This past weekend I gave a seminar at DePaul University on the topic of “Knowledge worker effectiveness in organizations” as part of the Master’s Program in Applied Technology (MAAT). As I was heading out of the house Saturday morning, I decided to grab some of the key books that I thought were important if you were interested in becoming a better knowledge worker.  It provoked some interesting discussion and I promised the students that I would send them a bibliography of the books I had brought along.

This is certainly my own idiosyncratic view, but it may be useful to others, if only as a starting point for discussion. Certainly, if you want to improve your skills as a knowledge worker, you are pretty much confined to some form of self-directed learning strategy.  I added a couple of titles I didn’t see as I was going out the door and decided to limit my suggestions to 25 titles and focus on books that were focused on the needs of the individual rather than the organization. I suspect that you could complete this reading in less than a year if you chose to.

Although I didn’t do so on Saturday, I spent a little extra time to organize and categorize the list. I also imposed some sense of the order that I would recommend to attack these titles over time. As far as I can tell, most still appear to be in print or obtainable on-line. The links here go to Amazon.

Learning, Mindfulness, and Reflection

The starting point for getting better at anything, including knowledge work, is to increase your capacity for learning from experience. In organizational settings, this need for learning capacity is increased because organizational work rarely leaves time for practice and rehearsal. You need to develop the capacity to learn while you are engaged in performance and in those little moments of downtime. Here is where I would suggest you start.


Langer, Ellen J.

Esther Dyson and Tom Davenport, among others, have argued that attention is the fundamental currency of the new economy. “Paying attention” has acquired new meaning and significance. In Mindfulness, Langer demonstrates what comprises attention and what the payoffs are when you direct it intelligently. Learning to be more mindful is an absolutely essential step in any effort to improve your capabilities and performance as a knowledge worker
The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action

Schon, Donald A.

Along with Chris Argyris, Schon was one of the scholars who defined the topic of organizational learning. Here he examines professions such as architecture and management where the fundamental task is to formulate and apply new solutions to new problems. To do that requires the skill of being able to reflect on and extract lessons from experience in a systematic and reliable way. The Reflective Practitioner contains his recommendations on how to develop that skill.
Teaching As a Subversive Activity

Postman, Neil

Still available and in print, I got my hands on this book just as I was starting college. Fortunately, I had gone to a private high school that fundamentally practiced what Postman was preaching, which was to equip students to question, evaluate, and interpret what they were told. I found Postman’s thinking and arguments insightful and thought-provoking even when I found myself disagreeing with them.

Years later I had a chance to meet Postman during a seminar at NYU and we ended up in an unsatisfying discussion about how you could influence the development and use of technology in responsible and useful ways. I’ve built my career on that assumption and Postman essentially rejected it as even feasible. Regardless, this particular piece of thinking is one that I still return to from time to time to refresh myself on its advice on our responsibilities to be critical, self-directed, learners.
Learning As a Way of Being : Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water

Vaill, Peter B.

Peter Vaill is an organizational theorist and consultant. In one of his other excellent books, Managing As a Performing Art : New Ideas for a World of Chaotic Change, Vaill introduced one of my favorite metaphors for the organizational world we can expect to occupy for the rest of our careers, “permanent white water.” As much as we might wish to believe that the rapids we are in are simply a passing moment of thrill to be followed by calm waters, Vaill will convince you that the rapids are here to stay and that rather than simply hanging on until calm returns, we need to learn to navigate as best we can inside that reality. Learning as a Way of Being starts from that permanent white water assumption and explores why and how we need to build learning into the very fabric of who and what we are. Opportunities to coast on what we used to know will come less frequently and be shorter than ever. Most of our systems designed to support learning are not yet up to the task of properly preparing us for that reality; we must take on the responsibility ourselves. Vaill is one of the key handbooks to help discharge that responsibility.

Filters Against Folly : How to Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent

Hardin, Garrett

Garrett Hardin was a population biologist who became one of the leading thinkers and promoters of ecological approaches to problem solving. He was the person who succeeded in describing and popularizing the notion of the “Tragedy of the Commons” in dealing with many kinds of resource management problems. Although I had heard of the notion of the “Tragedy of the Commons” I had never linked it to Hardin or anyone else.

I first encountered Hardin’s thinking in this small volume in the early 90s. It is a cleaned up version of a series of public lectures Hardin offered about the appropriate relationship between experts and the public and was an effort to offset the notion that experts are people whose expertise is to be automatically deferred to by those who are not expert.

Living in a world that continues to defer to those who claim expertise, this book remains an important antidote. First, no matter what our own expertise, we are always non-experts in many areas and fields that are consequential to us. All of us would do well to understand how to engage with and interpret the work and recommendations of experts in ways that force the experts to be clear about the limits of their expertise and proposals.

As non-experts we need to become more aware of how the “filters” that different sorts of experts use to make sense of their fields not only produce important expert insights but also blind experts to other potential insights that will more than likely bear on making an appropriately informed decision about the questions at hand. To make the general notion of filters concrete, Hardin takes a look at three basic filters that all of us encounter routinely as we engage in interactions between expert and non-expert, regardless of which role we are in today.

The first filter is the literate filter of language, which concerns itself with words and rhetoric. Hardin offers ways to listen to and think about the language employed in expert settings in order to recognize when the language is being used to advance thought and when it is being used to cut off or stop thought.

Hardin’s second filter is the numerate filter, which reduces the richness and generalities of the literate filter to more precise efforts to quantify “how much,” “how fast,” or “how soon.” The numerate filter lets us make distinctions about such notions as levels of risk and how much cost is worth how much benefit.

Hardin’s third filter is about applying ecological perspectives to questions. He calls it an ecolate filter, but I prefer to think of it as a systems filter. In addition to thinking about questions of language and of numbers, a systems filter focuses attention on questions of what happens next; what are the consequences, both planned and intended versus those that are unplanned and, therefore, unintended that are likely to flow from a proposed change to some system. While some of the specific examples in this book have grown a bit dated with time, the underlying argument and the recommended habits of mind are both worth investing time in understanding.

Improv Wisdom : Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up

Madson, Patricia Ryan

One of the peculiar aspects of knowledge work in most organizations is that there is never a time to practice or rehearse. In many other diverse fields, the value and importance of practice is understood and built in. Athletes, Actors, Singers, Soldiers, and Surgeons are all expected to practice their craft as a central part of their training and development. Many continue to practice in parallel with their performance.

In the settings that most knowledge workers operate in, it is always performance time.

If learning is an essential aspect of knowledge work, we must find and invent ways to practice while we perform and to extract lessons from future performance from past. One intriguing path to explore here is to look at another area where performance is unscripted–improvisational theater. This is one of several recent efforts to make this link between the world of improv and the world of work that most of us occupy. It sketches the world and practice of improv that shed light on how that craft might translate into other realms. It also offers pointers deeper into the world of improv should you find the path worth exploring more deeply.

How to Read a Book

Adler, Mortimer Jerome

You have to respect a book that is still in print after first being published in 1940. This one is well worth the time even if for no other reason than to make the point that reading is an active intellectual task not a passive one. Beyond that, however, Adler and Van Doren provide an overall scheme and a set of habits for getting the most out of what you read.


Although the quality of writing skills I encounter out of too many schools continues to decline, writing remains one of the core skills for the knowledge economy. Your skill matters both as a tool for cementing your own understanding and as a way to communicate what you know to those who would benefit from knowing what you know. If you are willing to work at it and willing to seek out critical feedback, writing is something that you can improve. These are books I’ve found helpful in my development as a writer and are ones that I return to again and again.

Writing Without Teachers.

Elbow, Peter

I’ve been writing for most of my life. This book introduced me to one distinction and one practice that has helped my writing processes tremendously. The distinction is between the creative mind and the critical mind. While you need to employ both to get to a finished result, they cannot work in parallel no matter how much we might like to think so.

Trying to criticize writing on the fly is possibly the single greatest barrier to writing that most of us encounter. If you are listening to that 5th grade English teacher correct your grammar while you are trying to capture a fleeting thought, the thought will die. If you capture the fleeting thought and simply share it with the world in raw form, no one is likely to understand. You must learn to create first and then critique if you want to make writing the tool for thinking that it is.

The practice that can help you past your learned bad habits of trying to edit as you write is what Elbow calls “free writing.” In free writing, the objective is to get words down on paper non-stop, usually for 15-20 minutes. No stopping, no going back, no criticizing. The goal is to get the words flowing. As the words begin to flow, the ideas will come out from the shadows and let themselves be captured on your notepad or your screen.

Now you have raw materials that you can begin to work with using the critical mind that you’ve persuaded to sit on the side and watch quietly. Most likely, you will believe that this will take more time than you actually have and you will end up staring blankly at the page as the deadline hurtles toward you.

Trust Elbow.

Instead of staring at a blank screen start filling it with words no matter how bad. Halfway through your available time, stop and rework your raw mind-dump into something closer to finished product. Alternate back and forth until you run out of time (and end on a critiquing cycle) and the final result will most likely be far better than your current practices.

Bird by Bird : Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Lamott, Anne

Reading books about writing is always a safe escape from the act itself. The key is to limit yourself to the really good books about it. Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” is clearly in Sturgeon’s 10% of what’s best. Her advice is consistent with what I’ve learned from multiple sources I trust and my own experience. She has an acerbic wit you would want muttering next to you at a cocktail party rather then muttering about you from across the room. She also has a collection of useful tips and tricks to add to my toolkit. Perhaps my favorite is “write shitty first drafts.”
Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method

Weinberg, Gerald M.

A frequent pastime for all writers and aspiring writers is to read books of advice on how to write. That briefly postpones the inevitable encounter with the blank page or blank screen we are trying to avoid. Most of these books are marginal, some are useful, and a handful prove to be essential. This has the markings of one that may become essential.

Weinberg has produced 30-plus books and 100s of articles over his career. He has also combined a career that started out dealing with technology and transformed to dealing with organizations and the behavior of the people in them. That mixture leads to a view about the practice of writing that is among the most actionable and most aligned with the world I find myself in than anything I have yet encountered. Weinberg is not concerned with the mechanics of writing or particularly with the low-level details. Instead, his focus is on how to integrate the process of writing into the rest of your daily world in a way that makes each better.

Design, Problem Definition, and Problem Solving

We are all exploring new territories. There are few maps and few reliable tools. All of us, then, are called on to take on responsibilities for blazing our own trails and developing the tools and techniques we need as we travel. That makes a deeper understanding of design, problem definition, and problem solving techniques something we all need to develop and continue to develop over time. Here is where I started and where I continue to draw insight.

The Mind Map Book : How to Use Radiant Thinking to Maximize Your Brain’s Untapped Potential

Buzan, Tony

The term is a bit “new-agey” for my tastes, but the technique should definitely be in your bag of tricks. Others call mind-maps “spider charts” or “chunking.” Whatever the term,it’s one of those “coloring outside the lines” kind of insights and this is the definitive book on the technique. Don’t get too wrapped up in the artistic advice. You can get 80% of the value from mind-maps out of simple black and white.

Conceptual Blockbusting: A Guide to Better Ideas Fourth Edition

Adams, James L.

I discovered one of the early editions of this book many years ago. As you might suspect of any book that has reached a fourth edition, Conceptual Blockbusting is full of practical advice on how to set up and think about problems in ways that increase the chances of finding or inventing not only a solution but generally several good to excellent solutions. Adams also has lots of insight about how our habits of mind interfere with generating ideas and advice on how to replace those habits with ones that contribute to better ideas.

Notes on the Synthesis of Form

Alexander, Christopher

Christopher Alexander is a mathematician turned architect. Over the years his work has gathered something of a cult following both in architecture circles and in systems design and development circles. The work that initially grew of of this little book grew to a wide-ranging discourse on the notion of Pattern and Pattern Languages that Alexander developed to help him better understand how people shape their environment to their needs in ways that are both functional and emotionally satisfying.

Like most of his work, Notes on the Synthesis of Form can often be dense. On the other hand, I have found Alexander’s thinking to be something I always find worth the effort. This was one of the first books I read that started me on the path of considering both the central role of “design” in matching technology, people, and environment and the notion that all of us should think of ourselves as designers rather than allow design to become the province of yet one more category of experts.
Are Your Lights On? : How to Figure Out What the Problem Really Is

Gause, Donald C.

Almost all of our training and experience is focused on how to get the answer; how to find a solution to a well-defined problem. In real life, most of our time is spent trying to fit the current mess around us into something that looks like a problem we might know how to solve. In Are Your Lights On? Gause and Weinberg offer one of the few books (and fortunately one of the best) on ways that you might go about investigating, understanding, and defining what you are dealing with to turn the present mess into a problem that can, in fact, be solved.
The Design of Everyday Things

Norman, Donald A.

We live in a designed world. 90% or more of what we encounter on a daily basis consists of objects, structures, and processes designed by someone else intended to influence our behavior in a particular direction. Sometimes our encounters with the designed world or benign and even pleasant. The designs make our experience easier or more satisfying. All too often, though, our encounters with the world around us are a source of frustration and exasperation, whether we are dealing with a voice mail system from hell or trying to figure out which funny symbol on a sign will lead us to the appropriate restroom.

Norman is a cognitive scientist who began to study and explore how designed objects connect with us as human beings and how choices made in their designs either help or hinder their effective use. This book will help you understand how design impacts your daily life and suggest how you might want to think as a designer in your own knowledge work.
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

Tharp, Twyla

For me a recurring theme in developing skill as a knowledge worker is that we all need to take whatever talent for creativity we were gifted with and develop it as far was we can. We live in a world that demands on insight and creativity from all of us. We cannot sit back and wait for someone else to frame the question and design a solution for us to implement. We all have to contribute to the earliest stages of the creative processes and stay connected and engaged with the process through to the end. Tharp is among the most creative choreographers alive today and this book is a remarkable blend of practices, tricks, techniques, perspectives, and personal reflections on what it means to accept the responsibility to turn creative talents into creative habits.

For Tharp, being creative is her job and she shares insights and advice about what that translates too in terms of disciplines and habits of work and preparation that deliver creativity when you need. Tharp cannot afford the luxury of waiting for the creative muse to strike. In her world, that is simply an excuse to stall and avoid responsibility. Whether we like it or not, or know it or not, we now live in that same world and we would all do well to listen to and act on her experience and advice.

Management and Consulting Skills

As knowledge workers we are all consultants at some level. We must take responsibility for managing our own work and we must work with our clients (whether they are inside or outside of our organization) to collaboratively agree on what must be done by when. This requires skills for project planning and management that few of us are called on to develop and skills for operating adroitly within complex organizational settings. These titles will help, whatever your current level of knowledge and skill.

Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity

Allen, David

There are hundreds of books on the topic of time management. David Allen goes beyond them in a significant and useful way. He focuses on a coherent and fundamentally simple system for getting work done. The fundamental insight? Get everything out of your head and written down. Identify all of the projects on your plate and the outcomes you intend to accomplish. Figure out the one next physical action that needs to be done to advance each project. Organize your lists of things to do by the place or context where they can be done.

Developing the discipline takes time (at least for me), but the payoff is high. Also check out David’s website at The David Allen Company. Think of this as one of the key process building blocks for a personal knowledge management system

Flawless Consulting: A Guide to Getting Your Expertise Used (Second Edition)

Block, Peter

Fundamentally, regardless of what other knowledge work job we might hold, we are all called on to be consultants at one time or another. Your expertise is valued to the extent that others understand it and make use of it. That makes you a consultant and understanding how to do it well is important to your ultimate effectiveness as a knowledge worker.

Talk to just about any consultant who has been at it for more than a few years and they will point you to Peter Block and Flawless Consulting. Peter assumes that you are an expert in something and that you are not an expert in the interactions and issues you will always and predictably encounter when dealing with others who need your expertise but will rarely exactly understand what that will entail. That’s where Block is the expert and he clearly understands the connections and will help you understand them as well.
The Answer to How Is Yes: Acting On What Matters

Block, Peter

Another set of insights from Peter Block. This one is less about specific tips on how to be a better consultant/advisor. Instead it focuses on the impact of our default attitudes and assumptions on how we handle change, particularly in organizational settings. In particular, Block takes aim at the debilitating affects of always and quickly shifting discussions about any kind of proposed change to discussions of how things should be done or how they are impossible to do.

He argues, successfully, that our disposition toward leaping into questions of implementation is a disguised way to block change. The first question should never be “how can we do this?” as pragmatic as that might appear. Instead, we need to begin with questions of value. “Is this something that we want to do or that we need to do?” If the answer to that is truly “yes” then we will find the answers to the “how” questions as they appear.

Thinking for a Living: How to Get Better Performance And Results from Knowledge Workers

Davenport, Thomas H.

Over the years, I have found that Tom Davenport is one of those thinkers whose most important contribution tends to be a combination of being among the very first to see important new phenomena on the horizon and organize useful ways to think about what’s coming in productive ways. Here Tom is picking up on the importance of managing knowledge workers differently than organizations have managed industrial workers and starting to develop some useful frameworks for thinking about what that might mean. This book is a little more focused on the organizational dimension and response to the issues of knowledge work, than the rest of what I am pointing to here. Nevertheless, it still contains useful insight for the individual knowledge worker within the organization.

Secrets of Consulting : A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully

Weinberg, Gerald M.

Weinberg has been providing expertise to organizations for decades. His particular areas of expertise is at the intersection of how organizations develop and deploy technology. Along with Block, Weinberg is one of the best and most down-to-earth, accessible thinkers about the challenges of connecting your expertise to organizational action. This is among his best compilations of advice relevant to any of us faced with the problem.

The Information and Technology Environment

Not only has knowledge work become a more central element of the economic environment, but that environment is increasingly dominated by information technology and issues created by the proliferation of data and information available. You cannot pretend to be a knowledge worker and allow yourself to remain ignorant of these foundations. The following titles are entry points that will let you begin to enrich this dimension of your skills and knowledge.

Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (2nd Edition)

Rosenfeld, Louis

The defined target audience for this book is professionals responsible for designing web sites and other services on the web from the perspective of how to make them more useful as tools for finding and organizing the information needed by organizations and the knowledge workers within them. My own hypothesis is that as knowledge workers we not only need to be able to recognize and take advantage of the work of professional information architects, we also need to develop a base level of design skill to function as information architects for ourselves and for other knowledge workers who depend on us. This is not a professional skill that can simply be handed off to an expert somewhere. Rather it is becoming an element of the basic skillset/toolkit that every knowledge worker will need to possess. This is an excellent first step to developing that base level of skill.

The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master

Hunt, Andrew

This might appear to be a bit too technology-focused to be relevant or accessible to the average knowledge worker. On the other hand, I believe that software developers have been doing knowledge work inside of rich technology environments longer than anyone else. The problems they have encountered and the solutions to those problems that they have developed are worth exploring and understanding.

This is possibly the best entry point to that exploration that any knowledge worker might find. If you are not particularly technically oriented, there may be spots that will seem heavy-going or that will not seem relevant. On the other hand, time invested in thinking about the arguments that Hunt and Thomas make and thinking about how you might translate them into your knowledge work settings will prove well spent. At the very least, it will make you more observant and critical about the tools that have been given you to as a knowledge worker. You might well begin to wonder why the lessons of the past 40-50 years of developing software technology have seen so little application to newer knowledge work environments. You might also start looking for ways to translate some of those lessons to your own practices.

Information Anxiety : What to Do When Information Doesn’t Tell You What You Need to Know

Wurman, Richard Saul

I encountered this book when it first appeared in 1989 and I was in the midst of working on my doctorate. For me, it was full of insights and tidbits about the problems created by the information environment we were living in then (it has only gotten worse with time) and ways of thinking about how we might tackle solving those problems for ourselves and for others. Wurman is credited with being among the first, if not the first, to coin the term “information architect” and this was his first attempt to describe what that might mean. As knowledge workers we will all have to our own information architects in many respects. This will help get you on your way.
Information Anxiety 2

Wurman, Richard Saul

Wurman essentially created the idea of information architecture in 1975, the year I graduated from college. I wish I had encountered him then rather than 1989, when the first version of this book appeared. His quest is to persuade designers to pay more attention to making it easier for all of us to cope with the onslaught of bits. While that would be nice, I find this more useful as advice for what you and I can do personally to cope until that day comes. One example–LATCH. It’s a mnemonic for the fundamental ways to organize any set of information: location, alphabet, time, category, or hierarchy.

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