Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace — Book Reveiw

Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval is a good interesting book. I like the way he intertwines the social aspects and history of office spaces. He uses novels from different time periods to give you the social background. Below is an excerpt about “knowledge workers.”

“Knowledge Workers”Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace

Like McGregor, Drucker was a figure who inadvertently harmonized the impulses of the nascent counterculture with the outwardly stuffy world of business, Though hardly countercultural himself, Drucker’sconcepts would prove useful to people in later years who wanted to make the office hospitable to the wilder world outside it. Over the course of the 1960s, Drucker came to expound one of the notions that’ would make him famous: the idea that a swelling group of workers was becoming central to the economy. They were middle-class employees who would never identify themselves with the “proletariat,” nor, in fact, with management. They were technical and professional workers who controlled what Drucker believed was becoming the most important resource of all: knowledge. Calling them “knowledge workers” — a term he coined in 1962 at the same time as, but independently of, another social theorist, Fritz Machlup – Drucker saw them as occupying a historic role in the making of a responsible society,

In Drucker’s view, what was changing about work was the increasing need to apply knowledge to work. Knowledge as such, in the intellectual sense, was different. The mathematical formulas and theorems that existed in books were a form of knowledge useful to intellectual history, but mathematics as applied to, say, a space program was “knowledge work.” So, too, did advertising and marketing and various other new professions require the mental labor of workers, applying what they knew from various disciplines to the techniques of mass persuasion. It was one thing to be an expert in Freud or Newton in a university; another to use the insights of Freud to sell a toothbrush or to use Newton to build a ballistic missile capable of striking the Soviet Union.

Knowledge work itself came from a historic shift, one that Drucker, like so many, traced to Frederick Taylor. But his vision of the history was marked by a curious and useful elision. In Drucker’s account, Taylor came upon a working world characterized by rote, nearly mindless, activity. It wasn’t planned so much as willed: the workers simply worked harder rather than “smarter.” Until Taylor, that is: “Taylor, for the first time in history, looked at work itself as deserving the attention of an educated man.” Drucker’s subsequent description of the insensate labor of unskilled men in factories draws almost entirely from Taylor’s portrait of them–and accordingly condescends to their abilities to plan and organize work. In actual fact, it wasn’t so. Before Taylor, work was already organized by teams of factory workers, who in large part had control over how they worked. The knowledge they applied to work was largely “tacit” in nature, agreed upon among the workers themselves and developed through a silent or coded language, rather than “explicit” (to borrow a famous definition from the sociologist Michael Polanyi). What Taylor sought in particular– indeed, what constituted his signal obsession– was to extract this tacit knowledge from the workers and install it in another set of people, the “industrial engineers.” Drucker called them “the prototype of all modern ‘knowledge workers’ “– a plausible assumption but one that excised the tremendous amount of knowledge that already existed in the work process. (Taylor lamented that after being taught “the one best way,” workers had a stubborn tendency to return to their own ways of working.) It was a useful fiction, and a common one, that helped to uphold a new class of technicians and professionals as the masters of an ever more progressive society, dependent on the application of knowledge to work. For the knowledge worker, Drucker held, was not simply a freelance professional but rather “the successor to the employee of yesterday, the manual worker, skilled or unskilled.”

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