Mutterings of a consultant

July 31, 2008

Demise of the knowledge worker

Filed under: Uncategorized — grantfrear @ 11:22 pm
Tags: , , ,

Well maybe not a complete demise but most certainly a geographic shift.  I have recently picked up Daniel Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind.  This book presents an argument for the growing importance of right brain dominated activity in the workplace.  Not all workplaces it must be said but those of advanced economies (which seems to be a polite way of saying 1st world or the western countries).

As others have done (see Dream Society) Pink reflects on the past ‘ages’ in our society and the dominant way that we as workers added value and participated in society.  While there is nothing new here he does communicate this analysis very well.  In summary (bullet points of course):

  • Starts with agricultural dominating our lives – physical labour is king
  • Along comes the industrial revolution – people move off the land thanks to machines and technology
  • However the machines need to be produced – off we go into the factories
  • Factories become increasingly automated (thanks again technology) and seek lower wage economies to remain competitive
  • Hello asia – off we go into the offices
  • Logical reasoning dominates, management, organisation, structure, information processing rules – hello accountants, consultants, analysts, lawyers, managers etc etc
  • Along comes technology again in the form of computers – jobs are automated, communications improves and things start to shift again
  • Hello asia (again) – the white collar jobs start moving to India in the form of offshoring

Back to current day.  This is in effect where we are up to in this ongoing and evolving story.  So where to next, we simply can’t fight machines, while our brains are the most complex thing we are aware of they can’t seem to compete with the speed and accuracy of a computer on pure logical tasks.  Furthermore for those logical repeatable tasks that cannot be automated asia beckons with a substantially cheaper workforce.

Enter Daniel Pink and many others.  Pink argues that we are coming near the end of left brain dominated activites (those that are structured, linear, repeatable etc) and we are on the cusp of right brain dominated activities (those that are creative, non-linear, conceptual etc). 

He and others make a compelling argument however one is left wondering how one can take an active role in this transition.  For myself and many others the left brain dominated approach is deeply ingrained, trained and rewarded.  The modern workplace, or at least the one I work in, provides strong signals that this approach is valued and rewarded.  Achievement, structure, progress, delivery, output.  Swimming against the left brain dominated status-quo will indeed be difficult.  If Pink and others are correct we will have little choice.  Perhaps NZ is somewhat more isolated to the affects of offshoring (at least at the moment) however in the globalised world we live in we will have little chance but to follow the crowds to asia for those areas that are left brain dominated and affect our ability to compete.



  1. An interesting and thoughtful post. However, while today’s archetypal knowledge worker may operate in predominately left-brain areas, right-brain (i.e. creative) thinking is also knowledge work.

    Rather than this being the era of the demise of the knowledge worker, I see it more as a shift from boring knowledge work to more interesting knowledge work.

    Comment by billbennettnz — August 7, 2008 @ 6:21 am | Reply

  2. […] on August 8th, 2008 At the Mutterings of a consultant blog Grant Frear writes about the demise of the knowledge worker. He refers to a book written by Daniel Pink called A Whole New Mind that argues people in the […]

    Pingback by Knowledge work: reports of its death are an exaggeration « Bill Bennett - knowledgeworking — August 7, 2008 @ 10:19 pm | Reply

  3. Thomas Friedman’s (Discovery Channel Journalist)book “The World is Flat” mentions much the same points as you have described above. Although quite US-centric it does mention steps the west needs to take to maintain their competitiveness and ensure jobs. Talks about all the process-oriented and automated jobs being done in cheaper locations and thought based work done in the traditional high income economies.

    I, however, am not so sure that in itself will be sufficient, because I think in the not too distant future there will be significant RnD (thought based) type work coming out of India and the like. So far it was a question of lack of money, facilities, infrastructure and resources, but that seems to be changing rapidly. India and China also have a huge advantage so far only enjoyed by the US i.e. a vast domestic market to test their products. However, there is a very long road ahead for this to happen, starting from a paradigm shift in the way tertiary education sector is organised (teaching intensive instead of research intensive) to the way big corporations function (implementing ideas generated elsewhere as opposed to creating new ideas).

    The potential for these countries to take on the world in terms of “right brain activities” exist, whether or not it will be realised remains to be seen. Interesting times ahead!


    Comment by S — August 10, 2008 @ 2:14 am | Reply

  4. I don’t believe the history and mankind’s developed has been predicated on left brain thinking. The things that have been invented e.g. ways for making fire, agriculture, wheel, written language, mathematics. machines, manufacturing etc. have been created, imagined, conceived of etc. When Einstein said
    “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.

    Comment by MJE — August 21, 2008 @ 3:17 am | Reply

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