The Knowledge Revolution and the Future of Careers

7 03 2008

Theme : Forget Jobs, Knowledge Workers Think Projects.
By Brendon Unland
Managing Partner, Dallas Technology Group

I. Introduction

The theme of our last white paper, The Knowledge Revolution and the Future of Organizations, was that business organizations are undergoing a profound, and radical revolution. Firms in the future will be little more than the intellectual capital their employees possess, grow and share.

We are trying to sell more and more intellect and less and less materials.”–George Hegg, 3M Strategic Planner, (retired)1

“Microsoft’s only factory asset is the human imagination.”–Fred Moody, The New York Times2

Thus, if the organizations where we spend most of our waking hours change, then so to will our careers. The white-collar and blue-collar workforce used to be bound by an employer/ employee social contract; which stated, so long as the worker arrived on time and demonstrated loyalty, the worker would be employed until retirement. That notion of the social contract is dead. The old social contract is being replaced and radically altered for the same reasons organizations are changing; it no longer provides a firm with a competitive advantage. In the new Free-Agent Social Contract, knowledge workers will replace traditional white and blue-collar workers. A knowledge worker applies his/ her intellect to improve (directly or indirectly) the firm’s product/ service to meet the mutable needs of a global marketplace. In short, knowledge workers add value to a business.

“If you can’t say why you actually make your company a better place, you’re out.”–Cynthia Kellams, businesswoman, consultant, expert on middle management3

Tom Peters believes that Ms. Kellams quote is “the most important sentence in the English language.”4 Careers in the Knowledge Revolution will revolve around this new fundamental truth. We must ask ourselves, what have we done to improve our company today, or our tomorrow’s at that company will be few. If we can not become knowledge workers, if we can not add value to the products or services our firm produces, we will be obsolete. Yet this new fundamental truth can be stated much more positively; if we can add value to an organization, if we can become knowledge workers, we can have extremely rich and rewarding careers that heretofore would have been impossible.

The next white papers in the Dallas Technology Group White Paper Series will examine the themes reshaping careers during the Knowledge Revolution. We will also attempt to define the Free Agent Social Contract. This quarter, we will examine the death of jobs, and the ascension of a more efficient way to package work—the project.

II. Theme : Forget Jobs, Knowledge Workers Think Projects.

The first theme involves a fundamental paradigm shift in the way we view our careers. The career of the knowledge worker in the era of the Free Agent Social Contract will rely not on jobs of the white-collar and blue-collar worker, but on projects.

A. Dejobbing Careers

We can look back with nostalgia at the so-called job security and of a by-gone era; but like it or not, the form of job security associated with the old social contract has disappeared. Many lament the death of the era of a perpetual job with the same company, but this sentiment would seem odd to our ancestors. The contemporary definition of the term job is relatively new. Webster’s defines job as “an activity performed regularly for payment.” This definition arose from the way firms organized work during the Industrial Revolution. “The job concept emerged early in the nineteenth century to package the work that needed doing in the growing factories and bureaucracies of the industrializing nations.”5 The job was a way to get organizations that evolved around the assembly line to function smoothly and efficiently.In the pre-industrial, agricultural world, a job was simply some piece of work that needed to be done. No one in that era would have ever thought to say my job is to be a farmer.”In Most (pre-nineteenth-century English) households and adequate subsistence depended on a complex of various forms of task-work and wage labor. Regular, full-time employment at a single job was not the norm.”–R.W. Malcomson, author of Ways of Getting a Living in Eighteenth Century England6

In fact, the transition from farm to factory was quite traumatic. Many authors of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s; such as Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, and William Blake portrayed the evils of industrialization in their literature. Socialism and Communism grew rapidly as a political movements in reaction to the social upheaval of the period. The trauma of this time was very much like the trauma associated with the downsizing and lay-offs occurring today. “The same kinds of economic forces were at work, the same kinds of distress were generated, and people—then as today—polarized into those who were excited by the possibilities and those who were appalled by the costs.”7 As industrialization occurred, workers went from doing jobs to having a job.

With the emergence of information technology and reengineering, as well as the forces we examined last quarter, the assembly-line mentality of having a job no longer provides firms with a competitive advantage.

“In the work revolution ahead there won’t be jobs. People will be running businesses and getting results. This is not the narrowly defined functional job of performing a single task over and over as you’re use to seeing in the standardized, assembly-line economy of old.”–Harry S. Dent, Jr., author of Job Shock8

Smart machines have replaced many repetitive jobs. Other jobs have been outsourced or turned over to contract workers. As stated last quarter, organizations will more and more come to resemble a three-leafed shamrock, representing three different workforces. These workforces are the professional core, the outsourcing vendors and the contingent or contract workforce. The Shamrock Organization (Figure 1)9 has adapted to give businesses the speed and flexibility they require to be competitive. Organizations are employing less and less full-time workers in their professional core—jobs are disappearing, never to return. “Less than half of the workforce in the industrial world will be in proper full-time jobs in organizations by the beginning of the twenty-first century.”10 It is this phenomenon that is producing the vast downsizing of the Fortune 1000. To use William Bridge’s (a workplace and career expert) term, organizations are being “dejobbed.”

The reason for dejobbing is that the current work environment is so dynamic, that narrowly defining a job no longer works. Jobs are best suited for static environments, which certainly does not describe the workplace of today. Job descriptions in many organizations are rewritten often, almost daily. In the period of 200 years, the job concept has arisen, evolved, and is now dying; or at least shrinking in most businesses.

B. Knowledge Workers are Project and Resume Driven

How are we to think of our careers if jobs no longer provide the proper context? We must think of our careers in terms of projects.

“Free Agents don’t talk about jobs. They talk about projects.”11The project will be the new way to package work in the Knowledge Revolution and in the era of the Free-Agent Social Contract.

“The workplace of the future is going to be organized according to jobs that need doing, and that means a project-oriented workplace.”–Susan Campbell, author of From Chaos to Confidence: Survival Strategies for the New Workplace12

From an organizational perspective, a project mentality allows firms to quickly organize around tasks that need to be accomplished. Projects are to the Shamrock Organization as jobs are to the hierarchical, pyramid organizations that today are being downsized and reengineered. Projects give the shamrock organization flexibility and speed to meet the needs of the hyper-competitive, global marketplace.

From the knowledge workers perspective, a project focus allows unparalleled flexibility and opportunity for professional and personal growth. “For Microsoft’s Adam Rauch, 31, it was a choice between building on a strength and starting something new. He joined Microsoft as the first program manager for Visual Basic, a software tool now used by 3 million programmers around the world. He became a rising star—so much so that he tutored Bill Gates on the intricacies of the product’s code. Then it was time for yet another revision. Rauch decided to let work start without him. He jumped to a new project within the company…I wanted a new challenge.”13 Mr. Rauch is an example of a free agent experiencing the new Free Agent Social Contract. He plans on how to best accomplish work that needs to be done, without losing sight of the projects that he feels will be best for his career. On the organizational side of the Free Agent Social Contract, Mr. Rauch’s company commits to provide quality projects that can lead to professional growth and enrichment. Mr. Rauch’s example is set within the professional core; however, the project mentality is key to knowledge workers in all leafs of the Shamrock Organization.

Of course, the projects must be the right projects. That is to say, the free agent knowledge worker in any leaf of the Shamrock Organization must carefully consider each new project.

“Even if you never show it to anybody, open a file called My Ongoing, Ever-Expanding Resume of Projects I’ve Done. There will be a time when you need it.”–Susan Campbell, author of From Chaos to Confidence: Survival Strategies for the New Workplace 14

The contract technical workers that Dallas Technology Group assigns, have long known the truth of Ms. Campbell’s statement. Their resume is not only the source of their current income; it is the source of their future income and professional development. As Tom Peters says, knowledge workers will “THINK RESUME. OBSESS RESUME.”15 In the Knowledge Revolution, we must think of our resumes not in terms of jobs, but in terms of projects that added value to our employers.

“In the past, career management meant, get the org chart and plot a line as far up as possible. That’s not the name of the game anymore. You need to figure out what skills will be relevant in the future and to map out projects to develop those skills.”–John Kotter, author of The new Rules: Eight Business Breakthroughs to Career Success in the 21st Century 16

We must constantly ask ourselves the duel questions of “How is this project improving my resume?” and “How am I making my company better?”

Whereas loyalty to the job was a part of the old social contract, loyalty to the project will be a major element of the Free Agent Social Contract. As professionals, we should always adhere strictly to any verbal or written commitments to a project. At the same time, we must remember that we are free agents! In the movie Jerry Maguire, Tom Cruise portrays a sports agent representing free agent athletes. Cruise no longer feels his firm is meeting their part of Free Agent Social Contract, so he becomes his own free agent, starting his own sports marketing firm. 25 million Americans (16% of the American workforce)17 are doing the same thing. The ranks of the self-employed have swelled as knowledge workers look for work that needs to be done, and then form companies to do it. If you can not find an enriching life within your firm, start your own Shamrock Organization.

III. Conclusion

The freedom granted to us by the Free Agent Social Contract is both exciting and scary. On the one hand there are tremendous possibilities and unlimited opportunities of projects; on the other hand there is the uncomfortable prospect of a life without jobs. Knowledge workers and free agents will embrace the project paradigm and forget the job paradigm. They will search out work that needs to be done, and create projects to accomplish the tasks; without being handcuffed by their job descriptions. At the same time, just as a movie actor must carefully consider each role he chooses to play, knowledge workers must carefully consider the benefits a project will provide to their resume.

The goal of the next series of white papers is to present important themes that we must recognize and understand when we think of careers during the Knowledge Revolution. In our next White Paper, we will look at the necessity of viewing ourselves as mircrobusinesses and brands as we attempt to make our companies better places to work.

Reference

  • “60,000 and Counting,” The Economist, November 30, 1991, p. 71, as quoted in Tom Peters, The Tom Peters Seminar, Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations, p. 10.
  • Tom Peters, The Tom Peters Seminar, Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations, p. 10.
  • Tom Peters, The Circle of Innovation, p. 162.
  • Peters, op. cit., p. 162.
  • William Bridges, JobShift, How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs, p.viii.
  • Bridges, op. cit., p. 29.
  • Bridges, op. cit., p. 32.
  • Harry S. Dent, Jr., Job Shock, p. 66.
  • Charles Handy, The Age of Unreason, pp. 87-115.
  • Charles Handy, The Future of Work: A guide to a Changing Society, as quoted in Bridges, op. cit., p. 29.
  • “Free Agents, Close Connections”, Fast Company, December/ January, 1998, p. 16.
  • Eric Matson, “Project You”, Fast Company, December/ January, 1998, p. 195.
  • Matson, op. cit., p. 195.
  • Matson, op. cit., p. 195.
  • Peters, op. cit., p. 187.
  • Matson, op. cit., p. 195.
  • Daniel H. Pink, “Free Agent Nation”, Fast Company, December/ January, 1998, p. 132.

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