Knowledge Work

Peter Drucker coined the term "knowledge worker" in the late 1950s, during the most productive years of the industrial revolution. He used it to show that much of what workers do within firms was starting to change. The most profound part of that change concerns the fact that many, if not most, productive workers no longer perform physical labor, but instead work with knowledge, performing mental labor. Now, over 50 years later, we are still experiencing the implications of that shift.

Knowledge work represents a fundamental change in economic society, management practice, and individuals' approaches to their work. I explore these changes, and others, in my blog. But, I'll mention a few implications here:

Knowledge workers, not management, own the means of production.

This represents a drastic change to most of our economic models, in which capital contributed by the owners of the firm is used to produce the output of the operation. This capital may be equipment or funding for the acquisition of equipment. Either way, the means of physical production are owned by the firm, and therefore, are the property of the owners of the firm. Workers become employees in order to have access to the equipment and, thus, to be more productive. In a knowledge work economy, this changes. The means of production - knowledge workers' knowledge, experience, and intelligence - cannot be owned by anyone other than themselves; they can only be rented. One effect is that knowledge workers are much more mobile than manual workers. We see this today in the rise of outsourcing, contract work, and the gig economy.

The process of knowledge work is idiosyncratic and mostly unobservable.

This represents a drastic change to management practice, which has been based on observation for the last century or so. In the late 19th century, Frederick Taylor used observation to implement scientific management. His famous time and motion studies represented the first effort to rationalize manual work. Owners and managers used Taylor's processes to fine-tune the jobs within their factories in order to improve labor productivity. In knowledge work, this changes. The mental processes individuals use to solve problems or innovate, for example, are poorly understood. We don't understand how people arrive at the aha moment. We can't deconstruct the processes knowledge workers use to deploy their mental resources and produce results. One effect is that knowledge workers cannot be compelled by traditional reward structures to work in particular ways. We see this today in firms' acceptance of things like breakrooms, games, and social events that were previously considered a wasteful deterrent to productivity.

Knowledge workers, not management, are the experts in how to get the work done.

This represents a drastic change to self-management, which has been increasing in importance over the last several decades. Manual work was defined and designed by the firm. The firm trained a new employee to use the firm's equipment, rewarded the employee based on how close the employee could get to the ideal usage of the equipment, and told the employee to make changes when the process was upgraded to increase productivity. In knowledge work, this changes. Management can define the desired outcome, but not the process to produce that outcome. Therefore, knolwedge workers are required to manage themselves to a great degree. They must monitor their own performance, develop ways to improve their productivity, motivate themselves, and continually train themselves in the face of change. One effect is that knowledge workers cannot rely on management to explain how to be productive. We see this today in conferences where knowledge workers teach each other new techniques and in self-directed learning opportunities provided by firms.

I explore these changes and others on my blog. But, I'd like to explore the third, self-management, in more detail here.

Some argue that our current primary and secondary education methods developed in order to create good manual employees. Good employees, the argument goes, have a basic knowledge set, are good at doing what they're told, are trained to accept carrot-and-stick motivational tactics, and can solve relatively simple problems by themselves. Without getting into the philosophical argument, I believe it is fair to say that educational systems are not well-positioned to train students in self-management. To date, the educational system does not attempt to train students in time/task management, knowledge management, or attention management skills. I mention this because the knowledge work economy requires workers to be good at all three skillsets. In particular, attention management is a primary skill in knowledge work. Our attention is our productive resource. We must focus our attention on the problem we are asked to solve or the knowledge product we are trying to produce in order to complete knowledge work tasks. In addition to a lack of training in these areas, we don't work in a neutral attention environment. Our attention is under assault throughout our days. Open offices, instant messaging, meetings, and email are just a few of the demands the workplace places on our attention. In our private lives, the internet is an attention addiction mechanism. In the face of these demands, I have developed the Attention Compass system to help you harness your attention in productive ways. You can check it out here.