The Half-Life of Knowledge Workers

If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.

Gen. Eric Shinseki

The US and Eurozone economies are still recovering from recession, China is ascendant, Russia is asserting it’s regional dominance, all the knowledge jobs are going East, and it hasn’t stopped raining for two weeks.

As you know if you’re a regular reader of The E-Learning Curve Blog, I occasionally reflect on e-learning, the economy, and the effect that the one has on the other.

This time I have decided to discuss the emergence and current role of knowledge workers, how this role is changing, and will come to propose a definition for a new type of digital worker that seems to emerging, particularly in the traditional home of knowledge work, North America and Europe.

Now read on…

In 1959 Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” to describe

one who works primarily with information or one who develops and uses knowledge in the workplace. It is performed by subject-matter specialists in all areas of an organisation;

(1973, p.839)

their tools are the knowledge assets they use in an organisation. Knowledge workers are characterised by a number of traits, among them the ability to extract and synthesize key information to enhance innovation and productivity.

It is “generally accepted” (Drucker, 2006, p.165) that knowledge workers’ competence in their role is the starting point for "Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times" knowledge workers motto 30 rockenhancing organisation productivity, quality and performance. If knowledge workers are to continue contributing to an organisation and the economy at large, their knowledge must remain up-to-date. Ongoing training and continuous learning must accompany gains in performance; “the greatest benefit of training comes not from learning something new but from doing better what we already do well” (2006, p.165).

Three years later, Fritz Machlup published The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States. In concert with Drucker’s work, we can say that the early 1960s marked the beginning of the study of the post-industrial information society. Machlup coined the phrase “knowledge economy” to include everything from stationery and typewriters, advertising, and presidential addresses – in fact, anything that involved the activity of telling anyone anything – to evaluate the use of knowledge technologies to produce economic benefits. The transformation to a knowledge economy continued throughout the 20th century, especially following the invention and growth of the Internet.

In the wake of the invention and growth of the Internet, we can characterise today’s global economy as one in transition to a knowledge (and increasingly, digital) economy. It’s a manifestation of an information-driven society. This transition requires that the rules and practices that determined success in the industrial economy need to be rewritten. Bytes are replacing atoms. Knowledge resources (know-how, expertise, and intellectual property) are more valuable than other economic resources such as land, natural resources, and even labour. Accordingly, the principles governing our ways of doing things are being re-factored at the levels of companies, organizations, and industries in the context of managing knowledge and (possibly more imperatively) at the level of government or public policy.

Due to the increasingly technological nature of industrial growth and the emergence of globalization as a influencing factor on the world economy of the last 60 years, there is an ongoing and increasing requirement for an intellectually capable workforce. As a result, knowledge workers are now estimated to outnumber all other workers in North America by at least four-to-one (Haag et al, 2006, pg. 4).

…and at this point I will conclude for today, for this is a blog post, not an essay. I’m sure, dear reader, that you have other things to be getting on with. Next time, I will continue to develop the concept of the half-life of the knowledge worker.

In the meantime, as I started today’s piece with a quote, I think that for the sake of symmetry I should conclude this article with another excerpt:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

W.B. Yeats The Second Coming




Drucker, P. F. (1973) Management: Tasks, Responsibilities, Practices. New York, Harper & Row

Drucker, P. F. (2006) Classic Drucker. Boston, MA. Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation

Haag, S. Cummings, M. McCubbrey, D. Pinsonneault, A. & Donovan, R. (2006) Management Information Systems For the Information Age (3rd Ed.). London, McGraw-Hill Education

Machlup, F. (1962) The Production and Distribution of Knowledge in the United States. Princeton University Press

Yeats, W. B. (1920) The Second Coming. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th Edition. W. W. Norton & Co.