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Trend: The future of knowledge…..

If knowledge is doubling every eight years, no single person can keep up with it. That fosters greater fragmentation of skills, and thus greater competition in the marketplace for niche-oriented skills.

I’m working away at preparing for a keynote for an ice-cream and dairy company today. Not that this has anything to do with the topic of the “future of knowledge.”

But going through some old slide decks while preparing, I came across a list I used a year ago for a keynote that summarized my thoughts about the “future of knowledge.”

I’ve written extensively about all of these topics online or speak to them at various keynotes, particularly in the education sector. In essence, we’re living in a period of time that is witnessing these trends unfold at blinding speed, all related to the evolution of knowledge.

  1. Rapid knowledge obsolescence
  2. Rapid knowledge emergence
  3. Disappearance of existing careers due to 1)
  4. Rapid emergence of new careers due to 2)
  5. An ongoing need for continuous knowledge replenishment because of 1-4
  6. The migration of knowledge generation further away from academia (i.e. community colleges, high end manufacturing skills) because of the need for faster new knowledge deployment
  7. A massively increased challenge from overseas knowledge generation
  8. The fast emergence of new micro-careers because of specialized knowledge
  9. An economy that succeeds through knowledge deployment
  10. A fundamental transformation in knowledge delivery

Putting a little more detail on these trends? A few years ago I addressed a prestigious groups of educators on this theme. Here’s what I covered. All the quotes are verbatim from my keynote.

1. Knowledge is growing exponentially. For example, the rate of discovery based on research into gene variants for common diseases is increasing rapidly: One or two were discovered each year beginning in 2000; thousands were discovered in 2007. “This knowledge reorients the entire medical system, from one where patients are treated once they are sick to one where patients are treated for what they are likely to develop as a result of their genetic makeup.
The volume of medical knowledge is doubling every eight years, and similar changes are occurring in other trades and professions.”

How is the fundamental business model of education challenged by exponential growth? Should it continue to focus on providing a fundamental body of knowledge over four years of higher education and then send graduates out into the world? Or should it be doing more?

2. The foundation of knowledge generation has changed. Academia was once the home of most of the fundamental research that occurred in the world; a majority of new discoveries took place in the world of higher education. “Higher education is no longer the central force in the generation of knowledge There are different terms for what has replaced it: peer-based knowledge, community knowledge or the infinite global idea cycle. For example, in terms of renewable energy and green technologies, some of the research and development is occurring in the world of academia, but it is also occurring in the global idea machine. Ten years ago, knowledge generation was based on peer-review journals (a slow, careful and deliberative process) — but today, backyard tinkerers are plugged into a global network of peers. The impact of this trend is that the rate of scientific discovery speeds up; the new way leads to much faster innovation.”

What is the role of traditional academia in the era of community knowledge? How should the business model change to respond to this new reality?

3. The velocity of knowledge is accelerating. The typical video game makes 60 to 70 percent of its money in the first four or five days after it is released. Everything is focused on maximizing revenue at the beginning. The next generation of televisions, LED televisions, is expected to have only 18 to 24 months to maximize revenue before they are obsolete and replaced by the next generation of televisions. “Ideas can go from concepts to an industry literally overnight. Anyone can put an idea out into the global idea machine where someone else can grab it and build on it. Knowledge is being impacted by velocity.”

All areas are affected; for example, in construction, new methods, new materials and new priorities, such as eco-design, are changing the way buildings are built. In every profession and career, the ability to keep up with new knowledge and to act upon it defines success. College graduates will encounter constant change in their work lives. Can education challenge itself to deploy knowledge faster? Or do we have a fundamental business model that is slow to react in a world that is quickly catching up?

4. Exponential growth of knowledge leads to massive career specialization. It increases the volume of knowledge workers are expected to have, and it speeds up the pace of developments that can impact careers. “If knowledge is doubling every eight years, no single person can keep up with it. That fosters greater fragmentation of skills, and thus greater competition in the marketplace for niche-oriented skills.”

For example, in terms of the trades, there is a huge volume of new technical knowledge to master. There is a niche for manufacturing engineers who understand all the new manufacturing methodologies and thus can help companies compete with offshore manufacturers. There is a need for manufacturing engineers who are “process transformation specialists,” focused on how to streamline an existing manufacturing process. “We are reaching a world in which everything around us is getting plugged into everything else. And as everything is getting plugged in, manufacturing is fundamentally changing.”

Is our future narrow in terms of what we deliver? Is our future wide? Do we focus on narrow niches, wide areas of knowledge, or both?

5. Fundamental structural organizational change is occurring. How we think about careers and jobs is undergoing a substantial change. There are unique ideas as to what constitutes a career. “Evidence of this shift is that baby boomers tend to ask, ‘What do you do for a living?’ while those under age 25 ask, ‘What do you like to do?’ Watch for this. The new generation prefers to get work done in odd hours, using BlackBerrys; they care less about structure. They define their lives not by what they do for a living, but what they like to do. It is a fundamental, significant transformation — and I don’t think we appreciate the depths of what it means in terms of the future of knowledge.

But it’s not just happening with them. There is a prediction that in the U.S., 60 percent of consulting engineers will be freelancers — nomadic workers for hire — making their specialized skills available to organizations on a just-in-time basis. Do you think a lot of Fortune 1000 companies will hire full-time employees after the current economic situation is resolved? No, because they will recognize the cost of employees in terms of health care and other long-term investment. Increasingly, American workers will become nomadic workers for hire. We are witnessing the end of the concept of the organization as we know it. As far back as 1987, an op-ed in the New York Times referenced a ‘world without walls,’ where corporations would hire people with specialized skills on a demand basis. What’s fascinating here is that we are seeing the development of the extreme specialist at the same time that we see the emergence of the extreme knowledge generalist. For example, “hospitalists”: People who understand all the medical specialists and understand how hospitals work; their role is to guide patients through the increasing complexities of the system. This career is expected to grow from the current 12,000 hospitalists to 130,000 by 2010. We have to acknowledge these two key trends — the fast emergence of niche skills deployment and the emergence of masters of generalization — to determine how to educate people to simply understand the high-velocity knowledge niching that is occurring in the world today.

6. By 2020 or sooner, it will be all about “just-in-time knowledge.”In a world of fast knowledge development, none of us will have the capability to know much of anything at all. The most important skill we will have will be the ability to go out to get the right knowledge for the right purpose at the right time.”

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