Class war in the modern workplace

Writing about “The knowledge worker” in The Age of Discontinuity (1968) Peter Drucker offers this insight: the knowledge worker sees themselves as a skilled professional, or “white collar” to use an old term. To this end programmers, marketeers and conference producers see themselves as akin to doctors and lawyers.

But, Drucker says, these professionals are still employees and are seen by their employers as “workers” more akin to the “blue collar” factory employees of years gone by. I’ve long found it ironic that many contractors like to see themselves as entrepreneurs and small businesses while their clients may well see them more as casual day-labourers who can be hired and disposed of with little thought.

Quote from Peter Drucker book
Age of Discontinuity “The

Look at it like this: once upon a time the majority of employees would be working on the factory floor, their hands would get dirty. The work of the manger was to optimise both the work they were doing and the way the work was done, employees were probably not encouraged to think too much.

Today is the age of mass knowledge work – at least in developed western countries. The majority of employees type at keyboards and spend all day talking to others about ideas. Their hands stay clean.

Look at the qualifications people hold: in the past blue-collar workers might have a skill, many were “unskilled” or “semi skilled. Workers “trade” might be learned via an apprenticeship which involved observing and doing the work. Today we live in the age of mass knowledge work, the bulk of the workforce are not factory workers or dock labourers but educated analysts, programmers, accountants and such.

Modern blue-collar workers are overwhelmingly degree educated and do expect to have a say in their work – both what is done and how it is done.

When I visit clients I sometimes see – or rather hear – this explicitly when managerial types talk about “the factory floor” or “engine room” when they mean the offices where IT staff work. You see it too when teams are treated as “feature factories” and measured on how many “user stories” or “story points” they complete and how fast the burn-down chart burns down.

There is a mismatch in the way workers view themselves and the way the managers view the workers. This mismatch in views becomes a misunderstanding and can escalate into conflict.

Workers advocate replacing management with “self managing teams” and managers look to replace programmers with with automatic programming, “programming through pictures” or lately “lo code” solutions. Rather than resolving the conflict it becomes an existential fight. Sometimes it can even look like a modern class struggle between workers and employers.

There are no silver bullets to this conflict. Both sides needs to respect one another and we need to find a new understanding of roles.

One of my favourite takes on this dilemma comes from Tim O’Reilly. In an essay entitled “Managing the Bots That Are Managing the Business” (2016) he suggests that the true workers of today are the machines: it is the factory robots that assemble cars, take our online orders and increasingly do all the “heavy lifting”. The managers of these machines are the people who instruct the machine what to do and how to do it. Most obviously programmers but also the many who work use digital technology to instruct a machine, e.g. a marketeer who schedules tweets, or customer service agent who scripts the chat-bot.

Either way you look at it the fact is that modern blue collar workers need more of the skills and knowledge traditionally reserved for managers: they need to understand the profit and loss, plus they need to understand business goals and strategy and appreciate the consequences of their actions. And it means the white-collar managers of the managers need to respect the knowledge workers as peers rather than hired help, they need to be explain business goals, strategy and be open about the business.

It sometimes feels as if the “class war” of the early twentieth century is still with us. Only now it is not blue collar workers fighting white collar but white collar workers fighting between themselves.


Postscript: Marc Andreessen expresses similar sentiments in this interview with McKinsey: “That problem is that the true technologists inside so many big companies are not the primary people at the company. They’re not treated as first-class citizens”

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3 thoughts on “Class war in the modern workplace”

  1. Where does a Board of Directors or “the investors” or the COO tasked with eliminating inefficiencies fit in this narrative? I agree the blue collar workers of today must become more aware of the bigger picture and know their actions effect the bottom line. Same with the white collar managers needing to see their workers as more than an assembly line churning out products. But at the end of the day the managers are just as vulnerable as their line workers, because their salary is just another expense/cost that is diminishing the return on investment. If the managers can also be automated that’s even more money in the investors pockets, and isn’t that the most important responsibility of a CEO…to cut costs and maximize profits?

    Our society is going to change, and it’s not going to be like any transformation before. There won’t be enough jobs because the Have’s won’t have any reason to pay the Have-not’s for non-skilled labor or skilled knowledge work. They will need entertainment I suppose

  2. Postscript: I’m just filling in a Government form which demonstrates this beautifully, the form asks for references: “such a referee should be of professional standing, e.g., a solicitor, civil servant, teacher, accountant, bank manager or doctor.” See? – Solicitor, teach, accountant, bank manager, doctor are listed, not Data Scientist, Computer Programmer, Business Analyst, Scrum Master, or Marketing Executive or Social Media Analyst.

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