The Future Of Work: Will Right-Brained Workers Own the 21st Century?

A Whole New MindLast month — courtesy of Nokia (s nok) — I had the privilege of attending one of the most exciting conferences in the technology calendar, TEDGlobal 2009. Though TED is invitation-only — and monstrously expensive at $4,500 — it succeeds in bringing together an extraordinarily diverse range of speakers and delegates…plus, everyone gets a really, really cool gift bag!

The final session of the week-long conference opened with Daniel Pink, a former speechwriter for Al Gore, now a “career analyst” investigating and examining the changing patterns of work around the world.

Pink has been the subject of much attention lately, with his assertions that “right-brainers will rule this century,” as well as high-profile appearances at TED and a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey. These assertions offer some intriguing insights into “the future of work in a post-broadband world” — notably the patterns of work, business relationships, structures and skills that we’ll perhaps require in the future.

Pink’s latest book speaks of a “conceptual age” of work where “left-brained” reasoning will need to be augmented by what he describes as six critical “right-brain” qualities:

  1. Design — The ability to conceive more than purely functional services or products, and develop emotionally engaging, joyful and attractive solutions.
  2. Story — In a society abundant with data, the ability to weave a compelling narrative will become increasingly crucial.
  3. Symphony — Being able to synthesize disparate, often disconnected, developments into something new, often straddling many industries, will be the basis of innovation.
  4. Empathy — Looking beyond analytics to understand underlying motivations can provide unique and distinct insights.
  5. Play — Wiring levity and play into cultures, experiences and solutions where appropriate.
  6. Meaning — Moving past material abundance to “work on stuff that matters.”

Pink’s TED session focused less on these attributes and more on empirical analysis of how workers are usually incentivized, concluding that contemporary incentive systems actually destroy creativity and that autonomy, mastery and purpose are better notions of management than traditional compliance, citing Atlassian as a prime example of a company that incentivizes right-brain activities.

The six aptitudes discussed above may invite controversy and are there to be challenged, but I’m certain many of our readers are already exhibiting many of these qualities, though perhaps without an explicit awareness of doing so. The real value of Pink’s work is in providing labels and language that become the starting point for discussion and debate. For example, how do you get good at symphony?”

In an interesting counterpoint to Pink’s assertions, Wired UK recently ran a piece,Stand by for Google’s next market-changing move,” that explores the trends towards the left-brained in the advertising industry; where “data is valued more highly than relationships…and creative genius.”

Read more at TED, Daniel Pink’s site, Oprah and Cooltown Studios.

Are you practicing any of Daniel Pink’s right-brained qualities?