It has been almost sixty years since the economic thought leader, Peter Drucker, first introduced the idea of “knowledge work”. In his 1959 book, “Landmarks of Tomorrow”, Drucker began to redefine the economic landscape for the coming 21stCentury by stating that there had emerged a fundamental shift in the meaning of the term “knowledge”. He goes on to state that historically, knowledge has been the pursuit of new facts but innovation has progressively begun to reshape this definition. This new definition has evolved to this day and has become the foundation of the term that has almost become cliché’ in our time, “knowledge work” (Drucker, 1959 p.38).
Drucker would revisit this topic many times over the next four and a half decades, before he passed away in 2005. In an HBR report, Wartzman claims that Drucker viewed knowledge work as the most significant contribution to the 21stCentury. He further states that, to date however, most organizations fall short of the ideal that Drucker presented (Wartzman, 2014).
Central to the issue is the idea that the technological advancements of the information age have exponentially outpaced the human capacity to adapt to these changes. Forget 1959, just in the last three decades humanity has seen the adoption of the personal computer, cell phones and the Internet, all of which have reshaped how business and communication is done on a global scale. From both a business as well as a general social perspective, many struggle adapting to all that these advancements have brought both directly and indirectly. Many companies today, for example, still view Internet access by employees as more of a hindrance to productivity than a resource. As a result, they will typically restrict access to just upper management and executives.
Another core issue is the idea that the nature of knowledge itself is rapidly changing. Many have suggested that while technology advances exponentially, the shelf life of information itself is decreasing at the same exponential rate. Arbesman, for example, states in his HBR article that, “knowledge is a lot like radioactive atoms because it decays over time. And when we’re dealing with large amount of facts and information, we can actually predict how long it will take for it to spread or decay by applying the laws of mathematics” (Arbesman, 2012). Some have even estimated that the current shelf life if information can be as little as 12-18 months.
The Need For Continuous Learning
Consider for a moment how much has changed in just the last ten years. By this time in 2008, the iPhone was barely a year old, many business people still had no idea what a “smart phone” was and the Blackberry dominated the landscape. Facebook was barely a year old as well, most considered “social media” as a fad. Terms like, “reputation management” didn’t yet exist and there were no companies that had job openings for “social media manager” or “technology specialist”.
Fast-forward to 2018 and CEO of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg is testifying before the Senate on the nature of data privacy within a platform used by approximately 2 billion people worldwide. These hearings only punctuate the dichotomy between the rate of technological advancement and the required human understanding as well as skill sets. In a recent NPR article, Domonoske recounts the odd lines of questioning from the US Senate that demonstrates their clear lack of understanding, not only of Facebook but the current state of data collection, usage and data privacy in general (Domonoske, 2018).
In“Information Systems”, Watson makes the distinction between Information Systems (IS) and Information Technology (IT). He goes on to state, “information technology and information system are two related but separate concepts” (Watson, 2007 p.24). Bourgeois further clarifies this distinction by breaking it down into the specifics of hardware, software, data, people and process. His idea being that the first three fall under the definition of IT whereas the last two help to define IS (Bourgeois, 2014 p.6). It is in this sense that both businesses as well as business professionals, today, must continually improve their skill sets and tool sets to keep pace with the changes.
Information System Skills
Circling back to the topic mentioned earlier of “Reputation Management”, a concept that has evolved in the last ten years. This is an information system built around the digital presence and economic as well as social credibility of both businesses and the individuals within them. Conduct a Google search, for example, on any company or its CEO. What is being said about either? What is the company’s Google review rating? It’s Yelp rating? Today’s professionals must have a clear understanding of what this all means and how to both navigate as well as direct their own digital reputation, if nothing else.
What should a business professional post on Facebook? Should they allow business contacts in their personal network? How does a company effectively use LinkedIn? Is it a recruiting system? Is it a marketing system? Or is it just a digital Rolodex? Businesses and managers need not understand how the entire tech behind these information systems works, but they do need to understand that they are operating in and around themselves and their company. Like it or not, they must develop some basic skills to navigate these systems.
Information Technology Skills
The smartphone has significantly evolved how business is done over the last ten years. It can be used to book as last minute flight on a major airline or a local hotel room. Through the use of apps, like Uber, it can be used to get a ride anywhere in the city. It can be used to submit corporate travel expense reports for that airline flight, hotel or Uber ride. It can sync a variety of calendars across many devices to keep a businessperson organized and on schedule. It can be used to track the whereabouts of the company’s sales people, or anyone’s for that matter! It can also be remotely hacked; conversations can be recorded in both audio as well as visually through the access of the camera system.
Today’s business professional must have a clear understanding of both the positive as well as the potentially negative uses of these technologies. This requires not only knowledge but also cultivating the skills to maximize the positive use while mitigating the negative ones. Managers also have the additional responsibility for coaching these skills to those whom they lead.
New Communication Skills
With all this technological change in communication tools; smartphones, email, texting, instant messaging, virtual meetings and so forth, many managers struggle with how to effectively use these tools to communicate with their teams. When is it better communicate face to face vs. sending an email? How long should a conference call be in order to remain impactful and keep people’s attention? What does “death by PowerPoint” mean? How do you disconnect from all of these devices at the end of the day?
Many of these considerations have arisen in the last decade and require adopting new communication skill sets. These skill sets include communication to oneself as well as to others.
An Age of Insight?
It has been suggested by many thought leaders that society has already begun to move from an age of knowledge work to an “age of wisdom”. This terminology may come across to business people as too esoteric so perhaps an “age of insights” is more appropriate. With the ever shortening shelf life of knowledge and information, one of the most critical skills of today is the ability to gauge both relevance as well as usefulness of information. Is it relevant or obsolete? How is it useful to the current business climate or needs? What key insights can be taken away to better run the business? In other words, the skill is in absorbing what is useful then moving on. Ironically, it was the famous Japanese Samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, who put it best back in the middle of the Seventeenth Century when he said, “Know how to appreciate the advantages and disadvantages of each thing” (Tokitsu, 2005 p.149).
Arbesman, S. (2012) Be forewarned, your knowledge is decaying. Retrieved from HBR.com (April, 2018). https://hbr.org/2012/11/be-forewarned-your-knowledge-i
Bourgeois, D. T. (2014). Information Systems for Business and Beyond. (p.6)
Domonoske, C. (2018) Lawmakers Push Zuckerberg On Security, Diversity, Drug Sales On Facebook. Retrieved from NPR.org (April, 2018). https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2018/04/11/599590470/mark-zuckerberg-is-back-before-congress-for-a-second-day-of-testimony
Drucker, P. (1959). Landmarks of tomorrow. A report on the new postmodern world (p.38)
Tokitsu, K. (2005) Miyamoto Musashi, His life and writings. (p.149)
Wartzman, R. (2014) What Peter Drucker knew about 2020. Retrieved from HBR.com (April, 2018). https://hbr.org/2014/10/what-peter-drucker-knew-about-2020
Watson, R. T. (2007). Information Systems. (p.24)