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Grant Frear writes about the demise of the knowledge worker after reading Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind.

Pink says people in rich countries need to move away from left-brain (linear, organised) thinking towards more right-brain (or creative) thinking.

Frear says; “Well maybe not a complete demise but most certainly a geographic shift”. So we won’t accuse him of an exaggerated report of the death of knowledge work.

Automation

Frear says work involving logical, repeatable left-brain tasks is better done by computer. Bosses can offload tasks which aren’t easily automated to Asia where there’s a cheaper workforce, hence the “geographic shift”.

It makes sense.

Low-value work has moved from Australia and New Zealand to Asia for at least a decade. How often have you rung telephone banking and spoken to someone with a strong Indian accent?

To make up for this geographic shift, Frear (or more accurately Frear quoting Pink) says people in richer countries need to work on their right-brain activities which are largely creative, non-linear and conceptual.

The problem he identifies is most rich-world employers favour left-brain thinking. They reward people based on these values and not on their creativity. All of this is true.

Knowledge work, left-brain right-brain

Frear (or maybe Pink) assumes knowledge work is a left-brain activity.

It can be but is not always: writing is creative, but a form of knowledge work.

Also, while there are people who seem 100 percent left-brain or right-brain, in reality most show a healthy mix of both.

Rather than requiring a disorienting binary switch from one type of thinking to a totally different one,  a smarter strategy might just be to steer one’s thinking more towards creativity.

If Frear and Pink are right, the good news is that in the future there will be less boring knowledge worker jobs in the richer world and more stimulating work.

Demise of the knowledge worker « Mutterings of a consultant

Knowledge workers are taking over.

A third of American employees are already knowledge workers. The number is lower in Australia and New Zealand, we’re catching up.

In developed, developing and even in some undeveloped countries knowledge workers are the fastest-growing employment group.

Knowledge workforce outnumbers industrial

In the developing world knowledge workers already outnumber industrial and agricultural workers. In more advanced countries they outnumber these two groups added together.

America has roughly as many knowledge workers as service industry workers. In most rich countries knowledge work is the most important economic sector in terms of economic and political clout.

Knowledge worker is a new idea

The idea that people can earn a living dealing purely with knowledge has only been around for 50 years.

Writer and management expert Peter Drucker is often credited with inventing the term. He first used the term ‘Knowledge Worker’ in his 1959 book “Landmarks of Tomorrow”.

Drucker modestly claims to be only the second person to use the phrase. He says the honour belongs to Fritz Machlup a Princeton economist.

Nevertheless, Drucker popularised the term and has spent many of the last 40 years expanding on the original idea and explaining its implications.

Misunderstood

Although the term is widely used and people generally understand what it implies, there is still much misunderstanding about its exact meaning — even among knowledge workers.

One common misconception is the term applies exclusively to people working in the information technology industry or elsewhere using products created by IT workers.

While almost all IT workers qualify, they are only a subset.

Anyone who makes a living out of creating, manipulating or spreading knowledge is a knowledge worker.

Broad church

That’s a wide definition. It includes teachers, trainers, university professors and other academics. You can categorise writers, journalists, authors, editors and public relations or communications people as knowledge workers. We’ll put aside for one moment arguments about whether the knowledge created by these people is accurate. Lawyers, scientists and management consultants are all included.

One key difference with other white-collar workers is the level of education and training. There may be knowledge workers who don’t have a formal tertiary education or high-level training. They are a minority.

You need a degree, mostly

As a rule, knowledge workers have a minimum of a university undergraduate degree. That’s not always the case. Older knowledge workers tend to have less formal qualifications than younger ones. That’s partly because higher education wasn’t ubiquitous when they started out — university isn’t the only path to knowledge.

Another reason is that practical experience counts for a lot. The key here is knowledge workers each individually posses their own reservoir of accumulated knowledge they apply in their work.

Compared with other groups of workers, they are well paid. Some are extremely well paid. Knowledge workers can be union members. But are often not organised in that sense.

This can lead to forms of genteel exploitation. Few knowledge workers are paid overtime. Yet employers expect most to voluntarily work for considerably more than the basic 40 hours a week.

Mobile

On the other hand, knowledge workers are more mobile than industrial workers and can often take their skills elsewhere at the drop of a hat. They often do.

Any employer who abuses knowledge workers’ professionalism is likely to see their most important assets walk out of the door. This applies as much today as it did when there were more jobs around.

Few governments have come to terms with the implications of having a highly mobile, highly educated, knowledge workforce.

Just as knowledge workers can quickly find a new employer if necessary, most can move freely between countries. Any nation that doesn’t look after its knowledge workforce can expect to lose it.

New Zealand

This is particularly applicable in New Zealand, which operates a so-called progressive income tax system that, at times, appears deliberately designed to alienate knowledge workers.

To understand this, compare the marginal and absolute rates of income tax paid by most New Zealand knowledge workers and you’ll notice they are substantially higher than in many competing nations.

Australia looks particularly attractive.

If anything the flow of knowledge workers migrating to more benign economies is accelerating.

Drucker distinguishes between classes of knowledge worker. High-knowledge workers include professional groups such as doctors and teachers deal mainly in the realm of the mind while the knowledge technologists work with their hands and brains in the IT industry, medicine and other areas. Although both categories of knowledge worker are growing, the bulk of growth comes from this second group.

Commenting on Starbucks’ radical decision to close 61 Australian stores (note the terminology: stores not cafes) the Australian Newsagency Blog’s Mark Fletcher says while he doesn’t enjoy the company’s coffee he admires its business model and goes on to ask “If Starbucks can reach this decision with key factors – range, margin and buying power – working for them, what is the situation newsagents face?”

Starbucks’ coffee is distinctly average by Australian and New Zealand standards. Its cafes are so-so and its prices are sky-high. So with hundreds of small, local cafes providing better coffee, service and all-round experiences at lower prices why would anyone patronise Starbucks?

Well the chain grew fast in America because by US standards it was high quality, albeit at a premium price in a market where fragmented competition performed poorly.

Australia and New Zealand already had a coffee culture, so Starbucks simply doesn’t offer the same value proposition in this part of the world. Some time ago an US business magazine ran a story about small, boutique neighbourhood coffee shops going head-to-head with Starbucks in America and winning. In effect, that’s exactly what happened in Australia.

My local Starbucks in Australia was the branch inside the Borders Bookstore at Hornsby. Sitting down with a bucket of overpriced, weak milky coffee somehow seems more acceptable when you’ve a pile of books to check out and you’re deciding which ones to buy.

There’s an obvious link here with newsagencies — Borders competes for at least some of the business. It may make sense for large magazine specialist newsagents in prime retailing positions to offer a Borders plus Starbucks-like coffee and magazine experience.

But that’s not the answer to Mark’s question. Are newsagents in a similar situation to Starbucks?

Probably not.

First, Starbucks is large. It can standardise, it has buying power and marketing clout that small firms like newsagencies can never achieve on their own (if they acted together things might be different). But what it simply can’t do is deliver a quality customer experience at the local level. Nor can it respond to individual needs or rapidly changing tastes. Newsagencies can do both.

Despite the company’s best efforts, its coffee tends to be dished up by bored teenagers who, beyond uttering ‘have a nice day’ mantras, don’t care about customer service. That’s never going to be as good as coffee served up by cafe owners, their families and the people work with them. Newsagents have the power to ensure the customer experience is first rate.

Second, Starbucks is a corporation. It has to pay all its costs and salaries then deliver a substantial return on capital to shareholders — they probably expect something like 20 percent, anything less would have made them vulnerable to private equity firms before the US financial markets turned nasty. Newsagents need to make a capital return, but something like a 10 percent return on money invested would satisfy most owners. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe that’s the lesson here.