Are we witnessing the demise of the knowledge worker?

Death of the knowledge worker?While the debate about working from home versus working in the office continues, should the real conversation focus on the implications for a typical knowledge worker? ‘Knowledge work’ is a term that dates back over sixty years. It’s said to be first coined by Peter Drucker in his 1958 book The Landmarks of Tomorrow. The business guru went on to talk about knowledge workers in a later book, The Effective Executive, in 1966. He defined them as ‘high-level workers who apply theoretical and analytical knowledge acquired through formal training, to develop products and services’.

Professions where knowledge workers are prevalent include sections of the IT industry such as programmers, web designers and systems analysts as well as architects, lawyers and scientists. The difference between knowledge workers and what people did for a living in decades past is that they are paid to use their grey matter as opposed to the physical work that came before.

Their number exceeded 1 billion in 2019 and the following year Forbes declared it was the ‘year of the knowledge worker’. It argued that during the pandemic, knowledge workers were more important and more empowered. The theory went that they could work from anywhere to perform their jobs and didn’t necessarily need the office, particularly as little or no interactions with colleagues was necessary.

But there is an alternative school of thought that believes the rise of artificial pattern recognition (otherwise known as AI) might mean tech has the capacity to replace some of the tasks performed by knowledge workers. As a report by Deloitte says, “AI technology and machine learning can discover patterns and correlations in data; it can be used to guide the development of predictive models and analytics.” The applications for this are as varied as recruitment and venture capital.

But if machines can either assist or, worse case scenario, replace knowledge workers what does that mean for people’s employment prospects? Enter the ‘relationship worker’. We, as humans, still need that people-based interface and the relationship worker’s skill lies in managing complex human relationships and it’s this ability that is increasingly prized in the workplace.

Their ability to manage complex human relationships is becoming more prized in the workplace. Businesses, particularly post-pandemic, will increasingly need people who are able to extract the data that is gleaned through that artificial pattern recognition, form hypotheses and present the findings to convince others. Relationship workers also have the ability to separate out facts and opinions and prioritise and are masters of the almost lost art of rhetoric: effectively being able to persuade people to their point of view through reasoned argument.

In this book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel  H. Pink talks about the left brain which focuses on categorisation and details and is typically associated with knowledge work and the right brain, which is about relationships and the bigger picture. He argues that the age of left brain dominance is gone and that “the future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: designers, inventors and teachers.”

These kind of people fit into the relationship worker category and have attributes such as empathy and storytelling. While Pink says that not all people will easily fit into the right brain category he adds that. “you shouldn’t be discouraged in the attempt to find your instinctive freedom.”

But what implication does the rise of the relationship worker have for the role of the office? If the relationship workers’ agenda is to develop meaningful connections with colleagues, managers and the C-suite by the provision of far more collaborative spaces, a physical workplace environment will be continue to be imperative.

Image by mohamed Hassan