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New Organizing Principle for Society

Originally published May 13, 2008

We have touched on this before over the last few months, but it is so important that it felt right to dedicate an article solely to this point: Society has a new organizing principle, and governments have to take note because it is hitting them by storm.

What is the new organizing principle that societies have been adopting, formally or informally, over the last few years? Knowledge.

Let me explain. Ever since humans discovered how to till the land and sow its fruits, land had been the organizing principle of society. It was land that became the main asset in inheritance. Territory – rooted from the Latin word “terra” for land – was the main object of contention in most wars between clans, tribes or nations. It was land that provided the principal mainstay for the majority of productive members of society, hence, making the agricultural worker the most significant player in the economy for thousands of years.

The Industrial Revolution shifted society into a new organizational scheme around the factory, and the emergence of the industrial, or blue collar, worker brought along also a new framework for the new proletariat. To understand how marked this change was in the U.S., consider that by 1987, only 3% of the labor force was classified as being agricultural workers.

This period was followed by the appearance of the so-called office, or white collar, worker, as the office became the new organizational center for society. Service jobs arose also pushing this boom. There was a very significant change in the labor force away from manufacturing – the factory – and into the office.

But the workforce is now changing dramatically with the advent of the Information – or better still – the Knowledge Revolution. And it has some very important consequences. What has happened is that the new organizing principle for society has become knowledge. This implies that the means of production are now dependent primarily on knowledge. Knowledge determines the type of work that you do; the price at which it is bought and sold; the way in which you structure your relationships with fellow workers, employers or customers. Much more so than ever before, it is the knowledge worker that holds sway over the marketplace.

And who is the knowledge worker? The term was coined by Peter Drucker, the famous management guru, who differentiated between the assembly line worker and his emerging counterpart by saying that “the industrial worker knew what he or she was going to do the next day at work. The knowledge worker does not. They have a new situation every day for which they need to access new knowledge to resolve.”

And who is a knowledge worker? We all are. A few years ago, I was in Singapore and decided to have a suit made. (I suspect many of you may have gone through this same experience.) Upon entering a tidy looking shop advertising excellent quality for the best price, I was surprised by how change had overtaken the profession of tailor. I was accustomed to seeing a tailor, of course, with a measuring tape around his neck, a yardstick in his hand, a pin cushion on his wrist and a small piece of flat chalk in his fingers. This was not the situation in this shop. No, I was ushered into a small closet-like glass enclosed chamber and in what seemed like a vertical CAT scan, my measurements were taken; and soon, my image appeared on the display of a workstation. Some sample cloths were brought for me to feel after a quick selection of colors, patterns and prices was done online. After a few questions about style, design preferences, etc., I could see right on the screen how my new suit was going to look on me. A press of the “enter” key, and the directions were being sent into the back room, where I assumed actual manual labor was finally carried out.

This whole operation was centered on business intelligence and knowledge. What are my key measurements? What are my style preferences? Pricing? Timing? Voila! I have a new suit. The new tailor is preeminently a knowledge worker.

And what are some of the implications of this phenomenon for government? While there are many, I would point out three main ones.

1. Assure that knowledge (intellectual property) is duly protected. That is, make sure that there is a way of rewarding the innovator and creator of new knowledge, and there are simple and timely processes to register, record and otherwise claim ownership of knowledge assets. This is going to be extremely important as society learns how these knowledge markets operate.

2. Facilitate the transmission and sharing of knowledge. This is what will guarantee the distribution system for the new product offerings. While the Internet has clearly become the principal medium for knowledge transmission and sharing, it is not the only one. Intranets and extranets are also very widespread, and as Web 2.0 and 3.0 start to emerge, this will bring new challenges to the forefront.

3. Create an environment of trust for knowledge to be transmitted and applied. Without trust, our whole commerce apparatus comes crashing down. The same is true of e-commerce and e-government. The last few years have seen shockwave after shockwave hit cyberspace as e-villains and malware have hit us hard. There is a strong need for enlightened public policy in this area and, ultimately, a role for government to act as a platform for society to choose courses of action on such policy and then provide a framework for enforcing the rules we agree on.

These will be exciting times.

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel


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