Business and Leadership Thought Capital

Can’t Hire Enough Knowledge Workers? Look for Experience Workers

three people doing jumpshot

In the 60’s Roger Sperry, a biologist with a doctorate in zoology, began studying animals and human patients whose brain hemispheres had been disconnected (in humans, this was done to prevent severe epileptic seizures). He found that there were two sides of the brain, each of which plays its own role in cognition.

The left side is the outspoken logical, linear half of the equation. The right side is the nonlinear, high-concept source of imagination and pleasure.

At the same time Sperry also realized that “our educational system…tends to neglect the nonverbal form of intellect. What it comes down to is that modern society discriminates against the right hemisphere.” This was especially true for business people.

For the most part the basic precept that the left-side of the brain was more important for business went unchallenged during the Information Age which began in the late 60’s about the same time Sperry was doing his research. Computers were becoming cheaper and less bulky and other developments in information technology were also being brought to market successfully. This in turn made ever larger amounts of information and data easier to find, store and work with.

Many businesses learned they could sustain a significant advantage if they had better information than their competitors and acted on it. For that they needed staff to build and maintain computers and computing networks so other employees could replace time-consuming manual labor with faster, more exact computing power. We called these employees “knowledge” workers.

But by the end of the last century, much of the left-brain-centric work that knowledge workers in Europe and North America once did – computer programming, financial accounting, routing calls – was starting to be performed less expensively in Asia. In short, anything that could be outsourced or automated has been done. Data has become a commodity.

Meanwhile, digital and internet technologies have also made the production and distribution of goods and services cheaper and easier to obtain.

As a result, consumers are now looking for something more and that usually translates into unique experiences closely aligned with the products or services being offered.

For example, bricks and mortar retailers are finding innovative ways to provide an ideal and unique shopping experience for their customers. (They often refer to this as the “narrative” or “playbook”.) This can include everything from offering excellent and empathic customer service to setting up terminals that help customers not only find but even create their own product or service and technology-enabled quick and hassle-free check-out to designing more theatrical store interiors.

For healthcare providers, it means reducing the anxiety and fear that naturally occurs when patients visit doctors and hospitals. Many providers have reengineered complicated processes to reduce patients’ wait time while providing them online access to their personal medical information and ensuring that patient areas are orderly, attractive and well-lit.

It’s all about making the consumer happier and excited, less annoyed by inefficiencies and wasted time and less anxious about potentially unpleasant experiences. We are now in the Experience Economy where companies create new, innovative competitive advantages by providing consumers with the kind of experiences that engage them more fully and for which they are often willing to pay a premium for.

Like the knowledge worker during the Information Age, companies now have to recruit and develop a different kind of worker – employees who have easy access the more creative, visual, fun but also very chaotic right side of the brain.

Faced with the demands of the marketplace for talent, academic institutions are also disrupting and transforming how they educate the workers of the future. Some people even question whether traditional higher education is necessary any more, given that three of the greatest disruptors – Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg – never finished college.

Likewise, the companies with the best chance of finding great talent are rethinking the process of attracting, hiring, developing and retaining experience workers.

Technical, basic social skills and the desire and ability to learn are still very important, but they are just not enough. Regardless of whether they have client/customer-facing roles or not, today’s employees should listen well, be constantly present and authentic. They also need to be excited about making any contact with another human being as positive as possible and be able to come up with original and creative ideas that are implementable and not just wild and crazy.

But more than anything else, employers need to properly harness and promote their employees’ creativity and outward-looking attitudes as a key part of building today’s value-additive and valuable companies.

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