Archive for February, 2006

Drucker got something wrong: from formal to informal

Saturday, February 18th, 2006

Over 10 years ago in 1994 Peter Drucker gave a lecture at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government about knowledge workers.

He starts by saying that “in the first place, the knowledge worker gains access to work, job and social position through formal education” and continues to explain the importance of formal education for becoming a knowledge worker. He emphasizes the role of formal schooling as the central gravity for new knowledge workers and that learning knowledge work cannot be achieved through apprenticeship or any other method than formal education.

I really appreciate much of the ideas presented by Mr. Drucker. He has influenced much of my own thinking, but this is something I can hardly agree on nowadays. I’m a glitch in his system, because I have achieved my social position and access to work mainly through informal means. I find it very hard to achieve my current social position through any other means than my own informal knowledge working practices. A lot of advanced level knowledge workers I know and appreciate work systematically with knowledge in informal settings.

He continues: “Increasingly, an educated person, will be someone who has learned how to learn, and throughout his or her lifetime continues to learn, especially in and out of formal education.

Spot on. In my opinion, it’s not only the role of formal education that will be central to continuous learning after preliminary education, but rather systematic working practices in networks of knowledge: informal or formal. Nowadays it’s increasingly hard to specify learning requirements and deliver a formal course to match those learning requirements. As soon as the learning requirements are set, the world has rapidly changed towards a different trajectory. Our problem is that a lot of what we need right now is just-in-time learning and often available only in online social networks, far out of the vicinity of adult education. We need to reach much further through online networks.

Drucker is a visionary. When saying that “with knowledge being universally accessible there are no excuses for nonperformance“, he probably didn’t predict the importance of internet as an informal channel but rather education as something that is universally accessible to all. What he didn’t know is that the internet will finally open access to all through the fact that the lowered transaction costs for learning gets anyone in contact with anyone else. Especially those who are eager to learn will find much wiser people in online social networks than what is locally available. Social software will boost this even further.

In formal education we still focus much of our time on learning theories without proper application. Drucker says that “in the knowledge society, knowledge basically exists only in application” and that “knowledge in application is effective only when it is specialized“. While formal education mainly teaches us to be generalists by just requiring us to pass a certain designated level of “good enough”, in knowledge society leadership will concentrate around specialists who have acquired additional specialized skills that have importance in application. The only way to acquire those skills is to have the passion for learning and to deeply explore new territories with other people.

Drucker greatly goes into explaining the importance of achieving much more through collaboration with others. Underlining the importance of teams for achieving higher goals with other specialized experts is important.

However, what I see nowadays is the fact that functional teams are not enough. Good teams also need to have weak connections to other networks of knowledge. Rather than perceiving a team as an island for solving problems, one needs to perceive a team as an effective knowledgea creation node of a global knowledge ecosystem. Links to this knowledge ecosystem form through the internet. It’s interesting that we now have knowledge working tools that are not only internal (on your desktop or in your corporate intranet) but also external, working out there in the open, utilized and formed by teams from very different areas of expertise. This rich globally networked environment provides a natural breeding ground for new ideas.

Finally: “increasingly, the true investment in the knowledge society is not in machines and tools. It is in the knowledge of the knowledge worker.”

I wonder if Drucker ever thought about requirements for investments in tools (physical, virtual or mental) for knowledge working. Nowadays it’s even more in the virtual space where we need to improve our tools for achieving a new mode of effectiveness. I have no opportunity to ask, as he passed away recently, in November 2005.