Some Notes From the Original Insight Worker

Is the “knowledge worker” an outdated creature?

According to a post at Big Think, when Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge worker” in 1959, it was useful. But that was half a century ago. The new transformation underway, according to the popular website, is toward being an “insight worker.”

“Knowledge workers, who manipulate information, will be replaced by ‘insight workers,’ who bring a new set of skills to the table: judgment, critical thinking, empathy,” Big Think contends. “Where the knowledge worker knows how to manage an office, an insight worker understands how and why the business works. While a knowledge worker networks, an insight worker builds authentic relationships with his or her coworkers and clients.”

Hmmm. Interesting. Perhaps this post from Big Think was meant to be what Drucker once described as “a straw man expressly set up to be knocked down.”

Photo credit: Pink Sherbert Photography

For one thing, Drucker would surely question the contention that “empathy” was ever outside the skillset of the high-functioning knowledge worker. In fact, in an interview, Drucker called empathy “a practical competence” and noted that he had “been urging this kind of self-knowledge for years.”

[EXPAND More]”Judgment,” too, was a word that Drucker came to often. “Long-range planning does not substitute facts for judgment,” Drucker explained, as he touted the virtues of “analysis, courage, experience, intuition—even hunch.” And, of course, developing “critical thinking” was essential to his view that “management is a liberal art.”

As for the term “insight worker,” it’s hard to know exactly what Drucker would have thought. He was never dismissive of the value of insight. Indeed, teaching and writing were all part of his efforts to transmit his own insights to the broader public. But he did urge caution for those who were all about insight all the time. “Brilliant men are often strikingly ineffectual; they fail to realize that the brilliant insight is not by itself achievement,” he wrote in The Effective Executive. “They have never learned that insights become effectiveness only through hard systematic work.”

Which actually seems like pretty big thinking to us.

Is the “insight worker” really a higher stage of “knowledge worker”—or is Drucker still holding his own?[/EXPAND]