Has Google made knowledge workers irrelevant?

Investment bankers can be categorized as belonging to the “knowledge worker” employee pool. A term coined by Peter Drucker in 1957, knowledge workers, he says are “the most valuable asset of a 21st-century institution, whether business or non-business.”

Sixty years later and knowledge workers are still the go-forward hiring model of most businesses. And it would seem necessary given that about 40% of a knowledge worker’s day is spent searching for information. I think this number pertains to junior bankers, too; I would imagine most would concede that about half of their day is spent corralling data.

But Google, smartphones, and the propensity to share and not hoard learnings across disciplines and geographies has changed the value of knowledge. It’s no longer the possession of information that matters, but the ability to deploy it artfully. The smartest person in the room may be whoever has the fastest smartphone and best Google game, but that doesn’t mean they are the person you want on your team. After all, as Jacob Morgan, a Forbes contributor and Futurist points out, the emergence of “smart assistants”, such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Echo, means that knowledge is no longer power, but power is what you do with your knowledge.

"Knowledge is no longer power, but power is what you do with your knowledge."

Eric Schmidt, Google’s former chief executive officer argues that the knowledge worker’s reign is over and has been replaced by “smart creatives.” He writes, “These are the folks who combine technical knowledge, business expertise, and creativity.”

Smart creatives have also been called “learning workers”, or as the New York Timesdescribes them “digital-age descendants of yesterday’s ‘knowledge workers.” A defining characteristic of this worker type is that information isn't something to be closely guarded and a measurement of the worker’s value to a company, but instead worth is derived from the employee's ability to “learn how to learn”; that is to supplement base skills with new information and apply that knowledge to different situations.

While it’s a new way for many industries to consider its workforce, I would argue being creatively smart has always been the M.O. for management consultants and investment bankers.

Smart creative is probably not a label you’d volunteer for, but as a banker it is something you probably are. To be successful in banking, you need to take a core set of skills and apply them to a specific company or situation using applied learning. One of my first assignments as a banker was to go toe-to-toe with an expert in aircraft financing. This required me to also become an expert—with only three days to prepare. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t my area of expertise, it mattered that I knew financial concepts and could overlay new airline knowledge on top to generate a strategy.

"To be successful in banking, you need to take a core set of skills and apply them to a specific company or situation using applied learning."

The great empowerer of the learning worker is technology; the ability to share and access knowledge for creative application. In investment banking, the skill of the worker and the function of technology have evolved at different speeds. The concept of the learning worker is not new, but the technology required to commoditize and distribute information to support creativity is.

Technology doesn’t just break down information; it can also take on the burden of lower-level tasks, freeing up time for employees to focus on strategic advice and not information gathering. We’ve seen some of this potential realized in finance, such as the emergence of robo-advisors in the wealth management space and customized, data compression assistants like Kensho and AlphaSense on the buy-side.

Leveraging tech to connect vertical and group expertise will enable bankers to focus more on the application of knowledge instead of searching for it. To get to this state, KPOs need to evolve, SaaS solutions should take on lower-level work, and technology platforms have to support bankers by surfacing knowledge as needed. Implementing a strategy that incorporates multiple technologies and outsourcing solutions such as these will free up banks’ smart creatives to be even more creatively smart.

What are your views on being a smart creative? And the technology needed to take it even further? Email me at adrian.s.crockett@gmail.com.