It's the Knowledge, Stupid
IT'S THE KNOWLEDGE, STUPID
It is self-evident that information technology is changing how people work. But while there are a number of interesting notions about how this change impacts our culture, we remain largely clueless about the Big Picture. Nobody has yet succeeded in clearly explaining how shifting patterns of work and technology fit into a larger historical and socioeconomic perspective.
Nobody except Peter F. Drucker, that is. Drucker seems to have been around forever; his first book appeared in 1939. He has long been the unrivaled king of business management theorists, offering a unique brand of incisive, visionary thought. Now 86, Drucker is still telling it like it is.
You have to admire a guy who starts an interview with a certain technocentric publication by saying "Will you people at Wired please accept the fact that the computer industry, as an industry, hasn't made a dime?" So much for silicon determinism.
In "The Age of Social Transformation," published in the November 1994 issue of The Atlantic, Drucker offers a remarkably compelling analysis of the economic order for the 20th -- and 21st -- centuries. To start, he notes that radical social transformation has been the norm for the last 100 years. Surprisingly, this radical change has been largely peaceful because average people have actually driven much of the transformation itself.
The industrial factory was a powerful magnet for workers because it provided far more in compensation and quality of life than any other job then commonly available. But as quickly as this opportunity appeared, it began to fade as technology reduced the need for physical, unskilled labor. "No class in history has ever risen faster than the blue-collar worker," writes Drucker. "And no class in history has ever fallen faster."
To this point, the fall of the blue-collar worker has been cushion by two factors. The first is a consensus view that hard physical labor should justifiably be replaced by jobs requiring less sweat and more thought. Sure manufacturing jobs are going away, but most people -- including the displaced workers themselves -- accept the inevitability of this and do not offer any sustained violent reaction. The second factor is the rise of the knowledge worker.
While knowledge workers (Drucker modestly notes that he coined the term a few decades ago) have thus far been able to absorb some of the manufacturing job loss, problems do loom ahead.
"The new jobs require qualifications the industrial worker does not possess and is poorly equipped to acquire. They require a good deal of formal education and the ability to acquire and to apply theoretical and analytical knowledge. They require a different approach to work and a different mind-set. Above all, they require a habit of continuous learning. Displaced industrial workers thus cannot simply move into knowledge work or services the way displaced farmers and domestic workers moved into industrial work. At the very least they have to change their basic attitudes, values, and beliefs."
This means that education becomes the focal point of society. Schools become the key institutions. "The acquisition and distribution of formal knowledge may come to occupy the place in the politics of the knowledge society which the acquisition and distribution of property and income have occupied in our politics over the two or three centuries."
A new class conflict might develop between highly skilled knowledge workers and everyone else. Moreover, a social and moral vacuum might arise unless a vibrant non-government, non-corporate sector arises to fill these needs.
Drucker notes that as challenging as these issues are, the biggest one of all lies in the hyper-competitive nature of a knowledge-based, technologically enabled economic order. "With knowledge being universally accessible, there will be no excuses for nonperformance. There will be no 'poor' countries. There will only be ignorant countries. And the same will be true for companies, industries, and organizations of all kinds. It will be true for individuals, too."
Another twist is that, in the true Marxist sense, knowledge workers own the tools of production. Unlike situations in the past where the factory owner alone owned the big, centralized machines needed to manufacture physical objects, knowledge workers themselves own the intelligence and skill to produce things in the modern age.
Despite his lucid analysis, Drucker is humble enough to admit that
he does not know how all these developments will play out.
Perhaps he is content to have merely outlined the underpinnings of
the economic future and to have framed the essential work-related
issues with which everyone needs to grapple.
Drucker: Bill LeFurgy