2016 was the year of the primal scream. A bitter Brexit followed by a triumphant Trump. The developed world rebelled, convulsed and finally exploded against decades of non-stop outsourcing and relentless automation. No more chatter about free trade, yelled a majority of voters. No more tolerance for politicians spewing the merits of globalization and immigration. The jobs we want in our future are the jobs of our past. Give us back our well-paying, inflation-protected jobs in manufacturing and knowledge sectors. Turn back the clock and transport us to the good old times once again, asserted the majority. In an atavistic act at the ballot box.
Closer home in our developing world, it is no bed of roses. The idea of jobless economic growth, once an oxymoron, has entered our consciousness. It is possible for an economy to grow 5-7% annually without creating too many new jobs. I live in one of India's high-profile IT cities. The other day, a friend who leads the Indian subsidiary of a global software firm said, without a hint of irony, that he was shipping high tech jobs out of our fair city to a new unit in Vietnam. Soon after, a local entrepreneur mentioned in passing that he had moved his software development center out of our bustling metropolis to a laidback tier-2 city in Gujarat. Pray why? Lower costs and better work culture, they both said. This then is the cold and brutal logic of globalization. What the right hand giveth, the left hand taketh away.
If outsourcing is a thorn in our side, AI-laced automation is a dagger in our back. Dubai is on record that 25% of its transportation will be driver-less by 2030. Assembly lines at automobile manufacturing plants now teem with robots. Software bots are ready to offer mutual funds advisory services. IBM's Watson is sucking in all medical knowledge known to humankind in its quest to become the world's most trusted doctor and diagnostician. Even in education, talk is turning to digital learning assistants; software bots that can provide custom-learning plans and monitor student performance at a granular, personal level. Learning foreign languages used to mean weekly treks across town. Now a smartphone app and a comfy couch can get your German fully up to snuff. What experts can do, smart machines can do. Faster, cheaper, better!
What is the modern professional class to do? Are we, the beneficiaries of the knowledge era, just sitting ducks waiting for outsourcing or automation to claim our jobs and delete-shift us into oblivion? Is the knowledge worker a dead man walking? These questions were elegantly answered by Daniel Pink more than a decade ago, in his book A Whole New Mind. The world was changing irreversibly because of Abundance, Asia and Automation, predicted Pink. Any knowledge work done by the left brain via repetitive application of rules, no matter how sophisticated, would be invariably disrupted and dislocated. Routine bread-and-butter tasks in information processing, engineering, accounting, law, and medicine would be either outsourced to cheap, skilled workers situated far away, or simply handed over to machines. Left-brained skills were no longer adequate to insure our future.
Pink prescribed a booster dose of right brain skills as the way forward. Knowledge workers must upgrade their grey matter post haste. They must acquire skill sets that weren't expected of them in the past. For example, satisfying functional requirements is very important, but designing an aesthetic, joyous user experience is worth its weight in gold. A scripted sales pitch can sell goods today, but deep empathetic listening creates a permanent connect with customers and generates a lifetime of priceless value. Marketers must articulate the features and benefits of their products and services, but the best among them are brilliant story-tellers who can enthrall buyers. Business leaders can either issue instructions to their teams on what to do and how to do it, or they can electrify them with the big picture of why their business is transformative and life changing. Giving a formal lecture can change a few minds, but channeling it through an exciting game of experiential learning will change many hearts. In effect, the operating system of our brains should be upgraded to fashion a whole new mind capable of suffusing work with greater purpose. The skill sets of the future would include design, empathy, story-telling, synthesis, playfulness and a search for meaning.
Ned Herrman is a creativity psychologist who designed and managed many highly regarded management education programs at GE. He is famous for his Whole Brain Model with its four distinct quadrants that represent different thinking styles. The left brain contains quadrants A and B, the analytical brain and the sequential brain respectively. The right brain comprises quadrants C and D, the interpersonal brain and the imaginative brain respectively. The analytical brain (quadrant A) makes sense of data and information and is the primary engine of our ability to reason and solve problems. The sequential brain (quadrant B) carries out step-by-step instructions, plans and organizes work, and makes sure we get things done. The interpersonal brain (quadrant C) connects us with fellow human beings by way of words, actions, emotions, and feelings. The imaginative brain (quadrant D) is the seat of our creativity, imagination, inspiration, and intuition, and a keeper of the deep secrets that make us human.
Pink's Whole New Mind and Herrman's Whole Brain Model are invaluable survival guides in the forward march of globalization and automation. Brexit and Trump notwithstanding, our proverbial cheese has moved far and will never return to its original place. In the future, knowledge professionals living solely off of their analytical and sequential brains are likely to experience limited shelf lives. On the other hand, professionals who cultivate and nurture their interpersonal and imaginative brains will enjoy tremendous relevance and a lucrative market for their skills. Outsourcing and machines may be a clear and present threat to our livelihoods, but our grey matter is equal to the task. At the cusp of 2017, say hello to wholesome brains!
Santanu Paul is co-Founder and CEO at TalentSprint, and reachable at [email protected] and @SantanuXPaul