We are all knowledge workers now

Dr Robbie Smyth is the Deputy Head of the Journalism and Media Communications Faculty at Griffith College Dublin.

Even if it is pre-emptive to describe the current phase of economic disruption as a fourth industrial revolution as heralded by the World Economic Forum’s Klaus Schwab in 2016, there can be no doubt that the fundamentals of how we work are changing and that how we prepare students for a professional career outside of college must be cognisant of that.

An ever evolving process

Across the media faculty in Griffith College we have for over 20 years sought to surf the waves of change. Our reel to reel radio editing equipment gave way to mini discs and then a range of digital online recording and production tools emerged so that the first edits can now be done on a smart phone. 

Similar changes have happened in film and photography, while the ways we use words in articles in print, online, in tweets and hashtags is an ever evolving process.

While our industry was one of the first to be massively disrupted, the power unleashed by that fourth industrial revolution is all encompassing and every sector has had to accommodate change. 

The third level sector was, I believe, well prepared in one way for the social, economic and technological change of the last half century. 

This is shown in the growth of new programmes and the steady increase in degree level qualifications for a wider variety of disciplines. Higher Education Authority figures released in January registered a record number of third level students in Ireland. There were 231,720 students registered in Irish colleges. We have been successful in attracting students, but the next steps in creating the right learning environment are more complex.

Virtual learning environments

No matter the field of study or the discipline level we have learners in classes where they have often have a laptop, tablet or phone in lectures. They have access to virtual learning environments like Moodle or Blackboard, that link to class notes, readings and online journals. When you add the almost unlimited power of the internet to service research needs of students it would seem all the bases are covered. Some students have blended learning options also.

In Griffith College, our recent programmatic reviews, which involve consultation with industry and alumni, have shown the need for very specific general skills on top of the discipline related knowledge students acquire as they progress through a programme.

Reading as a skill

To expand on this let me explain from a personal example. With hindsight there were key elements that featured during my third level undergraduate experience as an arts student in University College Dublin. They defined my future career. Only two of these were directly related to the tuition provided and even here there was an element of chance.

A part time job in the library stacking books forced me for an hour a day to actually be present with the key texts for acquiring knowledge. Stacking journals day after day and reading the abstracts was an invaluable skill. I was learning how to focus my attention. 

This is a key skill of the busy distracting workplace, not to mention the absorbed digital lives we live. We could all benefit from a master class on this from Nir Eyal. We have rethought our study and academic skills modules in Griffith but this attention issue is becoming more critical.

Knowledge worker

Being put in front of a computer in both economics and political science in the mid 1980s was the defining point of my time in UCD. In the programmes we run at Griffith, I and my faculty colleagues have always endeavoured to ensure the latest relevant technology is front and centre for learners. 

The last two years it has been mobile journalism, the so called MoJo.

Learning various aspects and approaches to data analysis in economics, politics, philosophy and psychology became a critical skill. Peter Drucker was so right when he predicted the emergence of the knowledge worker in 1966. 

We are all knowledge workers now and the ability to gather, assess and interpret the data of your work is critical.

Simple communication skills

Finally two related skills that are so important today and were the common element in all our industry feedback. It was presentation and interview skills. 

My second part time college job was a two hour stint in the university restaurant. Every day I had to interact with demanding chefs, their support staff and over the years take the food orders and related queries of thousands of hungry students, as well as a few tricky lecturers, professors and deans too! 

Little did I know that simple communication skills would be a critical workplace skill. We have built them into all of our modules, and each semester our students have to present and discuss their work with their peers. There can be no better introduction to the workplace.

Attention

The future of work is one where graduates are not just technologically sophisticated and adaptable but can also talk, engage and discuss their discipline-related knowledge and skills with their colleagues and customers. 

To succeed in the future a worker needs the three elements. They are cutting edge technical knowledge of your discipline, sophisticated communication skills and a habit of critical analytical focussed attention.