Saturday, October 16, 2010

NextGen Professionals: Back to Fundamentals?

Technology evolves so rapidly that many conventional living tools and processes seem redundant time to time. We are in an age where computers have reduced the effort of human thinking, and algorithms have taken over the art of decision making. Many of the human faculties which in earlier generations used to be developed through challenged human effort from childhood are now automated through a plethora of electronic devices. A whole new generation is growing up with Google which answers every question through an instantaneous web of information, and with Facebook which connects millions in a borderless global society.

The world is moving into a counterintuitive phase where higher levels of technology which require greater levels of skill are also rendering larger numbers of people less skillful. Progressively, at a very basic level slide rules were replaced by calculators and calculators by computers in engineering education; switches of brain neurons got replaced by mere taps of fingers. From pilotless planes to driverless cars, and from synthetic music to combinatorial chemistry the future of automation is clear.

The relentless progress of science and technology is, without notice and awareness, creating an intellectual skew. While a few elite educational and research institutions will keep developing experts who can develop such controlling technologies the broader universe of educational institutions are likely to churn out multitudes of professionals who are induced to subordinate conventional braininess to the more convenient electronic guidance. Increasing technological intensity also makes individuals introverted and impersonal, depriving them of social skills.

The technological trends and educational mores raise serious questions. Will the Next Generation Professional be any longer an original thinker or guided doer? Addicted as he or she is to smart devices and virtual networks would the professional of the future be able to connect with the society as the previous generation professionals were? Do we need to consciously reinvent the process of professionalization to restore the human element of an increasingly overwhelming techno-economic system? Will the new generation focus only on economic prosperity to the detriment of social equity? The answer lies in reeducating the new generation through a mix of rational and emotional skills.

Rational and emotional skills

As long as society remains an agglomeration of human beings, and not robots and not even humanoids, human being has a great responsibility to retain the essential skills that characterize fundamental human capabilities. From a viewpoint of an economic society or a business organization from the plethora of human capabilities and attributes, a prioritized set of rational and emotional skills can be identified that must be nurtured through generations.

The five rational skills are Optimal Reading, Manual Writing, Mental Calculation, Extended Memory, and Physical Artistry. The five emotional skills are Dynamic Self-worth, Collaborative Competition, Respectful Independence, Ethical Compliance and Social Trusteeship. The rational skills are so named because of the need to steer the learning generation, through conscious efforts, away from electronic dependence of minds to rediscovery of original thinking and natural performance. The emotional skills are so named because of the need to combine the very many emotions a human being has into synergistic combinations that enhance human personality and social relatedness.

These ten rational and emotional skills ensure that the generations regain their intuitive and intrinsic ability for (i) multi-faculty development, (ii) synchronization of the mind and the limbs, (iii) alignment of the head and the heart, (iv) complementing of the gut and the soul, and (v) harmonization of the individual and the society. Development and utilization of these skills will ensure that technology makes life lively than lifeless. Science, technology and business will have humanization theme as the core of development. Every turn of technological development must be utilized to reinforce these rational and emotional skills.

Rational skill development

The hypothesis of this Blog Post may be counter to the beliefs of the new techno-generation which believes that simplification, virtualization and even elimination of established practices is inevitable and irreversible. The reality, however, is that such technology buffs are losing their mental and intellectual acumen because of dependence on electronic gadgets and software tools. Without attempting to reverse technological evolution there is a great potential to combine new technologies and past practices to enhance the intellectual capabilities in the overall. Mercifully, technological evolution is so diverse that the essentials of life and living, seen to be under extinction, come back to life, albeit reinvented with greater sophistication. As discussed below, this exciting nature of technological evolution is the core of human skill development too.

Optimal reading

Dr Samuel Johnson, the British author par excellence stated “Books, like friends must be few and well-chosen”. John Ruskin, the great literary expert stated “All books are divisible into two classes: the books of the hour, and the books of all time”. Digitization of print and writing, and emergence of electronic readers have placed in our hands unimaginable bytes of reading material. The new generation must, however, learn to be discerning and focused even as it is enabled to be diversified and unbounded in its quest for knowledge. Digital libraries are a highly portable boon which can be effectively utilized to scan the world of writings. However, every reader must have his own physical book shelf which stores for him the “well-chosen books of all time”. An optimal mix of digital and physical book reading keeps a person better informed and better equipped.

Manual writing

With the ubiquitous growth of the personal and laptop computers and their typewriting style key boards it looked as if the new generations would be completely oblivious of handwriting. For those generations of teachers and taught that started their education on slate and chalk the key board threatened to be the greatest disconnect with the fundamentals of learning. With tablets (thank Apple, once again) coming onto center stage vigorously a human hand and an electronic slate can coexist harmoniously, and even productively. Manual writing provides for free flow of thought and calibrated conversion of thoughts into letters. The beauty and the orderliness with which one’s letters are formed constitute the positive reflections of one’s personality. Unlike the rigidity of a key board typing, the flexibility of hand written scribbles is often the fountainhead of spontaneous creativity. One should never lose the touch and feel of manual writing to be able to stay innovative.

Mental calculation

Ever since the discovery of numbers took place, human life became dependent on the mastery of numbers. Such mastery has two components: an ability to form the numbers, and an ability to interpret numbers. Calculative abilities in the past distinguished one over the other in sizing up and scaling up challenges and opportunities. With the advent of calculators, people lost the ability to make quick mental calculations. The adverse impact of this sadly goes beyond the obvious; it impacts the spatial ability of a person. While there may be no educational need in today’s world to practice multiplications and divisions of double digit numbers, a grip on number manipulation and computation provides a significant strength to tactical transaction and strategic investment perspectives of social and economic life.

Extended memory

Open book examinations and multiple choice questions have served to reduce mindless cramming and to make solution development a guided activity for students. However, technology has taken over the minds of people making the human race virtually memory-averse. This is a great risk for human genetics and the evolution of the intellectual part of the DNA. Today’s student or citizen has ceased to memorize and is instead tempted to “googlize” himself or herself. It is the Cloud that feeds instant information and solutions to any questions and problems. Considering that the human brain has an enormous capability to store and process data, the addiction and resort to search engines on the Web rather than the processing capabilities in the brain is quite capable of causing human atrophy. We should encourage ourselves to memorize in competition to Google, using the search engine to extend our memory to digital depths and expanses previously not capable of being handled. As one googles by habit as well as temptation, it pays to recreate questions, inter-relate answers, and acquire scan-and-store memorizing capabilities.

Physical artistry

Many things may change in life with technology but physical activity and artistic expression tend to be fundamentally unchanged at the core. Sports and arts are the best expressions of learning effort and execution perfection. They signify the core of mind-body coordination that can provide unchanged levels of physico-mental challenge. As a corollary, sports and arts are best suited to restore the eroding capabilities of the human race. Extra-curricular activities in academic and business settings will go a long way in enabling a human being function at his or her maximal capabilities. The strength of public performance, testing the limits of physical and mental endurance, is often a great influence on the performers as well as the spectators. Activity and artistry come naturally to human life; the new generation should get over synthetic technology and sedentary living to realize the natural potential of hard sports and fine arts.

Emotional skill development

If rational skills enable performance at a fundamental level, emotional skills accentuate or attenuate performance. Performance often takes place in a team setting, within a company, an industry, a country, and even globally. An ability to relate oneself to the individual and group dynamics, and in a broader sense to the larger society, is essential to complement rational skills. However singular emotions are less relevant than specific combinations of emotions if the rational skills are to be meaningfully reinforced. A conceptual framework of emotional skillsis presented below.

Dynamic self-worth

Every human being has some worth as every activity he or she is capable of performing has some value. It is important for individuals therefore to be constructively aware of the value they can bring to the table. The greater the rational skill level one has, the greater will be the value that one can bring to one’s organization. The greater the extent to which one is self-reliant, the greater is also the worth that one has. A heightened awareness of self-worth on the part of each team member is essential for healthy team dynamics. At the same time, the concept of self-worth has to be tested dynamically with the changing needs and contemporary skill availability. If a person fails to update skills in dynamic equilibrium with the environment self-worth that was justifiable at an earlier point of time would simply become an egoistic state of mind.

Collaborative competition

A techno-savvy generation tends be confident of its ability to manage challenges through technology. A high level of skill inventory is desirable but not always possible. This applies to individuals as much as to organizations or corporations. Individuals and companies that place excessive emphasis on self-reliance and are aggressive in competing with all others are likely to be uncompetitive in the end. An ability to leverage on each other’s skills and assets helps individuals and corporations to optimize on costs and efforts. The ability of Sony and Samsung to collaborate on flat panels helped both organizations enhance scale and competitiveness. Automobile makers and component makers have succeeded in continuous product value addition through working as competitive partners rather than wielders of buyer or supplier power. For-profit and not-for-profit organizations can collaborate for greater economic and social synergy. An ability to collaborate with apparently competing or contesting team members, departments or domains requires high strategic maturity.

Respectful independence

The new generation is independent, emotionally and economically. Even in countries that traditionally believed in joint family system proximity rather than togetherness seems to be gaining ground. Certain advanced countries which inculcate independence from the very early years probably promote a culture of independence far too aggressively. Such culture could potentially fail to take advantage of the wisdom that comes with experience and the maturity that comes with age. Generational gaps have been a reality of human evolution, with each successive generation believing that it knew better than the previous generation. History, however, is replete with examples of how heeding to seasoned advice would have led to more favorable outcomes. Regardless of integration of such cultural hues in the family and educational systems, professionals should make special efforts to balance the urge for independence with the desirability of gaining from the seasoned and experienced seniors.

Ethical compliance

Ethics are what differentiate a true professional from an opportunistic player. Ethics are easy to espouse but hard to live by. Ethical compliance comes from a value system that is ingrained deep within the psyche of each individual. Lasting recognition follows ethical compliance. Ethical compliance often demands sacrifices that go beyond the call of normal work and a level of transparency that builds trust all around. Mahatma Gandhi epitomized ethical living through a noble cause, beyond compare. In each person’s life there would be opportunities to demonstrate through diligence and dutifulness, candor and collaboration, as well as concern and caring how personal and professional lives can be role models for others.

Social trusteeship

Pursuit of materialism is a concomitant of economic capitalism. As economic affluence grows and purchasing power increases the new generation understands the success of prosperity rather than the tribulations of poverty. On the other hand, professionals have an important role in influencing how wealth is generated and deployed for the good of the society. These extend from choice of product lines, business spaces, product development, and manufacturing efficiencies to customer service and corporate social responsibility. The new generation should utilize science and technology to develop products and services for the bottom of the social pyramid.

NextGen: Skill matrix

Human life is paradoxical. One (either individual or organization) needs to score over the others to remain competitive and generate wealth. Yet, one needs to live for others to lend equity and stability to social and economic systems. Both the objectives are essential and complementary. The former needs rational skills and the latter emotional skills. As new generations raise immersed in new technologies it is likely that they miss out on their intrinsic physic-mental faculties and relationship human skills. Only by committing to combine rational skills with emotional skills the new generation can make the society a better place.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on October 16, 2010

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