IPMA International Project Management Association
28 April 2022 / 9:00

From knowledge worker to cognitive worker: How can project management prepare for the inevitable?

❝ Life is perhaps the only painting that is painted with colours not entirely chosen by the painter ❞

Fast-paced technological developments are changing personal and professional lives. The use of technologies such as social media, big data, and artificial intelligence (AI) is growing with every passing day, be it for day-to-day chores or for enhancing business efficiencies. As such, organizations, in particular, have little choice but to use technology for their business operations in order to stay competitive in the marketplace.

What it means is that a subtle but tangible shift from a knowledge economy to a cognitive economy is happening, where the inter-disciplinary confluence of various sciences, including psychology, engineering, artificial intelligence (AI), neuroscience, etc., will be the central cog in economic machines around the world. It also means there is and will be a growing need for people with skills in cognitive science development and management, not just knowledge processing using common information technologies. Therefore, in hindsight, it is expected that knowledge workers will soon give way to cognitive workers.

We differentiate between knowledge workers and cognitive workers. A knowledge worker is “anyone who creates, develops, manipulates, disseminates or uses knowledge to provide a competitive advantage or some other benefit contributing towards the goals of the organization” (Harrison et al., 2004).

Whereas we define a cognitive worker as someone who possesses and applies cross-domain knowledge (e.g., psychology, neuroscience, linguistics, engineering) to create or support the creation of products or services that either embed some form of AI/artificial cognitive abilities or are compatible to work seamlessly in an AI-driven environment.

The shift as argued above is impacting and is going to impact every profession and domain of society. People working within the project management (PM) domain also need to adapt and embrace these changes to remain relevant and competitive in the job market. But certainly, it won’t be an easy task, and there are challenges to overcome. It raises the question of what PM can do to prepare for the inevitable transition of knowledge workers to the cognitive worker environment. With that in mind, below we discuss some of the challenges as well as what PM can possibly do to prepare for the transition. Needless to say, the ideas discussed below are for initiating a thought process and are by no means conclusive or exhaustive. The effort may, however, help in doing some research and firming up the direction.


Challenges in achieving a transition from a knowledge worker to a cognitive worker environment

  1. Lack of readiness in general and more particularly in the PM context.

Given the complex nature of AI and cognitive science, there is a general lack of readiness within organizations to achieve the shift. The policies, standards, and guidelines to use and maintain the technology and science behind it are still evolving. The same is the case with the rules and regulations governing the use of AI and cognitive systems.

Projects are not isolated entities, and they live and breathe within a system. So, the general lack of readiness within organizations seems to have an impact on PM’s readiness to achieve the transition. Not to mention that PM is not a core business activity for the majority of organizations across the globe. Such a tendency often translates into a lack of PM maturity within the organization. All these factors contribute to the lack of readiness for the PM to move from a knowledge worker to a cognitive worker environment.

  1. Technology is evolving too fast for professions to keep up.

Another challenge faced by organizations and people is that technology is evolving so fast that it is not easy to keep up with the pace of development. To be able to keep up with the speed and achieve the transition, an organization will need to invest in resources and efforts. However, even this may not solve all of the problems because it necessitates an understanding of the complex technology and its operation. The situation is far more challenging for PM, as PM domain evolution requires support from organizational resources and management. As such, if organizations are not ready, they will be less inclined to invest in PM transition.

  1. Creation of supporting PM methods and processes

Given the newness of technology and science, there is a general lack of availability of methodologies, process steps, and guideline standards to develop and maintain such technologies. The same applies to the PM domain as well, and it is another challenge that will have an effect on the transition in a PM context. Without the creation of supporting methods and processes, it will not be easy for people to know how to be ready and prepared for working in a cognitive economy.

  1. Availability of skilled resources

The availability of people with knowledge of cognitive science is an ongoing challenge, and there is a general shortage of people with relevant education, skills, and knowledge. In a PM context, for a transition to happen, a person will need to have knowledge of both PM and cognitive science. This could be a stumbling block for people to be ready to work in a cognitive environment as it requires additional effort.

  1. Availability of PM education

This remains another challenge. PM education needs to evolve to take into account the fast-paced technological developments. At the same time, one should not forget that the focus of PM education is to teach PM skills. Hence, the question is how to achieve a balance between providing PM skills as well as other skills to make a PM professional ready to work in a cognitive setting. This will undoubtedly necessitate a significant amount of effort in order to develop new educational programmes or redesign and upgrade existing programmes and courses to meet the current and future needs of markets and industries.


What PM can do to prepare for such a shift?

  1. Build knowledge resources on the role PM can play

One of the ways to prepare for the transition is to start building knowledge resources on the role that a PM professional would be required to play in a cognitive environment. It will not only help people know how to start and where to start but will also help raise awareness about the need to be ready to make the transition from a knowledge worker to a cognitive worker.

  1. Organize experts’ huddles to establish the direction

Another area that requires focus is organising huddles of experts and people with futuristic knowledge to establish some direction. Without a set direction, efforts may prove futile and not yield the desired results. These huddles should take place as often as necessary to map out future plans and devise strategies for putting those plans into action and measuring the results.

  1. Develop benchmarks and certifications to formalize learning processes.

Developing benchmarks and certification in “Cognitive Science Compatible PM” is another area that requires focus to make the transition happen. Having certifications will help in building curriculum and teaching and research resources, as well as activities. All such activities will inform the plans created for the transition from a knowledge worker to a cognitive worker economy.

  1. Collaborate with relevant industry associations to identify PM integration pathways.

Since PM is used across a wide range of industries and professions, PM will benefit from collaborating with relevant industry associations. It is not only to learn from them but also to align PM education and skill development according to the cognitive science needs of industries. Working with industry associations will provide insights on the pace of technology adoption and challenges faced by industries, which can then be incorporated into PM education and knowledge delivery to help PM professionals achieve a transition into a cognitive environment.

  1. Develop a guideline standard of roles, responsibilities, and skillsets for PM cognitive workers.

The development of guidelines standards of roles, responsibilities, and skillsets needed by PM professionals to operate in a cognitive environment will provide a framework for people to use to become cognitive-ready.

Being relevant in the marketplace is becoming a key enabler for career growth and professional development. For that to happen, people working in a profession, including PM, need to be equipped with the right skills, knowledge, and attitudes.

The extraordinary growth in the use of AI and cognitive tech necessitates people to be prepared to help create products and services underpinned by such technologies and sciences. Certainly, it is not that simple, as the technology and science behind it are complex and inter-disciplinary in nature. Having said that, sooner or later it won’t be a matter of choice and organizations and the people working within them will need to make the transition into a cognitive environment.

Keeping that in context, we have looked at some of the challenges in the PM context and proposed some strategies to help achieve a transition into a cognitive environment. Certainly, the ideas discussed above are of preliminary nature, and much more needs to be done to achieve the goals of a successful transition.


Harrison, A., P. Wheeler and C. Whitehead (2004), The Distributed Workplace (London: Routledge).

© 2022 Jiwat Ram, All Rights Reserved.




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Author of this post

Jiwat is a Professor in Project Management. He has considerable experience of working internationally in diverse cultures and business environments.

Jiwat actively contributes to project management community. His work has been published in top scientific journals as well as industry outlets.