Globalization in a Cognitive Age: Learn or Perish

Manolo Quezon wrote in his column (Bringing the World to Our Shores, Inquirer, 06 July 2007) about his plans to take up graduate studies, specifically an MBA, in an international program offered by an Australian university. His reason for doing so is to keep up and deal with the complexities brought about by an increasingly borderless world, in the context of his vocation as a political commentator.

As bigger and bigger chunks of our population become less insular and more comfortable with the complexities of the modern world, I have a hunch that people like me, who have the task of commenting on national affairs, will find it increasingly hard-going unless we make an effort to understand these complexities. These complexities, on the whole, have to do with economics and finance as disciplines, and business as an activity: and how all three have been used to discourage citizens from being politically engaged.

I confess to sharing his concern, a sort of low-level anxiety, a vague fear that my knowledge and present skills level may not enable me to understand and cope with the speed of globalization and change. It seems there’s nothing unusual in this, as I found out in a piece written by David Brooks of the New York Times.

The popular idea is that globalization is the chief process driving our age. Our lives are being transformed by the increasing movement of goods, people and capital across borders.

The globalization paradigm tells us: nation-states like the U.S. and the countries of Western Europe were the once-dominant powers; those economies could be secured within borders. But now capital flows freely. Technology has leveled the playing field. Competition is global and fierce. New dynamos like India and China are in the process of overturning the old order, thanks to their cheap labor, increasing financial clout and regional dominance. Thus, according to globalization champions like Thomas Friedman, we live in a flattening world.

Nonsense, say globalization myth-busters like Pankaj Ghenawat of the Harvard Business School, who calls such thinking “globaloney”. According to Ghenawat, most types of economic activity are actually still concentrated domestically. 90 percent of fixed investment around the world is domestic. But having bought into the globalization storyline, we just assume the world to be more globalized than it actually is.

David Brooks agrees. Globalization doesn’t really explain most of what is happening in the world. The skills revolution is what is really driving change.

According to the skills revolution paradigm, we are entering a more arduous cognitive age, where the driving force is the need to master new skills and tap into and utilize the vast reservoir of knowledge and information available at our fingertips.

The central process driving this is not globalization. It’s the skills revolution. We’re moving into a more demanding cognitive age. In order to thrive, people are compelled to become better at absorbing, processing and combining information. This is happening in localized and globalized sectors, and it would be happening even if you tore up every free trade deal ever inked.

The globalization paradigm emphasizes the fact that information can now travel 15,000 miles in an instant. But the most important part of information’s journey is the last few inches – the space between a person’s eyes or ears and the various regions of the brain. Does the individual have the capacity to understand the information? Does he or she have the training to exploit it? Are there cultural assumptions that distort the way it is perceived?

The globalization paradigm leads people to see economic development as a form of foreign policy, as a grand competition between nations and civilizations. These abstractions, called “the Chinese” or “the Indians,” are doing this or that. But the cognitive age paradigm emphasizes psychology, culture and pedagogy – the specific processes that foster learning.

Brooks hastens to add that globalization and the skills revolution are not contradictory processes. But the emerging divide is not between the haves and the have-nots, as it used to be, but between those who can attain the skills needed to process and harness new knowledge and information and those who can’t.

Which is why I’m also thinking of going back to school. It’s a simple matter of survival.

Dani Rodrik writes on the death of the globalization consensus.

4 thoughts on “Globalization in a Cognitive Age: Learn or Perish”

  1. @ Miguel, I think traditional face-to-face instruction will not be totally replaced by distance education. A combination of the two would probably be best, in terms of cost and exposure to your peers. Social interaction is also important, and the personal touch cannot be replicated by pure online learning.
    Thanks for pointing me to the Personal MBA site. Interesting. I bookmarked it.

    @Arpeelazaro, yes upgrading your current skills is important. But it should go beyond that, to developing new competencies and know-how. Stepping out of your comfort zone and trying something new. And later integrating what you learned into your work. It’s a life-long process.

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