Back when I was working on the research turf of knowledge management, the name most associated with the concept of “knowledge work” was that of Peter Drucker. However, I was surprised to discover, by poking around in the Wikipedia Discussion page for “Knowledge worker,” that the term was basically as old as I was. Drucker apparently introduced the term in his book Concept of the Corporation, which first appeared in 1946!
At the very least this makes for an interesting lesson in academic silos. When knowledge management was on the rise, I had several colleagues who were fond of recalling Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, which was first published in 1973. Given the vintage of Drucker’s work, I figured that he would figure in Bell’s study (which was concerned with the more general idea of a “knowledge society”); but there appears to be no mention of Drucker in the book. (He is certainly absent from the Name Index.) One gets the impression that Bell and his colleagues felt too “elevated” to give much thought to anything Drucker may have written.
These days the very word “knowledge” seems to reside in two worlds. On the one hand we have the academics, who are still wrestling with the concept as Socrates had done (as least as he was depicted by Plato in Theaetetus). On the other we have the stark reality of how the words “knowledge worker” are actually used (following the semantic criteria pursued by Ludwig Wittgenstein). I recently suggested that the “real-world usage” of the phrase now denotes “a mindless drone,” sitting in a call center behind a computer terminal concerned with little more than reading scripts and filling out forms. In this context the following words, delivered at a conference in 1994 before knowledge management really hit its stride, offer a quaint nostalgia for academic thinking:
Knowledge workers solve problems and generate outputs largely by resort to structures internal to themselves rather than by resort to external rules or procedures.
I was amused to see that one of the contentious topics of discussion on Wikipedia involved whether or not a blacksmith was a knowledge worker; but, according to the above criteria, any blacksmith (past or present) probably brings more knowledge to his/her tasks then one is likely to find behind that voice at the other end of the phone telling you what to do when your broadband connection is malfunctioning. Nicholas Carr would probably argue that it is the technology itself that has degraded workers who could be drawing upon such internalized knowledge, turning them into those “mindless drones;” but I think the issue is a broader one. Basically, the knowledge worker is a victim of a social trend, identified by Max Weber and discussed at length by Jürgen Habermas, that involved loss of meaning. It is basically a reflection of semantic manipulation that George Orwell had recognized, according to which the meaning of a word reverts to its own antonym: The most “productive knowledge worker” is the one who operates out of ignorance, delegating all authority to support technology. As I have previously suggested, the consciousness industry is the chief beneficiary of such loss of meaning; and it has been frighteningly successful in turning Bell’s social forecasting of a knowledge society into the more harrowing present of a society of wage slavery.