"Don't talk about 'knowledge management.' There is no such thing. There are only knowledge people."
When Peter Drucker turned 90 last November, there was a party for almost 500 of his closest friends at the Getty Center, a billion-dollar travertine palace high above Los Angeles in the Sepulveda Pass. I hardly qualify for Drucker's inner circle, but Knowledge Management magazine had just published a timeline of the great man's life and ideas, and so I managed to crash the festivities.
For once, the self-described "insultant" had little to say. Instead, he sat in the first row of an auditorium full of captains of industry and charity who attributed their success to his classes or consultancy. By now it's a cliché to say that the Claremont Graduate School professor and author of 31 books is the father of modern management, but it's also fair to credit him for some KM paternity.
Long before there was anything called knowledge management, Drucker recognized a profound change in the nature of work. As early as 1959, he was referring to an emerging class he predicted would eclipse the industrial workers who had, by then, come to dominate the economies of developed countries. And indeed, by the 1990s, industrial workers accounted for only 20 percent of the American workforce. Instead the leading class of workers, and the leading force in society, were knowledge workers, technologists who perform their labors with a valuable combination of skill and learning that is often a mystery to their superiors.
Drucker has always understood that the Industrial Age would not go quietly. "Industrial society was still essentially a traditional society in its basic social relationships of production. But the emerging society, the one based on knowledge and knowledge workers, is not. It is the first society in which ordinary people--and that means most people--do not earn their daily bread by the sweat of their brow. It is the first society in which 'honest work' does not mean a calloused hand. It is also the first society in which not everybody does the same work, as was the case when the huge majority were farmers or, as seemed likely only 40 or 30 years ago, were going to be machine operators," Drucker wrote in a 1994 Atlantic Monthly essay. "This is far more than a social change. It is a change in the human condition."
Persistence of Knowledge
There have always been knowledge workers. Acquired skills--passed from generation to generation or from master to apprentice--were an essential part of any occupation before the Industrial Revolution and many since. But by and large they were skills that only had to be learned once by any worker, for they changed little over the centuries. As Drucker would point out, for instance, the stonemason's skills employed to face the Getty's walls with travertine quarried in Italy were essentially thousands of years old.
On the other hand, knowledge has become increasingly important in the value of more types of work, and the skills of today's knowledge worker require constant renewal. As such, the knowledge society depends on education, because according to Drucker, knowledge has become a resource as vital as land, labor or capital. And in the age of the knowledge worker, he predicted, competitive advantage would be all about the management of knowledge resources.
"How well an individual, an organization, an industry, a country, does in acquiring and applying knowledge will become the key competitive factor. The knowledge society will inevitably become far more competitive than any society we have yet known--for the simple reason that with knowledge being universally accessible, there will be no excuses for nonperformance," Drucker wrote in The Atlantic. "There will be no 'poor' countries. There will only be ignorant countries. And the same will be true for companies, industries and organizations of all kinds. It will be true for individuals, too."
But if you assumed this would make Drucker a KM fan, you'd be wrong. The father of modern management and the guru of knowledge work has repeatedly said that you can't put the two words together. Far from alienating knowledge managers with such cynicism, however, Drucker has been a sought-after sage at KM conferences. His criticisms go to the heart of the challenges faced by anyone trying to build a culture of effective knowledge sharing in their organization. The truth is that knowledge management is not about managing knowledge, but about rethinking how management facilitates knowledge work. Knowledge has always been part of work, as much as work has always been part of life. So audiences sit rapt as he describes the fundamental challenges to managing knowledge workers: that they are fundamentally unproductive and fundamentally volunteers.
Information to Knowledge
Some months before the birthday celebration, at a Delphi Group conference on Coronado Island in San Diego, I had a chance to ask him about this. Holding forth from a highback leather armchair on the dais, Drucker had said, "Don't talk about 'knowledge management.' There is no such thing. There are only knowledge people."
Books, and by implication, other systems meant to capture knowledge, actually contain only information, Drucker said. "Information becomes knowledge only if someone knows what to do with it--and that's between our ears, not in books. Because of that, the knowledge people own the means of production again. If one of them walks out the door and takes the knowledge with him or her, it takes 20 to 30 times that person's salary to replace it."
If knowledge management is a case of the proverbial irresistible force meeting the metaphorical immovable object, the obvious question that day was, which word needs to change? Drucker's answer served well to put KM in context.
"Most of my friends and colleagues spend their time as managers making it difficult for people to work," Drucker complained. But from now on, an increasing number of people will not be managers in the traditional sense of being responsible for the work of subordinates. "Now the definition of a manager is somebody who makes knowledge productive. More and more of these people will have no subordinates. We'd better change the word 'manager' to 'executive,' and an executive is somebody whose actions or non-actions have an impact on the success of the enterprise."
On one hand, knowledge workers spend too much of their time on tasks they weren't hired for--less valuable than the tasks that leverage their knowledge. On the other, the organization spends too much time giving the knowledge worker knowledge work that, if they thought about it, probably doesn't need to be done at all.
At the same time, managers need to keep in mind that, unlike industrial workers, knowledge workers frequently have expertise that their supervisors don't have. Because of that, the knowledge worker owns the means of production and can take their expertise elsewhere at any moment. So even though they are paid, knowledge workers should be managed as volunteers rather than as employees to maintain their loyalty.
At the Getty, I skirted the perimeter of the crowd, watching for chances when someone would let drop from a conversation some scrap of wisdom. Then I wandered the galleries and drank in the centuries of knowledge represented by the museum's famous collections. But I kept returning to the stone parapet to look out across the sea of light.