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Talent Revisited: The End Of Professions?

May 7, 2008

At the ISM conference in St Louis this week, Daniel Pink (author of “A Whole New Mind”) gave his take on the challenges and opportunities for talent in the 21st century business.

Pink’s suggestion is that changes in the economy are putting a premium on specific types of capability – and that this is challenging the dominance of the traditional professions. Lawyers, accountants, engineers – while still worthy roles – will wield far less influence in the new economy – because they are left-brain dominant. And the future, according to Pink, increasingly favors right-brain thinking.

For those not ‘in the know’ on right versus left-brain characteristics, they broadly boil down to people who are linear, analytical, sequential, quantitative, numeric (left-brain) and those who are more inclined to multi-task, see context, synthesize. In traditional businesses, the logical, linear skills used to be the most important – making ‘professionals’ the dominant management groups. But while these roles remain necessary, they are no longer sufficient. The networked world is placing a premium on those who also display inventiveness, big-picture thinking, the ability to see connections.

Right-brain thinkers are more able to see nuances, to see shadows, to sense degrees of tone or light, proportions, space – hence they tend to be better ‘relationship’ people. And as we all know, the ability to form and manage ‘relationships’ is becoming a dominant influence in our networked world.

Pink went on to describe three great influences shaping our world and destiny. These he defined as ‘abundance’ (the fact that in the west, and in the US particularly, people live in a state of material abundance, increasingly buying things that they didn’t even know they needed. As evidence of this ‘excess’, he highlighted the growth of the self-storage industry – which now earns an amazing $22.6bn annually in the US (to be honest, I am not sure many other countries even have ‘self-storage’ at any measurable level).

His second force is Asia – and the pure volume of people that can be deployed to support global markets. Pink declared that “Outsourcing has been over-hyped in the short run” (there is far less of it than people think) “and under-hyped in the long run” (there will be lots more of it). The vast imbalance in numbers of people means that Asia will come to dominate in terms of available skills and purely ‘smart’ people. So future outsourcing will move from routine tasks to higher value work.

Finally, he cited automation. This replaces logical, rules-based work – because the fact it is logical and rules-based makes it programmable.

So the ‘new’ professional will be good at what? According to Pink, they will excel in areas like knowledge management, they will exhibit empathy, they will be good story-tellers, they will be good at ‘symphony’, by which he means joining dots in a mass of information.

There is certainly a large amount of evidence to back up Pink’s concepts. They reflect the work that IACCM has been undertaking in recent years both in its assessment of required skills and in the re-shaping of organizations to enable such skills to flourish (because traditional functional structures actively discourage such behaviors on any significant scale). Our research also demonstrates the problem when we look at the ‘alienation’ of today’s networked youth from the traditional corporate workplace and heirarchies.

Back in 2006, at the IACCM Americas conference, I posed the question about what jobs parents should recommend for their children. By way of illustration, I listed the careers open to children in the late middle ages – and contrasted them with those of the industrial age. As we now move into the information age, how many of today’s roles will survive? Based on history, very few. The questions we are asking simply are not radical enough; organizations are looking for evolution when they should be considering revolution. I’ll write more about that – with a few specific examples – later this week.


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