Following the post on the future of work, was thinking about what implications this would have for education, and the most obvious connection between work and education is about credentials. These are the signposts that tell (current or future) employers that a person has a certain set of characteristics. The most obvious example of credentials is the degree which your college/university has given you, telling the world that you meet a certain set of criteria. Often, this criteria is somewhat obscure, and may mean all things to all people, as we can see from the fact that the same credential from different universities mean different things, as seen from the value that people assign to them.
Today, a college degree has immense value for an employer, because the college degree tells the employer that the student has gone through a certain set of courses, and therefore is the right person to meet the requirements of the employers. From the employer’s perspective, the degree tells them that the prospective employee has the skills to be able to build a career. What employers look for is the assurance that the prospective employee has what it takes to fit into the grand scheme of things, to become a part of the larger picture that their organisation represents.
However, as the nature of work changes, as I said before, would such a credential of an ability to learn all things be as important? I believe that in such a scenario, where an individual would be contributing their specific quantum of work in a larger value chain as a ‘freelancer’ the skills of the individual in that particular space would become much more important than their generic ability. This means that organisations would naturally be more interesting in evidence of achievement in that specific area.
Such a shift in focus from organisations would necessarily mean that the ability to demonstrate ability in a particular area would become more valuable than the ability to demonstrate overall/generic ability. Hence, I feel, artefacts generated by individuals in the course of their learning, whether in the form of project reports, or papers authored, or creative work, would probably have a far greater impact than the degree. So, for instance, a paper written by a student on a particular topic, related to the work sphere of the student would likely have far more interest for employers than the degree or the grade would.
In other words, the evidence of achievement, in the form of artefacts, or in the form of eminence would become a far more valuable resource by which to evaluate prospective employees than simply the degree.
The way we work has been undergoing massive changes over the last decade or more, but today, I believe, we are at the cusp of a fundamental shift in the relations of work, facilitated by the developments in technology. By relations of work, I mean the role each individual plays in a ‘value chain’ and how the part contributes to the whole.
Before the advent of the modern corporation, people worked not for a corporation (they weren’t around, remember?). Rather, artisans, for instance, manufactured their final product, say a bicycle (if they were around …) as a single entity, and sold their products in a marketplace.
With the advent of the corporation came the concept of people working in jobs where they did specific work, which contributed (often in indefinable ways) to the overall value chain. In this way, the individual would do their part of the work, and pass on their output to someone else, who would do their part of the work (value add) and so on …
This aspect is changing, and, I believe, set to change in bigger ways. As we are seeing there is a trend towards organizations outsourcing their work to freelance contractors. As this grows (and we are seeing this happening more so in the technology sector) we would likely come to a state where instead of many individuals being brought together under the ambit of the organizations, people would work more in their capacity as individuals, being brought together under the ambit of the value chain. This value chain, by definition, would span organizations, which means that we can expect to see, more and more, the value chain being formed as a loose federation of individual freelance contributors, their output orchestrated by a set of organizations partnering together to create a certain set of products or services.
So in terms of work structures this could likely be a move towards towards ways of working the modern corporation replaced, though in ways which are very much the new millennium. This has massive implications on the aspirations of youngsters (I don’t quite rely on the generation nomenclature, partly because I don’t understand it …), in that they can probably no longer aspire to long term jobs and designations may lose their meaning, the content of work, and the satisfaction that generates being the main defining factors there.
In a way, going back in time, but in a 21st century way.
Over the last few days, two pieces have appeared in HBR, about the change agenda for HR. One is written by Ram Charan, which talks about splitting HR, while the other, written by Cathy Benko and Erica Volini, about what it will take to fix HR. At the most fundamental level, both these pieces acknowledge the fact that there is a problem with the HR function in the organization. And since they agree on that, they also agree that something needs to be done about it. And thats where, more or less, they move in different directions, as you would see from the blogs.
Lets step back, and take a look at some of the reasons why these problems are there, coming from the perspective of HR practitioners. The first aspect we need to understand is that in today’s world of business, with a steady level of complexity, and increasing levels of disruptive changes, HR managers need to understand details of the business, both internal and external to the organization. Only then can HR managers play a meaningful role in defining organization strategy. In other words, HR managers need to be at the confluence of business management, and people management. However, most of the HR practitioners I talk to are nowhere close to this point. Most HR practitioners are generalists, and not SMEs when it comes to business operations. This means that they need to take guidance from business managers, and formulate practices based on this guidance.
Because that might sound a bit abstract, let me take an example. Lets say a business manager decides that there are some skills lacking in his team. The manager would reach out to the L&D team, tell them what type of training is required, and the L&D team would search through a catalogue, identify the training, and execute the logistics to deliver the training. The L&D team, in this example, has no understanding of the reason for the training requirement, the objective that is to be met, or the outcomes that should come out of the training for participants. In this scenario, the team is essentially fulfilling requirements, rather than giving strategic inputs into the forecasting of medium- to long-term training needs, how these would help address business objectives, and address employee development.
To summarize, it is at the intersection of business and people management that there is a gap, and filling this gap is the need which needs to be addressed. To address this, we need people who have a sound understanding of the complexity and challenges of business, and how people practices can help to address those challenges and meeting that complexity. Whether this is to be achieved by splitting the HR function, I dont know, though the debate throws up more questions than just that. It raises the point that I am talking about here … that in stead of HR practitioners only taking guidance and fulfilling requirement, HR practitioners need to be in a place where they can add strategic value, and that this requires a change in the way HR managers look at the intersection of business management and people management.
I recently read a post by @nickknoco about the Knowledge Supply Chain. Nick draws a useful analogy with the concept of the Supply Chain, to describe how we could look at the flow of knowledge in the organization. Quite agree with Nick that when talking about supply chains, we dont start from the supply side, rather, we begin with the demand side, and this translates into first defining what it is that people need, and then creating a product (here, it would be a knowledge product, but the idea is similar) to satisfy that need. What i find more important is the analogy, because it recognizes the fact that knowledge flows through a value chain (or in an organization) quite analogous to material flowing through a supply chain.
Central to the idea of the knowledge supply chain is the understanding that knowledge flows, and that in any flow, like that of material or information in the supply chain, there are participants who enable the flow, and need to be at the focal point of any study of the flow. In the knowledge supply chain, it is the people, participating in the supply chain who are analogous to the organizations in a material supply chain. This is something KM practitioners already understand (KM is about people is the most written about, least practised theme), so this gives us a sense of how looking at a supply chain perspective of KM would lead us to things we are already familiar with.
So where does the organization come into the picture. The way I see it, the organization provides the backdrop for this supply chain or flow. I wouldnt go so far as to say that the organization is the reason for this flow, because knowledge flows span organizations, and there is no reason to assume that there was no knowledge-sharing in the pre-modern organization-era. Having said that, the organization does provide the context for the flow, and that is one of the aspects that I meant by backdrop (which is a clever thing to write, given that I havent the foggiest idea about what else I meant). In addition to providing the context, the organization also sets the tone for a knowledge-marketplace. Any supply chain is a series of marketplaces which define the optimum value exchange (pricing of products or services being only one component of value), and have a more-or-less well defined set of participants. In other words, the supply chain and marketplace views of KM are quite analogous, and I have since long been supporting this way of looking at KM.
My friend Dinesh Tantri recently shared a piece over at K-Community about knowledge hoarding knowledge in Indian companies. The reasons for why the ISB found employees not sharing knowledge can be found on the link. The article looks at Indian companies and the reasons why employees in Indian companies tend to not share knowledge but probably the idea of hoarding knowledge is a global one. Question is why. And while the reasons mentioned in the report make sense we may want to look behind these reasons.
A few thoughts on how i think about this. I believe that over the period of the last few centuries (maybe the advent of the industrial revolution?) there has, with the formation of the modern-day model of the organization a mindset of scarcity. This mindset works on the assumption that there isnt enough for everybody. What this means is that is someone gets more then that would be because someone else would get less. If we look at the idea that the industrial revolution was based on material resources this is actually true. If someone gets more coal then that is because someone else gets less. If someone gets more machinery then thats because someone else gets less. If someone makes more money then thats because someone else makes less. This is the reason behind the century or more of colonial expansionism starting with the 18th century.
Once we agree with this idea then the next step would be to understand that in addition to the material resources another resource which is important to convert material into finished products which can be sold to customers is knowledge. So if you read the textbooks on management they talk about the M’s … i think Man, Money, Machine, Material. The Man part of this comes from the understanding that people are the source of labour but that cant be the only reason. Whatever the reason, if there is a thought of scarcity and there is the understanding that peoples knowledge is an important ingredient, the idea of knowledge is power cannot be too far. And this is the scenario we live in.
Coming to the 21st century where more and more value creation is based on knowledge. The basic difference between the knowledge-economy work and industrial-economy work is that the critical input to creating value for customers is different, knowledge and material respectively. Lot has been written about the structural difference between knowledge and material, namely that knowledge doesnt reduce by sharing, rather it increases by sharing, unlike material resources which reduce by sharing. As we see more and more work being done revolving around knowledge and knowledge playing a more and more critical role in value-generation we are also seeing more and more the idea that knowledge shared is knowledge shared, and this is where new ideas about knowledge and knowledge-sharing seem to be emerging.