I heart Pexels.com

The End of the Knowledge Worker

Peter Drucker coined the term “Knowledge Worker” in his book “Landmarks of Tomorrow” in 1959. Wikipedia pulls out a key quote from the piece that I will pull out from Wikipedia: “[Drucker] suggested “the most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity.”

I appreciate Peter Drucker’s many contributions to the modern business era. Many of the principles I have incorporated into my working life were originally his ideas. That said, we are only 16 years into the 21st-century and the Knowledge Worker is obsolete. We now live in the era of the Learning Worker.

To elaborate on (and illustrate) that assertion, I’m going to pull straight from that same Wikipedia article again:

Knowledge workers are workers whose main capital is knowledge. Examples include software engineers, physicians, pharmacists, architects, engineers, scientists, public accountants, lawyers, and academics, whose job is to “think for a living”.

For all his foresight, Drucker did not predict the extent to which two realities would devalue knowledge as capital so soon.

Easy Access to Increasingly Vast Amounts of Information

There is now way too much information on any topic to retain an adequate percentage of information as knowledge. And why would you want to? It is now far easier to retrieve information from some external source on demand than to commit it to memory ahead of time.

Case in point: When I started writing this piece, I did not know when Drucker coined “knowledge worker,” how he coined it, or if it even was him at all. Five minutes on the web later, I knew the year, book, and definition — and had skimmed a subsequent publication in 1999 in which he continued to expound on Knowledge-Worker Productivity. One of many I’m sure, just give me another 5 minutes….

Increasingly Rapid Pace of Technological Change

There is no profession or human activity that is not being radically and rapidly changed by the evolution of technology. Anything you know about how something works today is likely to no longer be true very soon. We are running on a treadmill. If you stand firm in your knowledge, you’re going to end up face-first on the floor.

Become a Learning Worker

The seed of this article was planted when I realized a few months ago that my job really consists of being proficient at something by the afternoon that I had no idea how to do that morning. When I looked around at my colleagues, the most successful ones are not those that have accumulated a wealth of knowledge but those that can gain and use new knowledge rapidly. In computer terms, you need a very fast Internet connection and lots of RAM but not a lot of storage.

The term “Learning Worker” seemed to capture the image and set it immediately in contrast with Drucker’s “Knowledge Worker.”

I think it would be fair to end with a few suggestions I completely made up for how to become a learning worker — not that you aren’t one already.

  1. Recognize that in any given moment, what you know is much less critical for your success than what you can learn quickly.
  2. Ask more questions than you answer.
  3. Practice learning by embracing opportunities to do something you’ve never done without accumulating topical knowledge beforehand. Here are some examples from my team at Adacus, an advertising technology startup: explain to room of conference attendees how RTB works, become certified to serve ads on Google’s ad exchange, build a platform that dynamically generates ads at runtime, manage a programmatic buy through a DSP, migrate to Hadoop, etc. Granted, those are pretty boring technical examples but hopefully you get the point.

I should note that I did not search for “Learning Worker” or read any description before writing this piece. Before hitting Publish just now I did google learning worker and see from the results that I am neither the first to use the term or make the argument. I’ll read those after I’m done writing mine. Looking forward to what I will learn…