How Knowledge Work Differs from the Past

Knowledge work raises the demand for those who can teach it, due to the value knowledge work has and higher pay it often generates compared to lower skill areas. After all, no one can simply walk off the street and be a pulmonary technician or diesel mechanic, while nearly anyone could be quickly trained to empty bed pans and perform basic factory assembly work.

Knowledge work is based on the individual’s ability, and it is completely separate from the old class system or even property ownership as long as education to become a knowledge worker is available at a reasonable price. This makes knowledge work a true meritocracy.

Whether a CNC programmer or veterinary technician or nurse, these skills are almost always universal as long as one stays within one’s niche. The end result has been a “brain drain” for the developing world because their nurses, mechanics and other professionals can take their skills and move. Conversely, this has increased the competition for knowledge workers in the developed world, keeping wages from rising too high.

In many cases, knowledge work can be taught by a small set of teachers, though some hardware or training facilities are required, so it requires far less investment in many cases than setting up an entire university. For example, a vocational-technical school teaching many skilled laborers will cost less and train more people than a large university that starts with a common core of knowledge. When organizations focus on the credentials that actually represent that knowledge instead of assuming any four year degree represents an education and master’s degree is even better, the generic push for a four year degree, any four year degree, will stop and we’ll see more people go for applicable educations instead. This will eliminate part of the political unrest from college students who went deeply into debt for generic liberal arts degrees and the skills mismatch due to millions flunking out of college trying to get economically worthless degrees instead of attending vo-tech schools to qualify for the many skilled labor jobs still unfilled.

Given the directly understandable economic value of knowledge work in most cases, such as how much more an engineer makes over an engineering technician or the nurse with the bachelor’s degree versus the nurse practitioner, people can make clear and rational economic decisions on what a degree is worth relative to its price. This will prevent the prices of practical degrees from rising many times faster than inflation as happened to general four year college tuition did from the 1980s to the 2010s.

Knowledge work had decreased the value of the classic liberal education while pushing people to remain lifelong learners. This isn’t a contradiction. Aristotle didn’t consider techne or skill based knowledge real knowledge; its value was entirely based on its application. A brain surgeon has a broad knowledge of biology, anatomy and surgery. A pulmonary technician has a much narrower but similar skill set. But we pay both of them more than the nursing assistant because both have much more education, and in the case of the surgeon, knowledge coupled with skills.
A knowledge economy rewards those focusing on deeper understanding of their knowledge niche, but it doesn’t reward those with broader skill sets. After all, no one cares if the surgeon knows immigration law or general philosophy. A diesel mechanic who knows all of Western classical literature doesn’t earn more than the one who doesn’t, but the one who can repair both diesel trucks and diesel power generators will be rewarded with higher pay or more opportunities for employment.
The end result of this is that continuing education remains important – but only with regard to one’s chosen profession or field. This creates constant demand for people staying abreast of changes in technology, the law, software used as part of the job, but not broad, generic courses of study.

The very nature of knowledge work tends to give people limited off-ramps to related careers, making total reinvention rarer. A nurse may shift to forensic nursing or sexual assault survivor counseling, the lawyer may shift to legal analyst, the nurse becomes a nurse practitioner, a dentist specializes in orthodontics, the financial degree holder moves on to tax accounting. A nurse may start a visiting nurses business, while the dentist opens her own practice. But radical career shifts become rarer, because they are so much harder due to one’s specialized, and thus limited, knowledge base. In this regard, the business major who can switch from marketing to personnel management to entrepreneurship has an advantage until those professional tracks are specialized into knowledge work for the sake of efficiency.

Peter Drucker pointed out in his classic book “Managing in a Time of Great Change” that exams are used to measure how well one is prepared to take on knowledge work. This increases the value of credentials and credentialing organizations. The downside according to Drucker is that the credentials are often worthless in representing how qualified someone is, while reliance on them drives the proliferation of credentials and incorrectly drives credential-itis so that the person with more credentials is seen as better than someone with fewer. We see this today with diploma mills offer Six Sigma, Lean and other engineering niche credentials to people who don’t have to learn the Six Sigma definition of quality is and business management credentials to people who barely learn the basic business terminology to do so. The modern world also sees credentialing organizations taking advantage of members’ needs for credentials by pushing them to pay for continuing education courses to retain their membership regardless of the training’s value and inventing new credentials to provide differentiation for members.