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Peter Drucker's Chronicle of the Shift to Knowledge Work

Fred Nickols 2012

I have been studying knowledge work and the knowledge worker for more than 40 years -- since 1970.  That was the year I first read Peter Drucker's book, The Age of Discontinuity.  Although he has been writing about the advent of knowledge work and knowledge worker since 1954, it was in The Age of Discontinuity that he first set forth a full-blown treatment of the issue.   Drucker's chronicling of the shift to knowledge work has been steadfast and thorough over the years.  The table below is indicative of his coverage of the subject.

Peter Drucker's Chronicle

Book Selected Comment
The Practice of Management - 1954 "In the United States . . . the class of employees that has been growing most rapidly in numbers and proportion is that of skilled and trained people."
Landmarks of Tomorrow - 1959 "Productive work in today's society and economy is work that applies vision, knowledge and concepts -- work that is based on the mind rather than the hand."
Managing for Results - 1964 "Even the small business today consists increasingly of people who apply knowledge rather than manual skill and muscle to work."
The Effective Executive - 1966 "Every knowledge worker in modern organization is an "executive" if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organization to perform and to obtain results."
The Age of Discontinuity - 1969 "Finally, these new industries differ from the traditional 'modern' industry in that they will employ predominantly knowledge workers rather than manual workers."
Management - 1973 ". . . the center of gravity of the work force is shifting from the manual worker to the knowledge worker."
Managing in Turbulent Times - 1980 ". . . the center of gravity among 'employees' has sharply shifted to the educated, employed, middle class, that is, to people who see themselves as 'technical' and increasingly as 'professional'."
Toward the Next Economics and Other Essays - 1981 "To make knowledge work fully productive requires many things [Frederick Winslow] Taylor did not concern himself with.  It requires objectives and goals.  It requires priorities and measurements.  It requires systematic abandonment of the tasks that no longer produce and of the services that are no longer needed.  It also requires organization, largely along the lines of the 'matrix organization' which Taylor reached for in his 'functional foremanship.'

But making knowledge work productive also requires 'task study' and 'task management.'  It requires the analysis of the work itself.  It requires understanding of the steps needed, their sequence and their integration into an organized process. It requires systematic provision of the information needed and of the tool needed.  All of these are concepts of 'scientific management.'  It does not require 'creativity.'  It requires the hard, systematic, analytical and synthesizing work which Taylor developed to deal with shoveling sand, lifting pig iron, running paper machines, or laying brick."

The Frontiers of Management - 1986 "In all developed countries, knowledge workers have already become the center of gravity of the labor force, even in numbers."
The New Realities - 1989 "The more knowledge-based an institution becomes, the more it depends on the willingness of individuals to take responsibility for contribution to the whole, for understanding the objectives, the values, the performance of the whole, and for making themselves understood by the other professionals, the other knowledge people in the organization."
Managing for the Future - 1992 "The productivity of the newly dominant groups in the work force, knowledge workers and service workers, will be the biggest and toughest challenge facing managers in the developed countries for decades to come.  And serious work on this daunting task has only begun."
Post-Capitalist Society - 1993 "Instead of capitalists and proletarians, the classes of the post-capitalist society are knowledge workers and service workers."
Managing in A Time of Great Change - 1995 "This society in which knowledge workers dominate is in danger of a new 'class conflict'; the conflict between the large minority of knowledge workers and the majority of people who will make their living through traditional ways, either by manual work, whether skilled or unskilled, or by services work, whether skilled or unskilled."
Management Challenges for the 21st Century - 1999 "The most valuable assets of a 20th-century company were its production equipment.   The most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or nonbusiness, will be its knowledge workers and their productivity."

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