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Unless You Haul Rocks for a Living, This Applies to You

If you spend most of your time at a keyboard, you can count yourself among the 60 million or so professionals known as “knowledge workers”—a term Peter Drucker coined in the 1960s to describe academics, tech people, analysts, essentially, anyone who didn’t work a physically demanding job.

You know. People who “think” for a living.

What a weird term, knowledge worker. It’s also kind of classist and obnoxious. Please. I know plenty of “knowledge workers” who don’t think about anything.

But what’s more, the term seems to imply that what we come in knowing is more important than what we learn while we’re here. 

Here’s why I bring it up: I spoke on a panel called “The Future of Work” at the Workfront LEAP 2017 conference in April, held annually for users of its project management software. Workfront CMO Joe Staples posed the question of how we thought the role of the knowledge worker was changing.

So I piped up and said that the real challenge of the “knowledge worker” has little to do with knowledge, and everything to do with getting anyone to care.

In his book The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin says that while we’re living in the new Connection Economy, we’re nursing an Industrial Age hangover. We still think compliance and efficiency is most important; it’s not.

We have machines that can gather, process, and evaluate information. The challenge, then, is for modern “knowledge workers” is to get over what they know, and instead, stay curious and engaged and empathetic. Because if they don’t, they won’t learn, or grow, or invest in any real way in the work they do, which is already happening.

Disengagement is one of the big threats to corporate cultures, productivity—and costs the U.S. economy somewhere around $500 billion annually. Meaning, far too many people just don’t care. And if you don’t care, how can you create trust, loyalty, value? You can’t.

Futurist Jacob Morgan says on Forbes.com that it’s goodbye to the knowledge worker and hello, instead, to the learning worker:

“This new movement is the age of the ‘learning workers.’ Yes, these people largely have college degrees and advanced training, but what sets them apart is their knowledge of how to learn. Instead of having a set of specific skills, learning workers have the skills to learn as they go, adapt, and apply their learning to new situations and issues.”

What’s far more valuable he says, is not what someone comes in knowing, but how they can adapt and get up to speed as the business landscape and demands evolve. It’s those who can adapt who will be more successful, but also more valuable, and the same goes for learning organizations who are stay light on their feet.

So rather than get hung up on what you know or don’t know, recognize that one of the most valuable skills you can bring to the table is your ability to be a quick study, to be truly interested and engaged. Do you have any idea how rare that is?

(Here are the slides for the session I presented at Workfront LEAP 2017 was called “Out of Juice: How to Reinspire Yourself & Reengage at Work.”)

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