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Career, globalization and the knowledge economy
Leon Z. Lee
1/22/2004

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Competitive pressures for overseas "Knowledge Economies" are placing competitive pressure across the ranks of American corporate professionals. The advancement of trade globalization and Internet technologies have created pools of talented associates worldwide whereby the knowledge, information, and expertise endowed in each professional can also be treated as strategic economic resources.

Yet if American associates attempted to counter these Knowledge Economies with mere competitive wages, then one would be hard-pressed to match their cost-of-living advantages. The key is to seek a balance career skillsets, namely Core Knowledge, Process Knowledge, and International Knowledge. Fluency in these three areas will enable any associate to "ride the rapids" of globalization.

You read it in the headlines almost every week…. "Global Job Shift, Corporate Downsizing, Offshore Outsourcing". These very words send anxiety and apprehension throughout America's corporate professionals as the onset of globalization moves into a new stage. Although international competition and job displacement is a common feature in the heavy industry and manufacturing segments of the US economy since the early 1980s, having high-technology positions outsourced to Europe, Asia, and South America is a relatively new phenomenon.

In order to compete in this new realm, one must appreciate the dynamic interactions at hand. For thousands of years, three major prerequisites were associated with any production, namely "Labor, Capital, and Material". However, in past two decades, the Internet and modern computing technologies have produced a fourth prerequisite… "Information and Knowledge".

Information is the organization of raw data into some discernible pattern or category, while Knowledge is the application of such information to complete a specific task or goal. With the emergence of digital business, trade globalization, and mobility of the global work force, talented pools of professionals can be found worldwide. Emergence of this socio-economic paradigm is called the "Knowledge Economy" (KE) whereby the information endowed in each individual can also be treated as strategic economic resources by either domestic of international companies alike.

This is the reason why India has emerged as a premier software engineering center, China as the global manufacturing workhorse, Philippines as enterprise call center, Hungary as architectural and consumer product design center, and Germany ( eastern region ) as microprocessor production center… all putting pressure upon the US to compete efficiently and effectively.

Yet… if American high-technology professionals attempted to counter these overseas KE's with mere competitive wages, then one would be hard pressed to meet their cost-of-living advantages. For example, software engineers in Mexico can do the same work as their American counterparts at 40% less the cost. IT managers in India being paid $50,000 annually in US Dollars, can have the same quality of life as though they were earning $120,000 due to the dollar's purchasing power upon the local economy. Therefore, the key is not to "nickel-and-dime" one's career, but to identify and expand value-propositions in one's skillsets.

In the 1950s, computer scientists advanced the concept of "Growth Theory", whereby knowledge creates economic growth, which spurs more knowledge generation, and begets more growth, etc. Data, Information, Knowledge are all one in the same, the only difference is the manner and means of its interpretation and integration within each individual. In this regard, this theory precisely mirrors one's career within the new Knowledge Economy.

There are three career areas to closely examine, refine, and expand: 1) Core Knowledge, 2) Process Knowledge, 3) International Knowledge.


Core Knowledge refers to specialization in professional field. Knowledge of this nature is generally standardized and somewhat repetitive, thus can be readily replicated by KE regions overseas. Examples of such professions may include account auditors, financial analyst, technical support personnel, software developers.

Process Knowledge is the unique interaction among business and technical associates in completing a function or goal. Knowledge of this nature is often highly specialized, thus outside the privy of most KE regions. Examples of such positions may include software project manager, marketing strategist, international business liaison.

Case in point, if one was tasked to develop a web-based currency conversion program to support online international sales, mere knowledge of a particular software language is not sufficient. A series of business and technical processes must be identified, managed and balanced. On the business end, daily US Treasury exchange rates have to be integrated, along with handling catastrophic currency collapses ( ex. Korea 1997, Argentina 2001 ), or else the payment would be worthless by the time the goods/services were delivered.

On the technical end, one must examine available resources and strike a balance between the deployed technologies versus abilities of the overseas staff. On one project I observed a few years back, the entire application developed in South America was completed in 1980s-era COBOL language on an IBM mini-mainframe, rather than on the latest JAVA language on a LINUX fileserver. When questioned why such legacy technology was used… the simple reply was "We do not have enough JAVA developers in the country, but we have plenty of COBOL programmers".

Identifying details like the ones above will give American professionals a distinct advantage over the KE regions. No matter how far offshore a project is placed, it still needs to be managed by corporate offices at home, for ascertaining "how the parts fit together" is a skillset one can definitely leverage.

International Knowledge is the final clincher for seamless collaboration with the overseas regions! Being "international" is more than examining the guest nation's online privacy laws, currency rates, or financial transactions. Entering this arena will transform an individual's perceptions, tolerances, and ethics for the better… as one regularly engages with the overseas regions.

Knowledge sought is dependent upon a person's curiosity and open-minded nature on a region, country, or ethnic group. Knowledge obtained can dramatically expand the social, linguistic, political, and religious understanding of a customer base to form successful business messaging and frictionless project management.

Cultural resources are also available, such as Executive Planet < www.executiveplanet.com > and Lonely Planet Destinations < www.lonelyplanet.com/destinations/ >. Take the patience in learning each region's social fabric and build on this framework to reflect upon one's own traditions. Many etiquettes and subtleties will come to you instinctively as you gain rapport with associates from multiple cultures.

For example, concerning corporate culture, most American companies prefer a "business casual" approach, such as addressing each other on firstname basis, "open door policy" of top management, lively team discussions with "points and counter points" to stress-test certain ideas. Comparing this with Japanese companies, there is a strong adherence to protocol. Namely, corporate/social titles must be used in order to demonstrate mutual civility and dignity, strict observance of seniority during team discussions, and never "cutting-off" another associate in mid-sentence just to make your point.

These nuances also can be observed in social customs, such as Germans never engaging in "chit-chat" with strangers, French always striking a balance between career and quality of life as epitomized in their annual summer vacations, Koreans viewing the dedication to the team more important than individual accomplishments, or Vietnamese preferring to shake-hands during business dealings than to follow bowing rituals like Japanese or Koreans.

In summation, globalization is a socio-economic phenomenon here to stay. Throughout its phases, it will simultaneously bring great benefit and drastic challenges to all regions. So long as corporate ethics policies are upheld, there is plenty of room for any professional to expand one's international expertise. Balancing the skillsets among core – process – international knowledge will enable each of us to "ride the rapids" of competitive pressure from all Knowledge Economies.


** Leon Z. Lee is the Global Information Architect for a U.S. trans-national corporation. His specializations include international business, global brand management, web localization.

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