The Productivity Of Knowledge Work

NOT capital, not natural resources, not labor, but knowledge is today's chief wealth-creating economic resource. The knowledge workers, through pension funds, are rapidly becoming the "owners" of the companies and businesses that are the means of production; and the knowledge workers are the "tools of production" because they own their knowledge and can take it with them. How to make "knowledge work" more productive is the economic challenge of the moment; the social challenge is how to maintain the dign ity of the second class, the service workers, who lack the education to be knowledge workers and who in every country will form the majority.

Yes, this is Peter Drucker thinking again, in his new book, Post-Capitalist Society (Harper/Business, $25). The Monitor will deal with the book at greater length at a later date. But here we can consider where we are as a set of modern societies rapidly functioning with one metabolism, and where we are going, so we can set our priorities and pace accordingly.

The knowledge society moves on education. Mr. Drucker dates the start of this era from the GI Bill of Rights, which offered universal education to soldiers returning home from World War II. College education became more available through the '50s and '60s, opening more widely to women. The knowledge transformation will continue until 2010 or 2020, Drucker says, so we are in the midst of it, should recognize it, and adapt to it.

The society that preceded today's was known for its capitalists like Rockefeller, Krupp, and Mitsubishi and for a proletariat of blue-collar workers. This pairing of capitalist and labor has been yielding to professional managers who do not really own what they manage, and a labor so dwindling that those making and moving goods will be only one-sixth or so of developed country work forces by the year 2000.

Improving the productivity of knowledge workers is what lies behind today's layoffs, resizing, and reshaping of companies. Even companies long known for enlightened policies are having to reinvent themselves. As structures flatten, managers lose turf and, with a few assistants, must shop around among the company's personnel for teams to carry out their agendas. Organizations are having to apply their members' firepower more directly.

Organizations themselves must be better appreciated, because knowledge workers need organizations for their knowledge to have effect. All the organization's workers must take responsibility for its objectives, contributions to society, and its behavior. The terms "empowerment" and "entitlement," now in vogue, still reflect the power preoccupations of the hierarchical, control-based organization. "The task of management in the knowledge-based organization is not to make everybody a boss," Drucker writes. "It is to make everybody a contributor."

Learning - continued learning - and schools should be a focus of society. New kinds of schools, on a for-profit basis, are being launched. Most of these will fail. But they will help underscore an imperative to make schools more accountable for their effectiveness. Schools will not be where one goes before one takes up a life of work: Schools will be a place where workers continue learning even while working full time.

A race is on to squeeze time out of the development and operating process. This is because new productive ideas need not only to be conceived but to be exploited in products as well. Organizations that squander time fall behind.

The knowledge worker must take responsibility for continually learning and developing. Development means self-development. Managers will be expected to set an example for this.

The so-called nonprofit sector is offering the knowledge worker a new role in what can be called a citizen society. Beyond the more staid foundations and universities are the active lobbying, civic, and protest groups that have organized to change society. For many citizens, these activities give a sense of identity outside the worker/organization/family relationship.

A parochial satisfaction: A society based on knowledge work, organization effectiveness, and citizen contribution needs knowledge publications to serve them, such as this newspaper.

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