The Age of the Wisdom Worker Is (Still) Just Ahead

Sixty years ago, Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge workers,” saying that a new generation of professionals and their productivity would become “the most valuable assets of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business.” Unlike the previous century’s most valuable assets – production equipment, according to Drucker – these assets were human. Institutions would value knowledge workers not for their ability to run equipment but for their ability to analyze information and apply their expertise.

Twelve years ago, in his book A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, Daniel Pink discussed the evolution of the age of the knowledge worker. He said that tomorrow’s professionals would need to become adept at storytelling, a skill that requires “high concept” aptitudes. They would need “the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into something new … to stretch beyond the quotidian in pursuit of purpose and meaning.”

Pink’s tomorrow has arrived. Today’s workplace needs storytellers. Meaning makers. Wisdom workers, they’re sometimes called. Here’s how a Huffington Post article describes the age of the wisdom worker:

“A new class of worker is beginning to emerge and supersede the knowledge worker. This group is distinguished not only by their ability to think with reason, but also with creativity, intuition, and emotional intelligence. In short, they possess … wisdom, in a word, as the most esteemed human quality.”

Are we there yet? Has this new class of worker rushed in to fill the need for wisdom? How about you – are you operating, day in and day out, at the level of wisdom worker?

Most of us are still knowledge workers

Consider that we simply digitized our analog world. I think of it as faxing ourselves to the future. Even as we looked forward, we clung to soon-to-be-obsolete ways of thinking and talking. We dragged along our old mindsets just as the first automobile owners dragged along their old mindsets into the age of the “horseless carriage.” We spoke of web “sites” made up of “pages” containing links to “e-books” or “white papers.” We spoke of attracting “visitors” who would fill their shopping “carts” as they scrolled “below the fold.”

Now, semantics are not the issue. In fact, you can argue that this repurposing of language was inevitable. In 1960, media guru and professor Marshall McLuhan said,

“When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. This is normal … We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.”

The point is that today, decades into the internet revolution, many of us marketers still struggle to get out of the “old stereos” or perceptions of how to evolve our business strategies. While we have access to technology that enables potentially new ways for us to produce and distribute content, to disrupt old forms of advertising, to deliver new kinds of customer experiences, and to differentiate our brands in expanded marketplaces, many of us have not fully engaged with the question of how these new opportunities could transform what we do.  

Most of us have not made the transition from knowledge worker to wisdom worker.

Content is still mostly treated as a commodity

How can I say that most of us are not operating at the level of wisdom worker? Look at the content all around you. The internet revolution has been realized at the expense of content’s value. Because of the ever-increasing ease with which content can be produced and distributed, businesses have viewed content as yet one more widget that can be made more efficient when measured by output.

When I talk with people in enterprises of all sizes, I hear it constantly. What’s called a “strategic editorial calendar” is just a bill of materials, a pile of things that need to be produced, a to-do list. Publishing dates are set not by any strategic consideration but simply based on when the piece of content will be finished. “When should we publish this?” The answer comes swiftly: “As soon as it’s finished. It’s already late on the assembly line.”

In other words, many businesspeople – unwise workers? – see technology as a means of commoditizing content.

Ironically, the success of almost any company today is at least partly determined by its ability to create memorable, satisfying, brand-differentiating experiences with content – experiences that can never result from a commodity mentality. No amount of artificial intelligence can make up for content that is unhelpful or uninteresting to begin with. As Pavan Arora,  the director of content at IBM Watson, said at CMI’s Intelligent Content Conference, “Artificial intelligence may be the engine, but content is the fuel.”

Marketers still overestimate what technology can do on its own

A 2017 study from the American Marketing Association concluded that marketers have less confidence now than they used to have in their ability to be customer-centric, to measure things, and to put the right team and operating model in place. At the same time, by and large we’re “extremely confident” in technology,  envisioning that it will solve these challenges. 

Spoiler alert: It won’t. Technology is not wise.

If we are to evolve our businesses, we marketers and content practitioners must drive the strategy that creates the future, pulling the technology along with us with creativity, intuition, emotional intelligence. Wisdom. 

Strategic thinking is still undervalued

 The perceived need for speed and production in marketing has put both strategy and the ability to create compelling content in jeopardy. One content practitioner – a wisdom worker in the making – came up to me at a workshop recently and told me that strategic thinking had cost him a job. He said,

“The interviewers asked me how many pieces of content I could create for their marketing teams. They wanted to know how many white papers, articles, social posts, and other elements of content I could produce on a monthly basis. I told them that we would need to develop a strategy to determine the kind and amount of content we should be creating. The interviewing team said, ‘We don’t have time for that.’ All they wanted to know was how much I could create.  I told them that I couldn’t tell them that until I understood, or created, the strategy. I didn’t get the job.”

In many businesses, thoughtful strategy is neglected in favor of mechanical execution. While businesses may be hedging their bets by investing in content technology, they are doing it at a fever pitch, chasing efficiency alone, without realizing they are simply mining sand.

If content is to be gold, businesses must invest in new alchemists. Wisdom workers.

Wisdom. The power of discernment. The ability to create meaning from information. The ability to tell stories. The ability to synthesize new solutions. Those are things that require strategic thinking. Those are things companies must hire for if they want to innovate and thrive.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean we should all become generalists, jacks and jills of all trades and masters of none. Rather, we need to bring a combination of strengths and talents to invent new experiences for customers.

Opportunity still awaits

Instead of bemoaning the absence of tools, education, budget, and resources we wish we had, we need to ask ourselves, if we had everything we could ask for to do our jobs, what kinds of customer experiences would we create with our content – experiences that no one has dreamt up before?

That’s the opportunity awaiting the wisdom workers. It’s just up ahead, around the corner. Will you step up to greet it?

Robert Rose
Chief Strategy Officer at The Content Advisory
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS.

Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.
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Author: Robert Rose
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS. Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.