Artificial intelligence. Data science. Automation. These are the new buzzwords on the lips of all forward-thinking executives and businesspeople. Just as video conferencing and cloud storage transformed our perspective on commutes and meetings, artificial intelligence is challenging our current view of work. As an article by McKinsey Research Institute noted, “[w]orkers will need to acquire new skills and adapt to the increasingly capable machines alongside them in the workplace.”
The traditional role of knowledge workers
Peter Drucker, an Austrian-born American author, is believed to have first coined the term “knowledge worker” in his book, “The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society.” In his book, Drucker discussed the transformations occurring in the economic, political and societal landscapes. He argued that, due to these changes, a new type of worker would emerge: the knowledge worker.
A quick Google search will show you many different, sometimes conflicting definitions of knowledge workers. For the sake of this article, I’ll define knowledge work as any work that relies on thinking for their career, like a consultant, software developer, engineer or accountant. With the modern worker using their brains to build more efficient systems, products and services, it would seem that knowledge workers are the ideal role. But, in my opinion, this is not the case.
The pitfalls of knowledge workers
Though our role as knowledge workers is considered the crème de la crème in most circles, many pitfalls accompany this type of worker. These pitfalls underscore the need for a new definition of what it means to be a knowledge worker.
A tendency toward information overload
With the vast amount of information available on our ever-present smartphones, research has become a necessary skill of all knowledge workers. In 2017, Caroline Beaton wrote an article for Forbes entitled, “Why Knowledge Workers Are Bad At Making Decisions.” In the article, Beaton asserted that a fatal trait of most knowledge workers is their tendency toward analysis paralysis in the face of today’s glut of information. Because of this paralysis, Beaton stated that “knowledge workers may make poor decisions not despite all the information we have at our disposal but, rather, because of it.”
Finding value in busyness, rather than productivity
It seems, in my world at least, that the phrase “busyness doesn’t equal productivity” has been repeated ad nauseam. Modern knowledge workers have adapted to the increasing demands of a fast-paced world by learning to be busy constantly. Whether it’s checking emails during lunch or texting while driving, we’ve become chained to the ubiquitous streams of information around us. While we all guiltily recognize this reality, it seems as though, instead of breaking our addiction, we’ve begun to identify with it as a “badge of honor.” We’re now praised by our colleagues when we tell them we’re “just too busy” to meet with old friends or attend a family function.
Become a wisdom worker
Being in the business world, I’ve always heard about the information hierarchy, beginning with raw data, then ascending to information, then finally to wisdom. I believe that we, as knowledge workers, need to make that next step as well: from knowledge to wisdom. I discovered the term “wisdom workers” in an article on the GrowthEngineering website. Wisdom workers, according to my perspective, can filter out the unnecessary information and glean the critical facts they need for the specific task at hand. In other words, they don’t just know stuff — they also know when to apply it for maximum effectiveness. Here are three specific distinctions between wisdom workers:
- Knowledge workers use information to achieve tasks; wisdom workers blend information with their experiential insights to master new situations.
- To make decisions, knowledge workers rely on education and training; wisdom workers rely on their experience and industry-wide observations.
- Knowledge workers rely on the rules dictated to them throughout their education; wisdom workers rely on their real-world experience and high-level, industry-specific principles to seamlessly navigate emerging situations
For wisdom workers, consultations are informed by their experience, guiding them toward not only the most relevant information but the most appropriate context in which to apply that information as well. As our world changes and evolves, I urge you to look ahead and determine how you can succeed in the years to come.
Editor’s note: This article originally published in the Fresno Business Journal.