Sunday, July 5, 2009

PS 9/09: Skills and commitment

Filed under: LATINA — plinius @ 7:55 am


To learn means to change.

When persons, or organizations, or communities learn, they acquire new skills. Persons may learn to read, to write and to speak in public. Organizations may learn to design, produce and market new services. Communities may learn to mobilize, collaborate and defend their interests vis-a-vis the state.

In the twentieth century we were accustomed to treat learning as a specialized activity that took place in specialized institutions: schools, colleges, universities.  First we learnt what we needed to know – and then we applied the knowledge in the world of work. One – two; one – two.

Learning never stops

Today, in the twentyfirst century, that way of thinking is less useful. As we pass from industrial to knowledge-based societies, we are forced to rethink the relationship between work and learning, or between learning and production. Peter Drucker – the organization guru – says:

Knowledge work requires continuous learning …. but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker.

In the knowledge economy, businesses have to innovate in order to survive. This means that production workers – and their managers – and their organizations – must continue learning on the job. Lifelong learning – which implies continual learning inside organizations – becomes an economic imperative.

Cheap information

Productive workers, managers and organizations depend on a combination of information, skills and commitment to carry out their tasks. The coming of the web changes the balance between these three factors of production, however. In the past, information was a scarce good. People stored it in their heads and organizations stored it in their filing systems.

Today, we may simply use the web. Why should I memorize what I can retrieve in an instant?

Immediate access to documented information is no longer a restraint. The information scarcities have disappeared. Our current shortage is a lack of processing capacity. Using information to create new value is an intellectual skill.

Information has become abundant.  Most is freely available – anytime and anywhere. True skills, however, remain scarce. They must be developed through hours and hours of practice. And commitment is necessary to sustain the practice.

The future role of education – or systematic learning and teaching – is not the transfer of information, but the development of new skills and commitments.



Symbolic analysts

Reich divides American jobs into three broad categories for assessing their contribution to new the global economy. These are “symbolic- analytic” services, routine production services, and “in-person” services.

The first of these is carried out by what Reich calls “symbolic analysts” engineers, attorneys, scientists, professors, executives, journalists, consultants and other “mind workers” who engage in processing information and symbols for a living. These individuals, which make up roughly twenty percent of the labor force, occupy a privileged position in that they can sell their services in the global economy. They are well-educated and will occupy an even more advantageous position in society in the future.

Routine production workers and in-person service workers will fare much worse in the new economy, according to Reich.

Routine production workers include those who perform repetitive tasks — assembly line workers, data processors, foremen, and supervisors. Examples of in- person service workers are waitresses, janitors, hospital attendants, and child care workers. These two categories of workers do not compete in the global work force and are at a considerable economic disadvantage. This is especially true of routine producers. The future of service workers is less clear cut since their services are in demand by symbolic analysts.


Creatrive class

Florida describes the ‘Creative Class’ as 40 million workers – 30 percent of the U.S. workforce, and breaks the class into two broad sections, derived from standard SOC codes data sets:

  • Super-Creative Core: This comprises about twelve percent of all U.S. jobs. This group is deemed to contain a wide range of occupations (e.g. science, engineering, education, computer programming, research) with arts, design, and media workers making a small subset. Those belonging to this group are considered to “fully engage in the creative process” (Florida, 2002, p. 69). The Super-Creative Core is considered innovative, creating commercial products and consumer goods. Their primary job function is to be creative and innovative. “Along with problem solving, their work may entail problem finding” (Florida, 2002, p. 69).
  • Creative Professionals: These professionals are the classic knowledge-based workers and include those working in healthcare, business and finance, the legal sector, and education. They “draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems” using higher degrees of education to do so (2002).


Knowledge workers

[Peter] Drucker defines six factors for knowledge worker productivity (1999):

  1. Knowledge worker productivity demands that we ask the question: “What is the task?”
  2. It demands that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves. Knowledge workers have to manage themselves.
  3. Continuing innovation has to be part of the work, the task and the responsibility of knowledge workers.
  4. Knowledge work requires continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker, but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker.
  5. Productivity of the knowledge worker is not – at least not primarily – a matter of the quantity of output. Quality is at least as important.
  6. Finally, knowledge worker productivity requires that the knowledge worker is both seen and treated as an “asset” rather than a “cost.” It requires that knowledge workers want to work for the organization in preference to all other opportunities.


Most organizations, even as they engage in knowledge work, continue to rely on processes that come straight out of Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” principles of the early 1900s. It’s an awful fit.

Peter Drucker said

  • The underlying system that made manual work successful is the very same system that constrains our ability to move forward faster in the Knowledge Age.
  • The most important, and indeed the truly unique, contribution of management in the 20th century was the fiftyfold increase in the productivity of the manual worker in manufacturing.
  • The most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is similarly to increase the productivity of knowledge work and the knowledge worker.

The differences between old-line manufacturing and knowledge work are stark:

Manual work

  • Manual work is highly visible;
  • Manual work is highly specialized;
  • Manual work tends to be stable;
  • Manual work focuses on the right answers;
  • Manual work involves a lot of structure with relatively few decisions;

Knowledge work

  • Knowledge work is largely invisible—it happens between people’s ears.
  • Knowledge work is … much more “holistic.”
  • Knowledge work is ever-changing.
  • Knowledge work must zero in on the right questions.
  • Knowledge work emphasizes less structure with more decisions.



1 Comment »

  1. […] 9/09. Skills and commitment. Learning under new […]

    Pingback by P 69/11: Twenty questions « Plinius — Saturday, November 19, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

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