• Strategy
  • The Economist

Survey: The Near Future

Peter Drucker explains how it will differ from today, and what needs to be done to prepare for it.

Conversely, knowledge rapidly becomes obsolete, and knowledge workers regularly have to go back to school. Continuing education of already highly educated adults will therefore become a big growth area in the next society. But most of it will be delivered in non-traditional ways, ranging from weekend seminars to online training programmes, and in any number of places, from a traditional university to the student’s home. The information revolution, which is expected to have an enormous impact on education and on traditional schools and universities, will probably have an even greater effect on the continuing education of knowledge workers.

Knowledge workers of all kinds tend to identify themselves with their knowledge. They introduce themselves by saying “I am an anthropologist” or “I am a physiotherapist.” They may be proud of the organisation they work for, be it a company, a university or a government agency, but they “work at the organisation”; they do not “belong to it”. Most of them probably feel that they have more in common with someone who practices the same specialism in another institution than with their colleagues at their own institution who work in a different knowledge area.

Although the emergence of knowledge as an important resource increasingly means specialisation, knowledge workers are highly mobile within their specialism. They think nothing of moving from one university, one company or one country to another, as long as they stay within the same field of knowledge. There is a lot of talk about trying to restore knowledge workers’ loyalty to their employing organisation, but such efforts will get nowhere. Knowledge workers may have an attachment to an organisation and feel comfortable with it, but their primary allegiance is likely to be to their specialised branch of knowledge.

Knowledge is non-hierarchical. Either it is relevant in a given situation, or it is not. An open-heart surgeon may be much better paid than, say, a speech therapist, and enjoy a much higher social status, yet if a particular situation requires the rehabilitation of a stroke victim, then in that instance the speech therapist’s knowledge is greatly superior to that of the surgeon. This is why knowledge workers of all kinds see themselves not as subordinates but as professionals, and expect to be treated as such.

Money is as important to knowledge workers as to anybody else, but they do not accept it as the ultimate yardstick, nor do they consider money as a substitute for professional performance and achievement. In sharp contrast to yesterday’s workers, to whom a job was first of all a living, most knowledge workers see their job as a life.

Ever Upwards

The knowledge society is the first human society where upward mobility is potentially unlimited. Knowledge differs from all other means of production in that it cannot be inherited or bequeathed. It has to be acquired anew by every individual, and everyone starts out with the same total ignorance.

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