“Knowledge is unlike traditional skills, which change very slowly… knowledge rapidly becomes obsolete, and knowledge workers regularly have to go back to school.” – Peter F Drucker, The Next Society, The Economist, 2001
When our world changed
Our technological revolution has changed the way we work, what we produce and how we compete globally. Blasting into the space age in the late 1960s created a core of experts and specialists who drove the new technologies in communication and computations that changed our world.
In the years that followed, the United States led the world in creating new tools and systems that added efficiencies to organizations. Knowledge became our competitive edge and knowledge workers gradually replaced those with older skills.
Steel cutters on the factory floor became computer programmers, operating robotics that increased precision and reduced waste. Construction workers learned to use sophisticated computerized equipment. Office typists gradually took over administrative duties and contributed to shrinking organization charts and downsizing middle management. Ironically, executives increasingly managed their own correspondences via computerized email and intranets.
Respect and equality
Unfortunately, the power of knowledge workers is not fully understood. This specialty-trained workforce that operates or oversees sophisticated equipment and systems is often mismanaged with old style authoritarian tactics. Specialties and expertise have to be learned and earned; they now challenge old forms of authority. Specialists in organizations – from the mechanic using sophisticated diagnostic equipment to the paralegal or the IT expert – have a powerful leveling effect. They are needed and have knowledge that is not widely known or shared. As professionals, knowledge workers do not see themselves as subordinates. They expect to be treated with respect.
New technologies require openness to change, flexibility, a zest for learning and a collaborative approach to problem solving. Knowledge sharing requires a team approach, which in our individualistic American culture, adds a challenge to managing work teams. A diverse workforce offers opportunities to blend differences for more creative problem solving. Yet, diversity often results in clusters of self-segregated groups that tend to separate and isolate themselves. Collaboration thrives when workers have a shared vision and sense of common purpose. Organizational cultures based on values that are shared within the workforce are more naturally integrated and commitment to the whole is more likely.
Back to the future
The game-changers of managing a workforce of specialized people are simple. Respecting individuals for the talents they bring to the organization is the starting point. Promoting and instilling a sense of community and civility toward others lays the foundation for a healthy work environment. Modeling the work ethic of productivity – in the use of time and output – establishes the productivity needed to compete and survive in a rapidly changing work environment. Expecting, encouraging and supporting knowledge upgrades is the required maintenance of a viable organization – be it business, nonprofits or government entities.
Knowledge workers are the techno-crafts people that build our present world and the future. They “…have moved several steps beyond traditional workers, who used to expect to be told what to do… and increasingly come to expect to participate in decision making.” [Drucker]
Professor Worthington is a former international banker and business owner. She recently returned to Washington after a 20-year career with the Univ. of Maryland. She continues to teach, advise and write from her Washougal home. Reach her at global.learning@ lworthington.com.