Lawyers and accountants are in trouble. In the 21st century, it's the artists and designers who will be the workforce's MVPs. "The M.F.A. is the new M.B.A."-or so argues Daniel Pink in his new book A Whole New Mind.
Pink will discuss what he calls the shift "from the information age to the conceptual age" as the closing speaker at this month's ICB (Innovation Creativity Business) Summit hosted by Ringling School of Art and Design. To succeed in this new economy, he insists, people are going to need traditionally undervalued "right-brained" abilities like artistry and empathy.
Pink himself holds a law degree from Yale Law School, but is proud never to have practiced law. He is the former chief speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore (the "reinventing government" Gore of the mid-'90s), the author of Free Agent Nation and a contributing editor for Wired magazine.
"M.B.A.s have become commoditized," preaches the Washington, D.C.-based Pink. "The work they do is somewhat routine. It's much harder to outsource creating beauty, whereas cranking numbers is easy."
Can you explain this shift to the conceptual age? I'm arguing that what's traditionally considered left-brain, logical, analytical abilities are tilting away. It's a shift in favor of the more right-brained abilities of creativity, innovation, empathy, design, meaning-those are going to be the make-or-break abilities, both on the level of the individual and on the level of the firm.
Target is a good example of what I'm talking about. They had two ways to compete against Wal-Mart: price or design. It's very hard to compete against Wal-Mart on price. So Target's chosen a right-brained approach; they're producing high-design products at a relatively low price. In essence, they're trying to democratize design, taking something that's usually reserved for the elite and the effete and bringing it to the middle class. This has been an enormously successful business strategy.
Why is this shift happening? First, material levels are so high these days, you can't just sell something functional that really works. Consumers have so many choices, and everything works pretty well. You can get a Michael Graves-designed toilet brush for $5.99 at Target. And cell phones. Cell phones have gone from a technological product to a design product. It's really all about the different ring tones you can get, the design, the digital camera in it, what kind of shell covers are available. The functional technology itself is all pretty reliable-we know we'll get one that's going to work.
Today there are more cars in the country than licensed drivers. If you want to go from point A to point B, you can do this. That's why you hear General Motors say all the time that they're in the art and entertainment business, not just the automobile business. And this is General Motors! You obviously still have to have engineering and mechanics and all that, but the importance of those skills is significantly less.
It has a lot to do with the incredibly high standard of living in this country. Middle class people today have been to Europe, they own their own cars, they own homes, they have a greatly improved standard of living. That's changed the nature of business. Basic, functional need is sated, and people are looking to fulfill their more emotional and spiritual needs.
Then you have the rise of Asia. Jobs like accounting and computer programming, jobs that involve fixing bugs or fabricating things-essentially anything that can be reduced to a function-can get done more cheaply in India. We've seen this in the last generation with blue-collar work, and now we're seeing it in white-collar work. So workers here are going to have to supplement those types of abilities with artistry and innovation.
What can employers do? Certain types of work are being automated. If you're an accountant, you face competition from TurboTax. So I would say employers are looking for things Asia can't do cheaper, computers can't do faster, things that meet the spiritual needs of people today.
But are left-brained and right-brained people really that separate? I don't mean that in a literal, neuroscientific way. It used to be you could get by on the metaphorical "left-brain" abilities, but that's no longer true. They can be outsourced and automated. If you want to succeed, you have to have these different abilities. The left brain/right brain thing is just an easy metaphor for describing those types of abilities.
Empathy and design skills-can they be developed? A lot of these [right-brained qualities] are fundamental human abilities we just haven't exercised in a while. I think most people are intrinsically empathic. We can get much better at understanding facial expressions-that's the way people convey emotions to other people. There's a professor named Paul Ekman at the University of California at San Francisco, for example, who has a book and a set of CD-ROMs called Emotions Revealed that can help make you better at reading facial expressions.
Another way is by volunteering. People who do community service become very empathic. Good designers need to be very empathic, to stand in someone else's shoes, see with someone else's eyes, feel with their hearts. So one thing designers can do is take someone's purse and go through their items to see what type of person this is. You can't go to school and get a degree in empathy.
In your commencement address at Ringling last year, you said there will come a day when a kid will come to his parents and say, "I want to go to law school." And the parents will say disparagingly, "What are you going to do with that?" Do you really think we just won't need lawyers anymore? We'll still need lawyers and accountants, but we'll need fewer. They'll be doing a different type of work. If you go to a factory today, you're not going to see guys in jumpsuits turning bolts and cranking wheels. You'll see guys in suits and ties crunching numbers and filling out forms. The same thing is going to be true analogously with lawyers and accountants. The ones who remain won't simply be cranking out numbers and filling out forms.
What's an example of the innovative duties a lawyer will be expected to fulfill? Say you want an uncontested divorce. It would cost you $3,000 if you want a lawyer. But it's not complicated because no one is arguing. There is a Web site now, called CompleteCase.com, where you can get an uncontested divorce online for only $249.
The lawyers who remain are going to be doing things that computers can't do, like mediation. Mediation is hard to automate, because it's about listening to people and hearing the unspoken messages in what people are saying. A lawyer doing mediation will be in fine shape. So will a lawyer doing trials, going to a jury, making a narrative case, talking in front of people and reading their faces. Lawyers who are doing document-based work are going to be in trouble.
The same for accountants. Accountants who are simply fulfilling a function and following rules are going to disappear. The folks who remain can also show greater measures of empathy, and can morph into a broader financial planner for a family, understand their life goals, dreams and need and desires, and incorporate that into financial advice.
So how can employers recruit these creative skills? Do they need new recruiting techniques? Maybe. Or recruiting from new places. GM hired several sculptors from Rhode Island School of Design. Microsoft also hired some sculptors. It means looking in new places. It means looking for a different type of person, a broader or whole-minded person. It requires building up a greater relationship with potential recruits. It requires something different from doing a keyword search, entering that in a database, or looking at 1,000 resumes. Certainly recruiting designers requires looking at their portfolio. There might be ways of that in other professions as well.
Ringling School of Art and Design and the Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota County are hosting the national Innovation Creativity Business Summit in Sarasota, Wednesday, Oct. 5 through Friday, Oct. 7. The conference is designed for entrepreneurs and executives from small to medium-size businesses, and will include interactive workshops and national speakers. For more information or reservations, go to www.icbsummit.com or call toll-free (866) ICB-3443.