The Fundamentals of Knowledge Workers Revisited

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A few years ago, I wrote about how knowledge workers, like basketball players, ought to have a set of basic skills (e.g. shooting, dribbling, passing, etc.) that apply to their daily work and how mastering these fundamentals can make them more valuable team members (view original post here). These are hard skills that can be improved with better technique and repetition and are less about having deep experience, subject matter expertise, or intangibles like charisma and confidence.

The three original fundamentals I identified were:

  • Clear and timely communication: the ability, in speech and writing, to articulate questions, actions, and responses that convey information to team members and clients/customers without vagueness or confusion, and to do so consistently within the appropriate timeframe; also, sound communication fundamentals means checking for spelling and grammar errors and making sure vocabulary and technical terms are used correctly (the discipline to proofread).
  • Task and time management: the ability to keep track of assignments and manage one’s own calendar/schedule in order to meet deadlines and effectively plan work blocks throughout the day and week; if you said you were going to do it, you find a way to do it.
  • Resourcefulness: the ability to leverage different sources (e.g. team members, Google, past projects, etc.) and to synthesize findings in order to come up with viable solutions, especially in situations of uncertainty; the findings may not be the end-all-be-all solution, but it’s enough to make progress and to get useful feedback that’ll further move things along.

I think these still hold true, but I would tighten up the wording a bit:

  • Clear and timely communication » Communication
  • Task and time management » Follow-through
  • Resourcefulness » Resourcefulness (stays same)

And in revisiting these after a few years, I wanted to add a couple more to the list:

  • Business Application Skills
  • Note-taking

These two sound even more basic than the fundamentals above, but I believe they are critical foundations to an effective knowledge worker.

Business Application Skills

One thing that’s jumped out to me over the years is the varying level of competency among employees (from interns to managers) when it comes to using various business applications on the computer. I don’t expect everyone to be able to code custom macros on Excel or type 120 words per minute, but there are some very basic skills that I think are essential to getting things done on a daily basis. This may not apply to jobs where you’re not sitting in front of a computer all day, but if you are, I’d highly recommend addressing these common shortcomings:

  • Not understanding how spreadsheets work, unfamiliar with basic formulas (SUM, COUNT, IF, etc.) and treating the sheets more as tables for storing numbers or letters.
  • Not knowing basic keyboard shortcuts for copy, cut, paste, save, open, tabbing windows, etc. and being 100% reliant on mouse or trackpad.
  • Being haphazard about the naming of documents and files and having zero sense of file/folder management in general.*
  • Not understanding how formatting works on word processing applications (e.g. Microsoft Word, Google Docs) or slide presentation software (e.g. Microsoft Powerpoint, Google Slides, Apply Keynote), smashing inconsistent type, page layout, and color formats together.

These are hard skills that can be gained through YouTube tutorials, Google searches, and practice. I liken this particular fundamental to dribbling in basketball: if you learn to dribble well with both hands, through your legs, while running or evading defenders, while stopping and going, the court opens up in new ways. You’re able to move up the court more quickly and better position yourself to make passes, create your own shot, or get out of traps.

To push the dribbling analogy further, there are people who have mastered business application skills much like the best NBA players have mastered dribbling: you can have people with Kyrie Irving/Steph Curry-like handles who are 100% keyboard shortcuts with complex use of no-code tools to automate many of their day-to-day functions. I am not saying everyone needs to work towards such mastery. What matters most is to develop a level of competency so that using business applications daily isn’t a hindrance to your performance. It’s about being “good enough” to avoid formatting mistakes, save time on calculations, and quickly wade through emails, documents, and chat windows on the desktop.

I’ve come across talented people who have lacked business application skills who shine in other ways. Much like an amazing rim protector playing stellar defense or a shooting guard with a beautiful shot, these people rely on talent like presentation skills, ability to read people, or creative ideation to add value. It’s possible to have stars who never pay much attention to their shortcomings with business applications. But much like the versatility and flexibility that a big man with dribbling skills offers to a basketball team’s rotation, business application skills can be a wonderful complementary attribute that allows other skills or intangibles to shine. For example: a creative person bursting with ideas who can put together a perfectly-formatted deck in Google Slides that’s ready to present vs. someone who needs extra help putting the slides together because it looks sloppy and never seems to keep track of the different files that are necessary for the presentation. The presentation may turn out just fine, but you can see the drag the lack of fundamentals can have on the organization.


To continue the basketball fundamentals analogy, I like to think of note-taking as akin to footwork. It’s not always an obvious skill since so much of our attention is on the ball, but good footwork enables many things: maneuvering around defenders in the post, playing good heads up defense, being able to beat your man off the dribble, etc. It’s all in the execution, details, and efficiency of the movement.

Much like good footwork is not about the volume of steps you take, good note-taking isn’t about the copious amounts of notes you write down. It’s about jotting down the key details and pieces of information that help you make progress with your tasks. It’s a complex activity that requires keen observations and listening, quick synthesis of information, and careful curation of the words being written down to help with recall later on. It’s a skill that can continue to be improved upon with focus on technique and organization.

I’ve observed, both within our team at Barrel and also in myself, different levels of note-taking ability. There are those who never take notes and believe their memory will serve them just fine. There are those who take a ton of notes but never refer back on them (or can’t make sense of them later on). And then there are those who, like me, are sometimes good about notes and then at other times are not so good. No thought given to footwork, sloppy footwork, inconsistent footwork–these shortcomings may not be enough to keep you from contributing, but like the other fundamentals, they can become hindrances to even greater performance.

Fundamentals are Important for All Levels

The nice thing about fundamentals are that they remain relevant and foundational for knowledge workers of all levels, from the most junior employee all the way to the most senior executives. People may rely on their experience or special talents to have impact, but in information-rich environments with multiple communication channels, these fundamentals help reduce drag and let strengths shine more brightly.

So here you have it, five fundamentals for knowledge workers to keep on sharpening much like the basic drills NBA players hone during the off-season and practices:

  • Communication
  • Follow-through
  • Resourcefulness
  • Business Application Skills
  • Note-taking

* One could argue that with more applications and cloud-based providers pushing users to rely on search to find their documents that file/folder management is unnecessary. After all, when you use something like Google Drive, can’t you simply type in the keyword and find what you’re looking for? I would argue that even with powerful search, not properly labeling documents and having multiple documents with similar or identical names will render searches less useful and slow you down.

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