Blown to bits: Are Knowledge Workers the New Blue Collar workers

Artist: David Bellemere
Artist: David Bellemere

A recurring theme on this blog is that – because of digitalization – services and goods change and even disappear.

If I look at knowledge I’m quite sure that the way knowledge is acquired, maintained, managed or deleted is changing.

Indeed, knowledge workers of the nineties (teachers, librarians) are nowadays a kind of blue collar workers.

Those now embracing technology trends like social web, social media or semantic on behalf of their employer might be knowledge workers now. But in the forthcoming roaring twentiestwenties their activities will have converged to commodities.

workers.html by Michele Martin 2009-07-08

I’m currently reading Matthew Gardner’s Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, and it’s raising some interesting questions about “knowledge work” and where we may be going with the information economy. (For a decent summary of some of Gardner’s main points, check out his NYT Magazine article, The Case for Working with Your Hands).

Gardner’s argument is a muti-pronged ode to working with your hands that challenges some of our fundamental notions of white collar and blue collar jobs. Although the primary goal is to get us to think about the trades in a different way, in doing so Gardner makes us consider the possibility that many forms of “knowledge work” are in fact glorified factory work, performed in cubicles rather than on the shop floor. A lot of what he discusses isn’t  new, but the way he makes his case is pretty compelling.

Gardner  maintains that in recent years there has been a “degradation of white collar work” and that we’ve come to believe that “trafficking in abstractions” is the same as actually thinking on the job. In reality, he says, what we’ve seen is that white collar jobs are “subject to routinization and degradation, proceeding by the same logic that hit manual fabrication a hundred years ago: the cognitive elements of the job are appropriated from professionals, instantiated in a system or process and then handed back to a new class of workers–clerks–who replace the professionals.

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The development of  “expert systems” and the increasing sophistication of the technology that supports these systems means that decisions that used to require some level of skill and judgment can, in fact, be done with computer support, concentrating true knowledge work in the hands of an ever-smaller elite.  Routine work that can be done digitally is also a prime candidate for outsourcing, which is where much of our so-called knowledge work has also been going. Says Gardner, “It seems we must take a cold-eyed view of ‘knowledge work,’ and reject the image of a rising sea of pure mentation that raises all boats. More likely is a rising sea of clerkdom.”

Ultimately, Gardner maintains,  we are blinded by the idea that freedom to make small decisions–deciding which letter to send to a disgruntled customer or which medication to prescribe after following the decision-tree–is somehow real “thinking,” when in fact these merely give us the illusion of problem-solving and independent decision-making. In reality, many knowledge workers are as bound by  quotas, rules, policies and procedures as any factory worker. True creativity, innovation and problem-solving has been leeched out of many of these jobs. At best, creativity for most knowledge workers occurs on the edges.

Gardner also makes an interesting point about how knowledge work makes us grapple differently with “reality.” As humans, we already have an innate tendency toward pattern-making. But in knowledge work, this is heightened so that our perceptions are often “concept-driven,” rather than data-driven. This is to say that when we look at information, we tend to see existing patterns and try to force the information into those patterns, as opposed to looking at the information itself and finding the patterns. This, of course, is in line with my post yesterday and is a natural tendency for we humans, it appears, exacerbated by our move to more concept-driven thinking.

All of this opens up some questions for me:

  • When we talk about “knowledge workers” who do we really mean? Is this as large a group as we think or are many of the people we think of as knowledge workers actually working as glorified clerks? I think, for example, of the teachers I know who work in school districts caught in the grips of standardized testing and No Child Left Behind. They are given a specific curriculum, a teaching schedule, particular techniques they must use, etc. and told to go through the process. How, exactly, is this so different from factory work? (And this is not a cut on teachers–it’s a comment on how the work has been structured).
  • Nancy White’s post on key skills for knowledge workers includes scanning, filtering, connecting, etc. This is an idea that’s been kicking around in the blogosphere for awhile–that knowledge workers need these kinds of skills–but it doesn’t seem like it gets a lot of traction within companies. Is that because the vast majority of their knowledge workers are not actually performing work that requires these skills?  This seems to me one of those areas where perhaps there’s lip service paid to wanting independent thinkers and skilled information analysts, when in reality, we just need people to follow the procedure.
  • As technology becomes ever more sophisticated and we develop greater capabilities to have  computers do the analysis and thinking for us, what does this mean for what we currently consider to be knowledge work? Are we going to be innovating many knowledge workers out of a job because technology can do a lot of the heavy computational and analytic lifting, requiring only a small number of “experts” to actually make sense of the data?
  • Related to the issue of technology, and back to Nancy’s suggested knowledge worker skills–are many of these in fact “skills” that will be performed by computers in the not so distant future? On some level, in fact, computers  are performing functions such as scanning and filtering right now, albeit imperfectly. It’s only a matter of time before they get better at these tasks.  But this takes us back to the real question–for what purpose are people scanning, filtering, connecting, etc.? I would argue that a good chunk of knowledge worker jobs simply don’t require these kinds of skills to be performed at a particularly high level. At best, they’re “nice to have” skills that can make you somewhat more effective, although for the majority of people I’m wondering if this translates into real progress. At worst, having them can signify a person who asks too many questions and has too many ideas.
  • How does all of this impact the training business? A few weeks ago I was discussing some thoughts on the the future of learning that operated under the premise that we will primarily be supporting knowledge workers, in the true sense of the term. Is this really the case?  Maybe there will be a shrinking market for the kind of learning we see as being necessary for knowledge work. Maybe the market will really be in creating expert systems. Or maybe it will be in supporting work done in the trades. I can’t help thinking that there is some kind of impact though.
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Just some random thoughts and questions here. Would love additional feedback and reactions to Gardner’s ideas.

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5 thoughts on “Blown to bits: Are Knowledge Workers the New Blue Collar workers

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