The Great Knowledge Worker Flusheroo

First Wave Coder/Data Analyst knowledge worker and culture watcher, I’ve followed the 20th century phenomena known as the Knowledge Worker.  A concept coined by one of the great minds of the 20th Century, Peter Druker.  He rightly foresaw that it would be the growing base of wisdom/knowledge contained within information technologists, professionals professionals, and other related classes which would drive the growth of the new economy.  We saw much gained for Western society and other societies which rightly understood that knowledge itself would become  a treasured process from which great wealth would be produced.

Yet, it is my observation which is shared by others, that some corporate/government management and human resources in general have not understood that much of the knowledge contained within the Knowledge Class of workers is not contained within manuals, policies, or processes. They are contained within the minds of the Knowledge worker class.  One of my touchstones is that, “humans know more than they articulate or can articulate.”  Even in what appear to be highly systematized forms of knowledge, people always know more than they articulate.  It’s not that they are unwilling, it is just the nature of knowledge.

This blog was created to advocate for the older worker, not just for compassionate reasons, but because it is my conviction that we are flushing away the wealth producing capacity of the older Knowledge Class.  Why?  Western society has not adequately grasped that the next generation of Knowledge Workers need to be mentored/apprenticed by the existing Knowledge Worker Base. The most important knowledge is passed through mentorship not manuals. RTFM can not replace WTOF (Watch the Old Fart).

“Establishing a program for transferring knowledge is an essential element for dealing with “brain drain.” Veteran utility workers tend to pass valuable institutional knowledge orally, rather than documenting and updating the information systematically. This intellectual capital is often lost when the worker retires because there is no formal program to capture their know-how.” – Who Will Replace Nuclear Power’s Aging Work Force? – Power Engineering.

I ran across this article which documented the problem of utility workers not documenting or systematizing their knowledge, but rather passing on in orally.  The article, while helpful, does not understand that many workers are unable to systematize their oral knowledge. Not all human beings are able to convert their verbal knowledge into symbolic knowledge. In fact, few can do this effectively. In some forms of knowledge it is impossible or impractical (the manual would be too large).

Writing is a difficult skill.  Margaret Laurence, a feisty and iconic Canadian writer articulated it well. At a party, when Laurence was informed by  a neurosurgeon that he intended to take up writing in retirement, responded, “When I retire, I’m going to be a neurosurgeon.”

Expecting utility workers, even with help, to codify a sufficient sum of their knowledge base into documents for other’s to then acquire is over-confidence at best.  Even if possible, one has to consider how possible it is to acquire technical knowledge through reading, videos, or any other non-human transmitted method.  The problem is two fold in my mind.  Firstly, much knowledge of any craft is unarticulated. As strange as it sounds, people don’t know they know stuff. People know things they only are aware of when their re-encounter them. The knowledge bubbles up and they think, “Hey, I remember dealing with something like this or similar to this 22 years ago). Often the master worker combines earned knowledge into a new synthesis to apply it to a new problem.   My point is that, you can not codify wisdom since it is often inarticulate-able or can not be effectively transferred from the fuzzy logic inherent with the human brain to the structured written word.

Mentoring and intergenerational teams, combined with the codification of key processes in written form, is the most effective method for passing on knowledge from one generation of Knowledge Workers to the next.  Without such processes, critical information is certain to be lost.  More importantly, the Knowledge Worker community is eroded in favour of a highly individualistic transient work culture. A culture of intergenerational relationship and collectively acquired knowledge is squandered … flushed down the drain.

“What seasoned workers have traditionally seen as a step up on the corporate ladder, today’s young employee is more likely to see as a resume builder.” – Who Will Replace Nuclear Power’s Aging Work Force? – Power Engineering.

Want to make young Knowledge Workers laugh?  While having a couple beers, ask them how loyal they are to their company.  Much that could be written on why that is, however it signals the second and more damaging aspect of our business culture. Failing to understand the intergenerational aspect of knowledge transfer from one generation to another, erodes the desire to mentor. By not mentoring, we are fostering a new generation which may have little desire to mentor. Why would they? They, as we all were, are shaped by what we encounter in our human communities.

Most older workers in my generation still have a strong mentoring ethic with studies showing that somewhere around 80% of older workers will mentor.  I would predict that within a decade or two this number will fall to about 50% and continue its decline.  The outcomes of that decline may not be readily obvious because cultural stagnation rarely is until its too late.

The largest penalty for our folly, is in lost opportunities. As each subsequent generation has to relearn the lost experience/knowledge of the past, they fail to acquire as much new knowledge and insights, improvements … breakthroughs are not achieved.  Energies spent on the future are used relearning the mistakes of the past. These insights, improvements and breakthroughs are what spur productivity benefits, new products and even whole new industries.  We miss seeing this loss, since something not conceived of will not be missed. We flush a greater future by flushing the past.

Leave a Reply