An antipodean dust up

December 28, 2007

Shawn has created some controversy through his recent claim that The term ‘knowledge worker’ is now a meaningless concept, Matthew has countered, with the support of Stephen Collins, to the effect that Shawn has missed the point, failing to recognise that the term still has value in communication. I want to assert that both protagonists are wrong, mainly because of the way they frame the problem. This is of course an minor controversy between friends. If you want a contrast look at the handbags at dawn controversy between two philosophers, Colin McGinn and Honderich reported here which is a spectators delight.

To give you an idea of how bad this controversy has got; McGinn’s review of Honderich’ book Consciousness starts by saying: This book runs the full gamut from the mediocre to the ludicrous to the merely bad. It is painful to read, poorly thought out, and uninformed. It is also radically inconsistent. It concludes: His instincts, at least, are not always wrong. It is a pity that his own efforts here are so shoddy, inept, and disastrous. There are counter arguments, hints at rivalry in love at some stages in their respective careers not to mention the most wonderful deployment of the english language as a weapon I have seen in a long time.

Now McGinn and Honderich are academics, not Consultants like Shawn and Matthew which may account for the more polite and respectful tone of Matthew’s posting. The latter pair may of course work together at some point in the future, whereas work for a philosopher is argument, and a good controversy will almost certainly result in higher book sales. The philosophical debate between Radical Externalism and the Mysterianism is of interest, but the debate is esoteric. Both Shawn and Matthew are talking about an issue of some immediate significance within the knowledge management community, may be as esoteric in its way as Mysterianism but let us pretend not, at least for the present.

Shawn is arguing that Drucker’s prediction from the middle of the last century of the shift from manual work to knowledge work is now complete, at least for the developed world. He argues that the ubiquity of technology means that evening placing a fence post requires knowledge as manifest in the GPS system used by the farm worker to place the hole. Critically he argues that the phrase knowledge worker is elitist itself derived from Ackoff’s D-I-K-W, which he counters with my D-K-I variant, along with an addition of his own on sense-making which I am less sure about. For a more elaborate discussion see here. He concludes by saying that we should ask How does knowledge make us work better, rather than getting hung up about what is or is not knowledge work.

In contrast Matthew argues that: The term is vital for education of those outside the profession who still don’t understand (or even missunderstand) the importance of what knowledge work actually means in practice. He also picks up Shawn’s point on the ubiquity of technology saying: there are still organisations that are not yet knowledge-intensive but probably will become, so who need to hear how understanding knowledge work can help them.

Shawn’s blog has also attracted a series of intelligent, and less so comments. I almost screamed when I read Wisdom + Knowledge = Intellectual. Intellectuals workers will be made of knowledge and wisdom. There again I have always had an allergic reaction to any hint of wisdom management or the nonsense of this type of word formula which fails to respect the richness of language.

Now I understand Matthew’s point. Specialist language allows us to make distinctions, or to make visible issues of which people were not aware. However the day is long gone when knowledge worker or knowledge management represented a novel way of looking at the world. For most knowledge management is a reference to some obscure sub-disvision of the IT department associated with collaboration software and lessons learnt programmes. Knowledge worker is a phrase that everyone can trot out, but it is hardly controversial anymore. A precise definition would be difficult to agree, however in common sense usage, most people would acknowledge the difference between a skilled and trained expert, such as a civil engineer and the person who digs the whole in the road. While both use knowledge, it is difficult to see that calling the latter a knowledge worker is any more than sophistry.

So I think Matthew is on a false trail when he suggests that the word would lead to action, or recognition of the knowledge management function. If we stopped using it there would be little difference, knowledge management as a practice does not follow from recognition that there are knowledge workers. In fact you might argue the reverse given the way that knowledge management has developed over the last decade.

Shawn’s argument in contrast I think falls foul of three errors which can be summarised as follows:

  • The confusion of knowledge artifact use, with knowledge work (his fence post illustration). Yes technology is becoming more ubiquitous, but it is in consequence reducing the requirement for knowledge, and potentially skill levels. A long time ago I went on a two week mountain navigation course, then years of later with a lot of experience and tolerated failure I navigated a party off a fog bound plateau using map reading, compass, knowledge of magnetic variations and a not inconsiderable ability to read the ground. Now I could just follow a pre-programmed route on my GPS machine. Good in many ways, dangerous in others. The fact that sophisticated knowledge artifacts are in day to day use does not mean that people have become more knowledgeable.
  • Failure to understand the impact of time & experience in knowledge capability. A worker in McDonalds (one of the examples used in the comments to Shawn’s blog) can be taken on and trained in a matter of hours. Yes they use knowledge, some social acquired through living, some through training and experience in what is a largely automated task where human adaptability has marginal utility over a robot, as opposed to say the paint shop in a car factory. Contrast that with the engineer who designed the equipment in McDonalds. They went to University, served a form of apprenticeship working with more experienced engineers. The take on of knowledge is measured in years not hours and they are accordingly scarce and paid more. I know people who want to work nine to five in a undemanding job, because they are not consumed by their work, something that I think might be included in any definition of a professional. Acquiring knowledge is not without cost in the early years, look at the average indebtedness of a student when they leave university to take just one aspect. On the other hand there is no significance in learning how to serve burgers – I just do that for money.
  • Ethical naiveté or the moral red herring, by which I mean an attempt to take an idealistic position without considering the wider reality of the society in which we work. I can agree that there is an argument that we should not value one person more than another simply based on education, social class or whatever. I would also be happy with a society which was not organised on the basis of market capitalism. I can also concur with anyone who argues that some knowledge workers (nurses) should be paid more than other knowledge workers (consultants such as myself and Shawn), but the reality of the world is very different and we have to live in that world. Fundamentally you are not going to make any impact whatsoever on people’s status by calling everyone a knowledge worker. It makes the phrase meaningless, and its not long before you start to use the artificial language of middle class guilt: refuse disposal operative, rather than Bin man. Here I just can’t see any effect from Shawn’s argument which thus fails.

Now that is not to say that his final question How does knowledge help us to work better? is not useful, it is. It probably has high utility than knowledge worker which is by now common place. However it is plain wrong to say it is a meaningless concept. It remains an important one and Drucker’s original proposition is not complete it is still active.

In practice I think there are two critical questions that this controversy raises:

  • Firstly, in a world increasingly dominated by knowledge artifacts and knowledge workers (my sense of the word with meaning as per the above arguments) what happens in society to those who cannot for reasons of intelligence or opportunity gain access to education at key points in their development. Or what happens to those whose skills are out of date before they are 40? Do they all end up working in McDonalds?
  • Secondly, the boundary between the developed and developing worlds are interesting. In effect education in the developing worlds has been dominated by the economic requirements of empire. Either to train people to execute those jobs which the developed world cannot execute at low wages (call centres etc) or to attempt to spread the imperial culture by replicating its educational and political system around the world. The former is cruel as the work merely moves on to the less costly venue, the latter is also cruel as it destroys rather than creates wisdom

Both of those questions are ones that the world has to answer, under the shadow of population growth and global warming. They are serious issues that even Drucker did not foresee.

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