“Knowledge worker” was first brought forth in Land-
marks of Tomorrow: A report on the New Post-Modern
World [1,2]. Later, many western scholars like Kidd [3],
Vogt [4], Dove [5], David [6], Itzhak [7], John [8], Patri-
cia [9] and Davenport [10] conducted further studies
about knowledge worker’s performance, motivation, and
other related issues. In China, “knowledge worker” is a
borrowed word, but similar words such as “intellectuals”
and “brainworkers” have been used for years. Reviewing
relevant literature, the definitions of knowledge worker
are so diverse that they need to be classified, analyzed,
examined, and synthesized.
2.1.1. Definition Based on the Work Content
This kind of definition is made from several specific
points of view, such as job contents, the way to complete
the work, and work process. Drucker [11] referred to an
individual who works primarily with information or one
who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace as
the knowledge worker. Yang et al. [12,13] emphasized
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. AJIBM
The Reaserch on Characteristics of Knowledge Workers and Their
Motivating Factors: A Review and Comparison Study
on the properties of work content, and considered knowl-
edge worker as the staff who engages in knowledge work.
Based on this definition, Sun [14] held an opinion that
the staff that directly takes part in knowledge work and
follows this work as a profession can be called knowl-
edge worker, such as a scientist, a teacher, and an engi-
neer. He emphasized on the profession, to distinguish
from an amateur, who does not take up knowledge work
as a career. This view highlights the nature of work; but
understanding of the work content is not complete and
neither in sufficient depth. The meaning from this view is
somewhat imbalanced.
2.1.2. Definition Based on the Work Output
The work output could be understood as an outcome for
the organization the worker is working for. This kind of
definition is outcome-oriented. J. Davies et al. [15] pro-
posed that the knowledge worker is coming with the in-
crement of knowledge capital and bringing high added
value. Xu and Zhu [16] believed the knowledge worker
is similar to the occupational brainworker, who makes
creative contribution, brings a strong value-added growth
of knowledge capital and monetary capital. From this
view, one can easily distinguish two extremes of, say,
scientists form porters; but there could be gray area be-
tween brainworkers and labors, especially in today’s
computing age when many workers are using a computer
to do their job. These grey areas could not be explained
accurately here.
2.1.3. Definition Based on the Individual
Researchers in this view summed up more general char-
acteristics of knowledge workers from specific cases, and
then made the definition of knowledge workers. Accen-
ture (2008) defined knowledge workers as the staff who
complete tasks with intellectual input, creativity, author-
ity, including the professional, the paraprofessional with
depth skills, and the senior manager. This type of work-
ers always work in fields such as R & D, engineering de-
sign, marketing, legal service and management consult-
ing. Cai [17] considered that knowledge workers have
high degree of human capital and pursue independence,
creativity, personalization, and diverse work contents.
They create value by using knowledge and information.
They keep on learning and creating to adapt to the com-
plex and dynamic changes. Zhou [18] believed that
knowledge workers accept systematic learning of theory
and professional skills, and build up an effective knowl-
edge structure. Knowledge workers can leverage modern
sciences to achieve productivity—education was intro-
duced in this definition. The definitions from this dimen-
sion have their advantages of being operational, that the
dimension is commonly used in empirical researches.
There are two shortcomings: first, there exist dozens of
characteristics for knowledge workers; second, different
scholars emphasized on different characteristics. There-
fore, it is difficult to reach a consensus of the definition.
We believe that the above schools of thoughts can be
synthesized, and a definition of knowledge worker can be
like the following: they are workers who produce high
value-added products and services with knowledge and
ability, and keep on updating their knowledge and im-
proving their abilities to adapt to the complex tasks and
diverse work environments.
2.2. A Meta-Analysis of Knowledge Workers’
Existing numerous studies on knowledge worker’s char-
acteristics offer no conclusion of consent. In this study,
we will summarize the characteristics by a meta-analysis.
First, we used China National Knowledge Infrastructure
(CNKI) as the database to conduct the search, for which
we chose the fields of economy and management the
scope for literature. Second, conducted an advanced
search using the subjects “knowledge worker & charac-
teristic”, with 2000-2009. Third, listed the search results
on citation frequency and downloaded the 1st-100th arti-
cles. Forth, skimmed through the literature and use
“original study on characteristics of knowledge worker,
rather than citing others’ work” as the criterion, which
cut down the number of articles to 64. We also studied in
details the top-three ranked articles.
Using statistical analysis, we identified 35 characteris-
tics for knowledge workers. Those characteristics ap-
peared in more than 10 studies are presented in Table 1.
2.2.1. Know l e dge Workers Are More Independent
Compared with other types of employees, knowledge
workers enjoy the rights and power to be in control of
their work. In addition, they are held fully responsible for
their work. “Independence” also means that knowledge
workers prefer to be self-governing and self-control ra-
ther than being affixed to machines as line workers [19].
Peng [20] pointed out that knowledge workers’ inde-
pendence is characterized by the act of empowerment.
Empowerment has risks, because choosing the wrong
person for the job can jeopardize the performance of the
2.2.2. Kno w l e dg e Workers Tend to M ore L oy al to the
Occupation Instead of Employer; High Level of
Knowledge workers’ high turnover rate brings a chal-
lenge to the traditional employment relation. Of Indus-
trial economy when mass production was the defining
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. AJIBM
The Reaserch on Characteristics of Knowledge Workers and Their
Motivating Factors: A Review and Comparison Study
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. AJIBM
Table 1. The characteristics of knowledge workers.
Rank Frequency(*) Characteristics Jiang et al. LinPeng
1 45 Independence
2 39 High level of turnover
3 30 Creativity
4 30 Being difficult to supervise the work processes
5 29 Realizing self-value
6 26 Being difficult to measure the work results
7 23 Knowledge capital
8 15 Dimly bounds of leadership and being contemptuous of the authority
9 13 Being loyal to the occupations instead of employers
10 13 Individual characters
(*) The number of articles containing the character.
feature, tools, machines, and materials belonged to capi-
tal. The skilled employees cannot function without phys-
ical capital, such as machines, raw materials and physical
plant [21]. Of knowledge economy, the knowledge em-
ployees are prominent in the most important knowledge,
which is deeply ingrained in their mind. Because of this,
they are much more powerful to select opportunities, far
more than the traditional workers [19,22].
2.2.3. Knowledge Workers are Difficul t in
Supervising the Work Processes and Measuring
the Work Performance
Knowledge workers use their brains to think and make
decision. It is different to accurately judge the level of
their work efforts and efficiency. Lin [19] and Cao [23]
pointed out that it did not make much sense, and not very
probable either, to monitor and control the work process
of knowledge workers. Thus, the measurement of work
result is another thorny problem. Firstly, the work prod-
uct is the result of teamwork, instead of that of one indi-
vidual’s, so it is hard to measure individual contribution
[23]. Secondly, unlike in the case of laborers, quantified
process of work performance is difficult [24].
2.2.4. Kno w l e dg e Workers Pursue Self-Actuali zation
Knowledge workers have a strong will to realize their
own goals; they strive for being recognized by profes-
sional peers through their own efforts [23]. From the
analysis of costs and benefits, knowledge workers should
pay cost of education and training during the process of
acquiring knowledge and skills, and also opportunity cost
of no income as well as costs of psychological struggles.
Consequently they have expectations to achieve high
earnings. This earning not only means wealth and social
position, but also the compensation covering psycho-
logical costs [25]. Therefore, they prefer well-paid work
with challenges.
2.2.5. Kn ow l e dge Workers Possess Kn owledge
The greatest wealth of knowledge workers is the knowl-
edge which they own. There are two aspects mainly to be
shown as blew:
First, knowledge workers who are usually well edu-
cated , master certain professional knowledge and skills;
and most of them have quite good personal qualities,
such as the broad vision, strong thirst of knowledge and
learning ability, broad knowledge level, etc. Organiza-
tions promote knowledge workers to turn their ideas,
creativity, knowledge and experience into the source and
motivation of the organizational development through
the provision of resources and platform.
Second, the knowledge workers possess knowledge
characterized with the rapid development and change, so
knowledge workers have been in the status of self-de-
velopment and constantly knowledge updating in a long
period, which is equivalent to continuously inject fresh
blood for the development of organization. It determines
the developing direction and trends of the company’s
2.2.6. Blurring of the Boundary with Leadership and
Defying Administrative Authority
Knowledge workers see their relationships with the ad-
ministration as an interaction with no fixed authority [26].
Knowledge is replacing administrative authority to be the
only judgment standard of merits. Knowledge workers
can affect their superiors, peers, and subordinates with
professional knowledge and skills. So they see the boun-
dary among classes in the traditional bureaucratic enter-
prise becoming blurry, and the administrative authority
no longer has absolute control.
There are two reasons that it is highly complex in the
area of characteristics of knowledge workers: firstly,
different researchers had different criteria for classifica-
The Reaserch on Characteristics of Knowledge Workers and Their
Motivating Factors: A Review and Comparison Study
tion, which lead to the overlapping contents of different
characteristics; secondly, neglected the interrelationship
and causality among the characteristics causing the am-
biguity in identifying truly distinct characteristics.
3. The Research Status on Knowledge
Workers Incentive Preferences in China
In the same range of information search conducted for
the study in the previous section, we conducted an ad-
vanced search with the subjects being “knowledge work-
er & motivation” or “knowledge worker & incentive”,
with the time frame being 2000-2013. There were 256
articles published in academic journals on the subjects in
that time frame. After eliminating the papers not directly
relevant to the current research topic, 219 articles were
selected as shown in Table 2.There were few re-
searches on knowledge workers’ motivation in China
before 2000. During 2004-2009, the number of relevant
articles increased significantly, due to the rapid economic
development of the period, and the large number of col-
lege graduates entering the workforce which caused the
management’s attention to the issue of managing knowl-
edge workers [27].
4. The Comparison of Incentive Preference
of Knowledge Workers between China
and The West
Researchers in western countries conducted a great deal
of empirical research on factors with effective incentives
for knowledge workers, covered different professions
such as college faculty, engineers, software designers in
the USA, UK, Australia and Japan. The representative
incentive preferences are shown in Table 3 and 4, from
overseas and Chinese researches respectively.
4.1. The Common Incentive Preferences of
Knowledge Workers
Researchers in western countries conducted a great deal
of empirical research on factors with effective incentives
for knowledge workers, covered different professions
Table 2. The quantity of articles published 2000-2013.
Year Article quantity Percentage in the total
2001-2004 17 7.76
2005-2009 135 61.64
2010-2013 67 30.59
Summation 219 100%
such as college faculty, engineers, software designers in
the USA, UK, Australia and Japan. The representative
incentive preferences are shown in Table 3 and 4, from
overseas and Chinese researches respectively.
4.1.1. Persona l Growth and Deve lopment
This factor is constantly on top three in all the studies
mentioned above. Knowledge workers have high quality
and technical skill, and to remain competitive they are
pursuit non-stop with the growth of knowledge, individ-
ual, and professional achievement. Tampoe [28] found
that 33.73% knowledge workers chose personal growth
as the most important incentive factor. Andersen Con-
sulting (1994) study 858 knowledge workers from Aus-
tralia, U.S.A., Singapore, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong
about the incentive factors, and found that promotion,
considered as a form of personal development, took the
third place. This study was conducted in different cul-
tural and economic backgrounds, so the results have cul-
tural applicability. Peng and Zhang (1999) [29] survey
150 R & D workers from four major technology compa-
nies about incentive factors, and found personal growth
and development ranked number two. Deng et al. [30]
and Chen and Jing [31] found from the analysis of 302
questionnaires that, professional achievement, work en-
vironment, C & B, and personal growth were the four
main incentive factors. They also found that different
factor preferences exist between age groups—knowledge
workers under 39 years preferred C & B, those under 29
years old valued personal growth more. Based on educa-
tion background, Zheng and Huang [32], Jiang and Zhao
[33], Zhang [34] all found that highly educated workers
have stronger needs for growth.
4.1.2. Job Challenge and Achievement
Some researchers established knowledge workers’ incen-
tive utility function, and indicated that the correlation
between job challenge and achievement is positive [35,
36]. They are the decisive factors for the utility’s maxi-
mization. Xian and Zhang [37], Li and Yu [38], Shun [39]
maintained that the ration and challenge of task design
was the key for knowledge workers’ morale. Wang et al.
[40] suggested that management should gradually in-
crease the level of difficulty and enrich work contents.
Furthermore, Chen [41] and Luo [42] defined work en-
richment as “the basic change of work content and ac-
countability level, which is also the vertical extension of
the responsibility of work.” The work giving workers the
sense of achievement is always those closely relate to the
organizational strategy. Knowledge workers long for
their work to be part of the organizational value chain
43], and then grow up with the organization. [
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. AJIBM
The Reaserch on Characteristics of Knowledge Workers and Their
Motivating Factors: A Review and Comparison Study
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. AJIBM
Table 3. The incentive factor of knowledge workers—studies in other countries.
Researcher Time 1st 2
nd 3
rd 4
th 5
Tampoe 1989 Personal growth Work IndependenceProfessional AchievementWealth \
Consulting 1994 Compensation Nature of job Promotion Peer relationship Decision participation
Zingheim 2001
Attractive development
prospect of the organization Opportunity to growGood working environ-
ment Total compensation \
Table 4. The incentive factor of knowledge workers—studies in China.
Researcher Time 1st 2
nd 3
rd 4
th 5
Peng et al. 2001 Compensation and bonusPersonal growthCompany prospect Challenges Job security and stability
State Council Development
Research Center 2006 Opportunity to grow Peer relationshipSense of accomplishmentFair evaluation High pay
Wang 2008 Compensation & BenefitsQuality of leadersPersonal growth Company growth Safety and security
4.2. The Comparison of Incentive Preferences of
Knowledge Workers between China and the
4.2.1. The Deference in Compens ati on and We alth
Chinese knowledge workers place more emphasis in
compensation than their foreign counterparts. Yu et al.
surveyed 454 samples in the US and 302 in China, and
found that “higher compensation ranked number one in
Chinese workers, yet was not even in top five among the
US workers. The above phenomenon must be because of
the economic backgrounds the Chinese workers were in.
China is in economic transition period, with relatively
low economic development level. In addition, China’s
economic environment is one that is complex and chan-
geable, with high uncertainty [44]. One must also note
that in recent year, monetary reward is not only to satisfy
workers’ fundamental needs: the amount of compensa-
tion is also an important measure of the contribution a
worker has made to his/her organization, and a measure
of his/her social status [45,46]. Wang and Wang [47]
proposed an incentive system combining short-term in-
centive—skill-based salary—and long-term incentive—
stock options. Other Chinese studies also found differ-
ences in state-owned companies and private companies,
as well as regional differences (for example, [48-51]).
4.2.2. The Differences in Work Independence and Job
Knowledge workers in western countries ranked work
independence as among top five factors. This could be
closely related to the low uncertainty avoidance, low
power distance, and high individualism western culture
[52]. Based on this cultural background, knowledge
workers value liberty higher, prefer not to be interfered
too much by superiors, and are more willing to undertake
the consequence of their own decisions. In this situation,
is has become urgent to find the balance point between
teamwork and independence [53]. As a contrast, Chinese
Knowledge workers have high power distance, low indi-
vidualism and tend to be risk-adverse. Under such cul-
tural backgrounds, Chinese knowledge workers have a
great worship of authority highly hero individualism as
well as authoritarianism. They are prudential, industrious,
endurance, risk-adverse, ordered and can’t stand uncer-
tainty. They often inscribe their success and failure to
‘predestined relationship’. Although Chinese knowledge
workers also enjoy certain flexibility in career change,
because of traditional culture as well as economic devel-
opment level, jobs with higher security still have greater
incentive. It does not mean, however, that Chinese work-
ers do not need the kind of self-empowerment. Tradi-
tional 9-to-5 jobs and fixed work location would limit
knowledge workers’ creativity and idea generation, while
flexible schedule can better break the boundaries of time
and space to achieve optimal resource allocation [54].
4.2.3. The Difference in Fairnes
The factor fairness, although did not enter top five in
most of the incentive studies, has been more emphasized
by Chinese workers as compared to their international
counterparts. The reason why it would be so is that China
has its special Guan Xi background, which emphasized
maintaining emotional connections and mutuality of in-
terests. In this situation, those workers without Guan Xi
would feel or face interference in the relationships of
work input and output, in work output and rewards, and
in rewards and work satisfaction. Knowledge workers
would, likewise, not ignore this important aspect of work
environment. Therefore, we should establish more fair
evaluation systems to accurately measure the contribu-
tion of employees. This is the necessary condition for
internal and external fairness.
4.2.4. The Difference in Working Environment
Compared with American knowledge workers, Chinese
The Reaserch on Characteristics of Knowledge Workers and Their
Motivating Factors: A Review and Comparison Study
knowledge workers place more emphasis on working
environment and culture environment. This has some
relationship with the cultural differences between China
and the U.S. The Chinese traditional cultures pay more
attention to the solidarity and cooperation, especially
emphasis the collectivism education. It also teaches
workers to treat the company as their home and carry
forward the spirit of ownership, so the organization iden-
tity of Chinese knowledge workers is relatively higher.
They have a strong collective consciousness and they
pursue the personal values embodied in the collective.
The American culture emphasis freedom and independ-
ence, so the Americans are more inclined to pursue per-
sonal fulfillment. There is no strong sense of the belong-
ing to the company in which they work, so they pay more
attention to personal development, and place less empha-
sis on their overall environment.
4.2.5. The Difference in Decision Participation
Chinese knowledge workers pay less attention to deci-
sion participation than Americans. Maybe it is because
the difference of their power distance. Employee motiva-
tion also is closely related with power distance within a
culture. The large power distance cultures emphasize
hierarchy, obedience and authority; whereas the low
power distance cultures emphasize equality, fairness and
China is characterized by a high power distance cul-
ture. People think consciously or unconsciously that
there are class differences between authorities and com-
mon people. Chinese people think they should follow the
decision of their authorities and few of them challenge
the thoughts or ideas of authorities. In companies, subor-
dinates shouldn’t disobey the boss, not to mention the
decision participation. Compared with Chinese culture,
American culture has the low power distance. From the
government to citizens, equality is emphasized to reduce
the power distance among people. The characteristics of
knowledge employees determine that most of them value
equality and do not subdue authorities, they tend to par-
ticipate in the decision.
4.3. Conclusion, Limitation of Incentive
Preference Research, and Future Direction
The studies reviewed above covered many aspects of the
issue on knowledge workers’ incentive preferences. How-
ever, they were almost all on the characteristics of
knowledge workers and their needs. Also, they attempted
to derive the incentive measures from the two. There had
been few that analyzed the incentive factors from the
knowledge workers’ behavioral dynamics. The situation
is changing: literatures on workers’ mental bargains are
coming out gradually. The current studies on knowledge
workers’ incentive preferences have a lot of redundancy.
The researches in China, especially conceptual studies,
can be seen based on or adapted from researches of
western countries. “Take the management sciences that
originated in the western society, whose social psychol-
ogy, culture, and behavioral norms are all very different,
and introduce them into an environment with totally dif-
ferent psychology and culture, then the introduced man-
agement would totally likely be set idle or be distorted”.
We suggest here that future researches must consider the
unique characters and the culture of China, through
theoretical and empirical studies, to identify the incentive
preferences for China’s knowledge workers.
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