Sunday, July 10, 2005

Who's Left? Right! (part one)

When I was a kid in small time Canada, getting good grades, going to university, and pursuing a profession that offers a decent standard of living was what one did. If you were good at math and science, become a doctor. If you were better at English and history, become a lawyer. If blood grossed you out and your verbal skills needed work, become an accountant. Later, as computers appeared on desktops and magical CEOs on magazine covers, those who were really good at math and science chose high tech, while others flocked to business school, thinking that success was spelled with an M and a B and then an A.

During this time, Peter Drucker coined an enduring, if somewhat wonky, name: knowledge workers. These are, he wrote, "people who get paid for putting to work what one learns in school rather than for their physical strength or manual skill." Any of us could join their ranks. All we had to do was study hard and play by the rules of the game. That was the path to professional success and personal fulfillment.

But a funny thing happened while we were pressing our noses to the grindstone: The world changed. The future no longer belongs to people who can reason with computer-like logic, speed, and precision. It no longer belonged to those that 'owned' the information. The future is starting to belong to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind. Right? Right!

Scientists have long known that a neurological Berlin Wall cleaves our brains (100 billion cells forging 1 quadrillion connections) into two regions - the left and right hemispheres. The left hemisphere handles sequence, literalness, and analysis. The right hemisphere, meanwhile, takes care of context, emotional expression, and synthesis.

Until recently, the abilities that led to success in school, work, and business were characteristic of the left hemisphere. They were the sorts of linear, logical, analytical talents measured by year end exams and GMATs. Today, those capabilities are simply no longer sufficient. In a world upended by outsourcing, overwhelmed with unstructured data, and choked with choices, the abilities will make the most impact are the specialties of the right hemisphere - artistry, creativity, empathy, seeing the big picture, and pursuing the transcendent.

Beneath the nervous clatter of our half-completed decade stirs a slow but seismic shift. The Information Age, yes, that time that some of you are still waiting for... well, it's already ending! Rising in its place is what may be called the 'Conceptual Age'.

The effect: the scales tilting in favour of right brain-style thinking. The causes fall along the same 'China and Chips' argument but if I expanded this argument, I think they are: Asia, automation, and abundance.

Asia

Few issues today spark more controversy than outsourcing. White-collar workers in India, the Philippines, and China are scaring the holy smokes out of software jockeys across North America and Europe. And it's not just tech work. Visit India's office parks and you'll see chartered accountants preparing American tax returns, lawyers researching American lawsuits, and radiologists reading CAT scans for Canadian hospitals.

As the cost of communicating with the other side of the globe falls essentially to zero, as India becomes the country with the most English speakers in the world, and as developing nations continue to create extremely capable knowledge workers, the professional lives of people in the West will change dramatically.

Narrow left-brain work such as basic computer coding, accounting, legal research, and financial analysis is migrating across the oceans. Wanna get ahead? You must do right-brain work better.

In a few days, I talk about the 2nd cause - automation. You get it, Right?

PS: If you are reading this Annina, I was only kidding about the 'year end exams'. They are still VERY important for you!!

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