“one-upmanship and scoring points”

January 3, 2008

I was a little surprised by the nature of Shawn’s reaction to my disagreement with his original and bold assertion that Drucker’s concept of the knowledge worker was dead. He made a serious, if controversial statement and I put some effort into a considered reply, which also attempted to take the debate forward.

Shawn up front states Imagine the terrific conversation we could have which, if we weren’t in the mode of one-upmanship and scoring points. Well I have no disagreement with him over the possibility of a terrific face to face conversation, but I don’t see any reason why a reasoned exchange is not possible within a blog and I don’t see any evidence in either my original post (or Matthew’s) of anything remotely approaching one-upmanship and scoring points. The response veers near such practice. Shawn’s statement that I have a habit of muddying the waters with (my) own sophisticated arguments is pretty close to an ad honinem I am afraid. I had expected a response which took the debate forward, not a defensive one, and the point scoring title : My friends confirm my huntch that knowledge work is dead is I am afraid far from the truth.

Now we should probably excuse this by realising that Shawn has just returned from a computer free Christmas, took a peek at his Google reader and reacted. Despite the general defensiveness he does make two new points (possibly of clarification) to which I want to respond, but he skips the substantive debate and ignores completely the questions I asked at the end of the post which were designed to move the debate forwards and which I plan to repeat at the end, but first to the debate.

I raised three errors which I perceived in Shawn’s argument: A confusion of knowledge artifact use with knowledge capability, Failure to understand the impact of time & experience in knowledge capability and Ethical naiveté or the moral red herring. Shawn states: I’ll dismiss the first two points because I can’t believe Dave really things I don’t understand these distinctions. Interesting, yes I was pretty sure that he understood the distinctions which is why I was surprised to find those confusions in his original argument. I made the case in my original post, and until countered my something other than an assertion they stand.

Shawn does partly modify his position on the knowledge artifact issue however. I quote: Both Dave and Matt latched on to the point I made about technology and how it is becoming ubiquitous and even those jobs which Drucker might have excluded from ‘knowledge worker’ status are now being affected. …… . But technology is just one factor—a point I make in the original post but ignored by Matt and Dave. Increasing speed, increasing complexity, abundance of products and services, rampant consumerism and out-sourcing are just some of the other factors forcing everyone in the first world to be a knowledge worker. I don’t think we ignored it by the way, it was just that it was the only illustration that Shawn gave, so the only one to which a response could be given.

My argument was that technology now had so much knowledge embedded in it, that it required less knowledge to use. So an increasing presence of knowledge rich technology was evidence of a decreasing, not an increasing requirement for knowledge work. Hence the artifact/capability confusion. Now if we look at the additional factors Shawn proposes, in particular outsourcing, the commoditisation (my summary words) of products and services then they all support my original argument that we may be increasingly, and pervasively users of knowledge artifacts, but this is not evidence that everyone is a knowledge worker, the opposite in fact.

Shawn does attempt to deal with the final argument. He states If you avoid categorising your staff as ‘knowledge workers’ or ‘not knowledge workers’ you move to a more practical conversation about what knowledge our people use and how can we help them create, share and use it better. No issue with that but I think it shows that Shawn did a bit of skim reading and reaction to the original. Categorising people into A and nonA, white collar and blue collar etc is I think a bad idea and not reflective of reality. If Shawn had originally made that statement in isolation then I don’t think I would have spent time on a fairly long blog. I am of course really grateful for Shawn’s advice in respect of this It’s quite a useful approach Dave, but I think I might have made it there on my own. However that was not the point of his original post which starts: The term ‘knowledge worker’ is now a meaningless concept in developed countries because the shift Drucker started to notice in the ’50s from jobs requiring manual work to jobs requiring knowledge work is now complete. The fact that it is a bad idea to categorise people in the work place as knowledge and non-knowledge workers does not justify the statement that knowledge worker is a meaningless concept, or the argument that all work (in developed countries) is knowledge work because it blatantly isn’t

Attempting to move forward

Of course of the real issues is if people have work, of whatever nature and the sort of world we will live in. I am going to repeat intact my final two points, in the hope that Shawn (and others) will pick these up and take them forward.

“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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