29 August 2006

What if we tried to foresee what will follow the currently unfolding Knowledge Economy?

What if we tried to foresee what will follow the currently unfolding Knowledge Economy? What will be the new buzz word for corporate leaders in 2050?I will not attempt here to answer these questions directly but will use scientific predictions as metaphors to give us a hint.

While reading recently the very interesting scientific book “The Next Fifty Years – Science in The First Half of the Twenty-First Century”, a collection of 25 new essays by leading scientists edited by J. Brockman (A Vintage Original, New-York, 2002) I found three passages from three different authors that are relevant to my two questions above.

First, here is how Alison Gopnik (professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley) ends her essay “What Children Will Teach Scientists”:
“[…] At the end of the last century, knowledge began to become the most valuable currency, like land in a feudal economy or capital in an industrial economy. The new science of learning should tell us that knowledge is not just a prize to be won in some desperate test-taking struggle for places in the contemporary mandarinate. Instead it is, literally and not just rhetorically, our universal human birthright.”

The way I read this (based also on the reading of Alison’s whole essay about the science to understand learning) is that our societies will progressively realise that knowledge is what makes us, humans, so special. The value of knowledge would then take the forefront in all aspects of our everyday life. We would continuously seek better ways to acquire it, to retain it, to share it, to nurture it. Of course, this should have a profound impact on management and organizational cultures. By 2050, the fact that knowledge is a vital asset will be a given fact and competitive advantage will be won by those who will leverage it faster and more effectively. This should mean that organizations of this future will have as a constant priority to make all their collaborators as creative and innovative as possible. Everyone in an organization will be empowered and encouraged to create/innovate making some mistakes along the way but learning a great deal more. This seems to be compatible with the next extract below.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi - a Hungarian-born polymath, formerly chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Chicago and currently Davidson Professor of Management at the Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, California – writes in his essay “The Future of Happiness”:
“[…] Among the things we learned is that people who are engaged in challenging activities with clear goals tend to be happiest than those who lead relaxing, pleasurable lives. The less one works just for oneself, the larger the scope of one’s relationships and commitments, the happier a person is likely to be. […]”

Mihaly sees that by 2050, societies at large but employers in particular will have understood that people are more productive when they are happier, and that people are happier if they have challenging objectives and if these objectives are clearly contributing to the corporate goals. This seem to suppose that individuals will be valued for their specific knowledge and competencies to go beyond what is initially expected of them, in order to create value for the organization.

This nicely leads us to the third extract of this book I believe relevant to the leveraging of Knowledge. I found it at the end of Brian Goodwin’s essay titled “In The Shadow of Culture” where he attempts to explain why he believes a “science of qualities” is developing, where feelings and qualities have at least as much importance as proofs and quantities. Brian (a professor of biology at Schumacher College, Darlington, UK - where he coordinates a master’s program in holistic science- and a member of the Santa Fe Institute) writes:
“[…] In the shadow of current science it is possible to see the components of a science of qualities which would restore qualitative evaluation to the place it occupies in our everyday lives, where judgments depend on quality as well as quantity. This restoration, together with the recognition that feelings belong not only to us but also to the rest of nature, in whatever form, presents us with a dramatically transformed set of possibilities for scientific knowledge, technology, and corporate and political action.
A shift in scientific perspective of this magnitude is not going to happen overnight, if it happens at all. It requires new forms of education at a basic level, in which the sciences and the arts are united to keep people whole and in which scientific and technological decision-making require participation by all members of civil society, with knowledge joined again to responsible action

This extract is heavy in meanings and could open up many philosophical debates. I will only say this: if science does indeed go through such a drastic shift towards valuing qualitative judgment, it will have an even bigger impact on other parts of society such as the business world. Accounting would no longer rely on quantitative analysis and the value of a company would give at least as much importance to qualitative aspects such as its intellectual property, including the specific knowledge of all its collaborators.

Peter-Anthony Glick