Routine work will be offshored or automated leaving innovation for North America

The HR challenge of the future is to identify creative, empathic talent, says author Daniel Pink

In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink writes that due to increased automation, market saturation and outsourcing to Asia, the workforce is shifting away from “left brain” (analytical) thinking and toward “right brain” qualities such as inventiveness, empathy and meaning. Canadian HR Reporter’s Shannon Klie spoke with him about the future of the workplace.

Q: In your book, you talk about a seismic shift in the workplace. What do you mean?

The abilities that used to get you ahead in the world of work — logical, linear, analytical, spreadsheet, zero-in-on-the-right-answer abilities — are still necessary but no longer sufficient.

The abilities that matter most now are a set of abilities we often haven’t taken seriously enough: artistry, empathy and big-picture thinking. The scales are tilting away from left brain abilities towards these right brain abilities.

The reasons for this shift are important. An abundant marketplace has put a premium less on the functional aspects of goods, services and experiences and more on the esthetic, emotional and spiritual side.

The rise of Asia means that over time we’ll export an enormous amount of routine, white-collar, left-brain work. And automation means that over time we’re increasingly automating certain kinds of left-brain, white-collar work. You see it in legal websites, in tax-preparation software, even to some extent in medical diagnosis software.

Q: What will the workforce look like as “right-brain” skills become more important?

In terms of the composition of existing jobs, there are a lot of functions within professions that are routine. By routine I mean those kinds of functions that can be reduced to a script, a spec sheet, a set of rules, a set of instructions or a formula that you can write down and give to someone else.

Those kinds of functions within accounting and law and other kinds of white-collar professions are increasingly going to be automated and offshored.

An accountant is going to spend less of his or her time on routine calculations and number crunching, and more time on the empathic side of financial advice — understanding where the clients are coming from, dealing with complicated problems — rather than on the routine ones.

It doesn’t mean that accountants are going to disappear, but it means that the substance of what an accountant does is going to shift away from these rule-based functions towards putting a premium on understanding clients, on empathy, on helping people plan their financial lives, on being attuned to that person’s dreams and hopes and also wrestling with much more complicated problems.

It will likely also give rise to an array of new jobs. There’s a lot of opportunity for people in product development. Not so much in cranking out someone else’s designs but in fashioning new inventions, designs and products, and trying to fill needs that consumers didn’t know that they had.

That’s more of a designer’s role than an engineer’s role because some engineering functions are routine and anything that is routine can be offshored or automated.

In the United States we already have more people working in the arts, entertainment and design than working as lawyers, accountants or auditors. You already have this gradual shift in the types of jobs that are out there and in the functions of existing jobs.

There will also be a premium on managers who are boundary crossers, who are multi-disciplinary, who might be multilingual and who understand the array of functions within a business.

The manager will have to be versatile, multi-faceted and able to move smoothly between boundaries. This is a different kind of manager than the manager who has dominated the economy for the last several decades — the stern task master of a manager.

Q: How will the HR function change as a result of this shift in the workplace?

HR has to look for people with a different kind of talent. People who can do things that someone overseas can’t do cheaper, that a computer can’t do faster and that fulfill some of these non-material, esthetic, emotional and spiritual desires of this very abundant age.

That part of the HR function is about identifying talent. It’s not necessarily about the kind of talent that has the most impressive, muscular analytic skills, which is still very important, but you also need people who have mastered these more artistic and empathic abilities.

These abilities (and I outline six in the book: design, story, symphony, empathy, play, meaning) are difficult to measure. Part of the challenge for HR people is to come up with metrics measuring these new abilities, so they have a better way of evaluating and measuring talent.

There are instruments that measure empathy. It turns out that empathy is an enormously valuable business skill and it turns out to be enormously important in health care and medicine.

Many U.S. medical schools are measuring the empathy of young physicians because there’s a lot of research now that shows that measures on these empathy indexes correlate very well with patient outcomes.

You now have medical schools, which are in many ways the bastion of left-brain muscle flexing, trying to measure and teach empathy. If medical schools can do it, other organizations can do it too. But it’s not an easy task.

In terms of managing them day-to-day, it’s a bit of a challenge. These kinds of people are very intrinsically motivated, very independent and want a lot of freedom. To some extent, the managerial task is essentially giving them the tools they need to do great things but not breathing down their necks. That requires a different form of management.

Q: Does this change mean the workforce will increasingly rely on freelancers and consultants?

Yes and no. The creative industries already operate on a free agent model. If more of us are moving to professions that have elements of the creative industries, then maybe that’s the case.

It used to be that there was this fine distinction between who was an employee and who was an independent and now the border is much more porous. People are moving back and forth between the world of traditional employment and the world of free agents.

The trend is toward individuals being responsible for navigating their own careers, organizations providing less job security and more of the substance of work being built around projects rather than around enduring organizations.

Q: How do you teach and train these right-brain abilities?

I think that these abilities are fundamentally human abilities. It’s less about training and instructing people than putting them in the context and environments to surface some of these abilities.

I think all of us have these abilities in some fashion, in the same way that all of us have the ability to become literate and numerate. All of us can be literate in design and empathy, but it doesn’t mean that all of us are going to be the world’s greatest product designer.

But it means that all of us can understand how they work and be able to use them in some fashion in our lives. It requires a re-thinking of a lot of the training and development regimes within organizations and in schools and universities.

There’s a charter school in Philadelphia for kids from the worst neighbourhoods that has design at the centre of its curriculum. It doesn’t mean that they spend all their time learning about design per se; instead they teach English through the prism of design, math through the prism of design, history through the prism of design.

Instead of memorizing the dates of the Roman Empire, maybe you build an aqueduct and you learn how it works. It’s about recognizing how the pieces go together and approaching the world as an interconnected whole.

Q: What are some examples of companies adopting these kinds of abilities?

Whole Foods is a retail grocery store in the United States. Retail grocery is about the worst business you could possibly be in. You have all this stuff that you need to truck around, you have all this material you need to stock on shelves, you need a lot of employees, some of your inventory can rot and becomes worthless after a couple of days and your profit margins are painfully thin.

Whole Foods entered this horrible business in a totally different way. It sells organic food and alternative health remedies. It takes a very holistic view of well-being.

It talks about not only the functional attributes of the products, but many of the products have stories on the back about how the product came to be, for example the family farm that grew the ingredients, and it has been able to enter one of the most brutal businesses around and do extraordinarily well by taking a right-brain approach.

Other examples include how Target is competing with Wal-Mart, not on price and products, but on these right brain dimensions of design and esthetics.

Daniel Pink is an author and public speaker. His first book, Free Agent Nation, is about the growing ranks of people who work for themselves. Before going into business for himself, he worked at the White House as a speech writer for Vice-President Al Gore and as an aid to U.S. Secretary of Labour Robert Reich. He recently spoke at a Canadian Human Resource Planners Association-sponsored event in Toronto. He can be reached at

Latest stories