Knowledge Workers and
the revolution in Adult Education
from The Jobs Letter No.125 / 2 June 2000
- Triggered by the internet, continuing adult education looks set become a major growth industry.
PETER DRUCKER, America's leading corporate management guru, now 90 years of age,
has just produced ten teaching programmes to be marketed on the internet by Corpedia.
Writing in this month's Forbes magazine, Drucker says that online continuing education is
creating a new and distinct educational realm, and it will be the future of education. American
educational institutions now have their eye on a global education market that is potentially worth hundreds
of billions of dollars.
In this special feature, we present a summary of Drucker's thoughts on the future of online
- Education is already grabbing a major chunk of the gross national product. The US
now spends around $1 trillion on education and training. This number will increase rapidly, but
the growth won't be in traditional schools, which currently take about 10% of the GNP
(kindergarten through high school, 6%; colleges and universities, 4%). The growth will be in continuing
Online delivery is the trigger for this growth, but the demand for lifetime education stems
from profound changes in society. In simplest terms, people who are already highly educated and
high achievers increasingly sense that they are not keeping up.
"The means are finally at hand to improve productivity in education..."
Men and women in their mid-forties are going back to school because they want and need
new ways of looking at things outside of their competencies. They want to learn to see things
whole. Many of them are there to reflect on their experiences, to see them in a broader perspective.
They need this perspective to cope with today's bewildering technological and economic changes.
Engineers tell me that they need a thorough refresher course in their specialties at least
every other year and a "reimmersion" - their word -in the basics at least every four years.
So do millions of other knowledge workers. The market for continuing education is already
much bigger than most people realize. A good guess is that it already accounts for 6% of GNP in
the US and is rapidly getting there in other developed countries. It is going to get a lot higher.
- Why this explosion of demand? We live in an economy where knowledge, not buildings
and machinery, is the chief resource and where knowledge-workers make up the biggest part of
the work force. Until well into the 20th century, most workers were manual workers. Today in
the US, only about 20% do manual work. Of the remainder, nearly half, 40% of our total work
force, are knowledge-workers. The proportions are roughly similar for other developed countries.
- Workers have always had to gain skills, but knowledge is different from skill. Skills
change very slowly. If Socrates were to return to the world and resume his trade as a stonemason,
he would recognize every tool and would know how to use it. His finished product would be
identical for practical purposes with the steles he hewed for a living 2,400 years ago. My Dutch
ancestors ran a print shop in Amsterdam from 1517 until around 1730. In all those centuries none
of them had to learn a new skill. It was the same in most industries.
"A great thing about knowledge is that it is mobile and transferable. It belongs to you, not to
your employer or the state. And it is highly marketable today..."
For most of human history a skilled worker had learned what he needed to learn by the time
his apprenticeship was finished at 18 or 19. Not so with the modern knowledge-worker.
Physicians, medical technicians in the pathology lab, computer-repair people, lawyers and human
resource managers can scarcely keep up with developments in their fields. This is why so many
professional associations put continuing education among their highest priorities.
- Keeping up with knowledge and seeing the world whole mattered less in the days of
lifetime employment. When young people took a job at Metropolitan Life or the telephone company
or General Motors or Royal Dutch/Shell or Mitsubishi, they often expected to remain there
That assumed that the company would be around for the rest of one's career. In fact, few
companies remain successful for more than two to three decades, and that organisational life span
is shrinking. And not just in declining industries. In 1990 Digital Equipment Corp. was the
second-biggest company in the computer industry; a decade later it no longer exists as an
independent company. In the early 1980s nothing could stop IBM; in the 1990s it shed more than
100,000 jobs. Does anyone remember the once-great British motorcar industry?
As giant companies spin off manufacturing operations in favor of outsourcing, job
turnover mounts. A young person entering the work force in 2000, with a possible working life of
50 years, has little expectation and almost no chance of working for the same company even a
decade hence. In this world people must take responsibility for their own futures. They cannot
simply count on ascending a career ladder.
- A great thing about knowledge is that it is mobile and transferable. It belongs to you, not
to your employer or the state. And it is highly marketable today.
- With a potential market for continuing adult education thus embracing at least 40% of
the typical developed-country's work force, conventional institutions no longer suffice. They are
too expensive and insufficiently accessible in a physical sense. In Southern California, where I
teach, the highways are clogged. People who have families and are already working a full day can
ill afford the commuting time to get to a traditional school. They need accessible and flexible
ways of learning.
Already colleges and universities are putting some of their best teachers and their best courses
on the Internet. Students can access this sort of material from their homes at their own
convenience. Or the learning can be digitized and sent to satellite learning centers, where small groups
of students can meet after working hours.
Imagine the potential in online learning for the world's poor countries to leapfrog their way up
the development ladder. Assuming that their politicians do not try to control the Internet's
content and delivery systems, people in the developing countries will be able to use the Internet to
access the developed-world's best brains and valuable data, without the expense of building and
staffing great universities. Bright and ambitious young men and women of the emerging-market
countries will get first-class educations without leaving home--thereby addressing the brain-drain
problem that has helped to widen the gap between rich and poor nations.
- Judging by historical experience, the new online continuing education of the already
well-educated will not replace traditional education. New channels of distribution are typically
additions and complements rather than replacements. Television, for example, did not kill radio
or magazines or books. The new medium, TV, walked off with much of the growth, but the
other media continued to thrive and grow, too.
Online teaching, however, is more than just time-efficient and cost-efficient. It is more
flexible than the classroom in that the student not getting the point right away can replay the material.
The interactivity of online education, its facility for blending graphics and pictures with the
spoken word, give it an advantage over the typical classroom.
With the interactivity of the Internet, we get the equivalent of a one-to-one teacher-student
ratio. Around the world, chat rooms or study groups can easily be formed to discuss how best to
apply global ideas to local businesses or health or other organizations. In short, the means are finally
at hand to improve productivity in education.
Source - Forbes 15 May 2000 "Putting More Now Into The Internet" by Peter F. Drucker, full feature available at
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