Archives for category: Trends

Even the terminology is outdated: “employee“? “temp“? Which new words can we appropriate to more accurately express the evolving relationship of humans to their work? “Temp” sounds like someone you ought to feel sorry for. “Employee” sounds like a worthwhile life goal. But does this reflect reality?

The “jobless recovery” in the U.S. and the swelling ranks of freelancers give new critical mass to the consultant caste, and open the debate on their terms of engagement to a broader audience. Traditionally, the consultant had to be a hustler to survive; a sharp negotiator, someone with an ability to put a figure on anything with confidence and quickly. According to the Iowa Policy Project, a nonpartisan thinktank, 26% of the U.S. workforce had jobs in 2005 that were in one way or another “nonstandard”. That’s more than one quarter of the American workforce. Co-working is on the rise.  More than ever before, people are going to have to negotiate their work life on a piecemeal, week-by-week basis and the gap between the mindset and skills set of the employee and the free agent  will narrow. This week’s BusinessWeek cover story shows a photo of a harassed looking woman meant to represent “The permanent temporary workforce” with a potted plant in one hand and the other hand sporting a bandage for RSI.

Dee Hock, founder of VISA, was way ahead on this debate and predicted: ”In organisations of the future, the concept of superior/subordinate will crumble as we come to understand that everyone must constantly, simultaneously lead and follow and our governmental, educational, commercial and social organizations must be reconceived to enable them to do so.”

The superior/subordinate issue is just one. Another is the increasing complexity of our social networks. This will force us to adopt more complex concepts of our personal identities and the way we interact with others. Look at how you express yourself differently across different social media platforms. On Twitter I tend to share information which is twinned to my environment blog, La Vie Verte. On Friend Feed I tend to focus more on people who are immersed in education, organizational change and community management. On Linked In I tend to my network, a mix of friends and work contacts. And so on. There is no “job description” that governs the way I present myself across these platforms. And the future is going to be more and more like this. Tom Haskins summed this up nicely in a comment on one of Harold Jarche’s blog posts: “For instance, I could think of myself as both a talented, unique somebody and nobody special – just one of us. Then I would relate as someone with special needs, requests, motivations and value to contribute while also being free to respond and reciprocate as if I’m no different from anybody else. If every node in an interpersonal network adopts paradoxes like these, the network would function very responsively, resiliently and adaptively in its context.”

What else? The art of “managing” those who are above and below you will transmute into something else. Right now the bets are on community management as the way of the future. I’m reading Jono Bacon’s “The Art of Community” right now and learning about the nuts and bolts of “herding cats” (the metaphor applies to open source programmers).
The book lays out his experience of 10 years of community management at Ubuntu, and tries to codify that experience with a series of guidelines for managing any kind of community. The underlying assumption of the community management paradigm is simple: big organisations cannot deliver what we need in the 21st century.

Seth Godin talks about the ability to find and organize 1,000 people as being the killer app skill today.  It could be 1,000 people each spending $1,000 on a special interest cruise = one million dollars. Here’s the rub: “What’s difficult is changing your attitude. Instead of speed dating your way to interruption, instead of yelling at strangers all day trying to make a living, coordinating a tribe of 1,000 requires patience, consistency and a focus on long-term relationships and life time value. You don’t find customers for your products. You find products for your customers.”

The old model was: give us your time and your loyalty, and we’ll pay you a check every month, and put away some money for your old age. Today, young people out of college and spending years trying to get the most abject internship with pitiful remuneration and no job prospects. Middle-aged people who are in positions of responsibility in organisations are so stressed and overworked they complain about not having time to think. So mistakes are made serially because of this collective attention deficit disorder, and the margin for feedback loops to improve process is wiped out.

So whether you’re an employee or a temp, get ready for some serious disruption in 2010!


The news which disturbed me the most from the education/work front this summer was this item from the New York Times: “Unpaid work, but they pay for the privilege”.

“..Growing numbers of new graduates — or, more often, their parents — are paying thousands of dollars to services that help them land internships.” One of the market leaders, the University of Dreams, offers “a guaranteed internship placement, eight weeks of summer housing, five meals a week, seminars and tours around New York City for $7,999.”

I can’t help concluding that this basically signals the death knell of the educational system as it exists today. If companies are so little in need of interns and so unmotivated to cultivate promising new talent that they will agree to accept payment allowing graduates to grace their water coolers for eight weeks, then the system is unravelling sooner than I had expected.

Back in Paris at the top of September, shopping for back to school supplies, I can’t escape the feeling that it is all wrong, that the filtering, the elitism, physical funnelling of our children into this trap which is leading nowhere ($8000 for an unpaid internship in 2009? What next? If working for free is now commoditized as a market good, then surely corporate serfdom can’t be far off…) is an enormous bad joke which will backfire in a decade or so when society begins to reorganize itself along post-peak-everything lines and our best and brightest have none of the skills appropropriate to the new set-up.

Blogger Jeff Vail has an interesting take on this – he dubs the coming organizational system “The Diagonal Economy”. “…More and more people will gradually realize that there the “plausible promise” once offered by the American nation-state is no longer plausible. A decent education and the willingness to work 40 hours a week will no longer provide the “Leave it to Beaver” quid pro quo of a comfortable suburban existence and a secure future for one’s children.

” People will, to varying degrees, recognize that they cannot rely on the cradle-to-cradle promise of lifetime employment by their nation state. Instead, they will realize that they are all entrepreneurs in at least three—and possibly many more—separate enterprises: one’s personal brand in interaction with the Legacy System (e.g. your conventional job), one’s localized self-sufficiency business (ranging from a back yard tomato plant to suburban homesteads and garage workshops), and one’s community entrepreneurship and network development. ”

Then I read about the ultra-rich building doomsday fortresses for themselves worldwide, and the idea that the second-tier of rich people will be needing consultants to help them do this: ie a rich business opportunity. This is worse than decadent, it’s end-of-civilization. And further strengthens the case for unschooling.

Summertime brings a slower blogging pace as well as the joys of catching up with friends, eating outdoors and not wearing a watch or making a to-do list.

Dmitry Orlov writes at Club Orlov a thought-provoking piece entitled “You don’t have to go to school”.
“A small but already by no means negligible number of Americans is starting to realize what their future looks like: no retirement, no job, no savings, plus they are getting old. Their only possible means of support in old age is their children.

“And so, in the meantime, let’s continue to mindlessly send our children off to “learning” institutions, where they will be properly supervised at all times, bored half to death, medicated into submission should they rebel, even by simply refusing to pay attention, not taught anything worth knowing by demoralized, underpaid public servants, and then spat out into the world with their spirits crushed.”

He goes on to provide a translated account of a Russian woman’s experience taking her three children out of school. I highly recommend it.

The Guardian earlier this month ran a story based on a survey of 226 top employers in the U.K. showing a 25% fall in vacancies, a slump in recruiting levels not seen since 1991. The study, carried out by the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), showed that competition for jobs is much fiercer, with an average of 48 applications for every graduate vacancy. Vacancies in engineering have dropped 40%; only energy, water and utilities have registered an increase of 7.1%.

So what to do? Umair Haque has come up with a good template for discussion called the Generation M Manifesto. The M’s refer to “movement” and “meaningful stuff that matters the most”. “Every generation has a challenge, and this, I think, is ours: to foot the bill for yesterday’s profligacy — and to create, instead, an authentically, sustainably shared prosperity”.

Dmitry’s Orlov’s entertaining and insightful “Reinventing Collapse” has a good riff on the ongoing theme of “the post-secondary education model in the U.S. is broken”.

“…American colleges and universities often fail to achieve in four years what Soviet secondary schools achieved in two (9th and 10th) grades. That is they fail to produce graduates who have adequate general knowledge, good command of their native language and the ability to acquire specialized knowledge without any further institutionalized assistance.”

“The American higher education system succeeds brilliantly at one thing: producing a subservient graduate who has no choice but join the labor force on the terms dictated by her future corporate masters.”

He argues that higher education in the U.S. is “most commonly about training: the imparting of temporary, quickly obsolescent skills, not universal knowledge…. But it is mainly about securing unquestioning obedience within a complex rule-following system.”

As the governing literati argue amongst themselves about how to revamp and fund the now-defunct model of the $200,000 liberal arts education, it’s worth taking a look at Orlov’s point about the merit of imparting good general knowledge to students when they are in the 9th and 10th grades, rather than waiting until they are 18 + and making them pay through the nose for it.

Le Monde’s education supplement looks at the theme of general culture this week, citing sociologist Edgar Morin’s definition as a base line: “It is what, based on writings, the arts, thinking, helps us to orient ourselves in life and confront problems we face in life. Reading Montaigne, La Bruyere, Pascal, Diderot or Rousseau nourishes our mind and helps us to resolve our problems in life.”

Statue of Michel de Montaigne in Paris

Statue of Michel de Montaigne in Paris

But even in France this staple of the secondary education has been withered away thanks to a perception that it is too elitist. Some critics have suggested that France needs to emulate the U.S. model, where the fundamentals of general culture are imparted during the undergraduate years. Increasing numbers of French students are fleeing the traditional universities like the Sorbonne because these places are viewed as disconnected from the workplace and hostage to far-left unions, preferring to enroll in more expensive, vocation-oriented private schools.

As Montaigne said: “Since I would rather make of him an able man than a learned man, I would also urge that care be taken to choose a guide with a well-made rather than a well-filled head.”

The debate rages on. Mark Taylor’s op-ed piece in the NYT last month: “End the University as we know it.”

So much of what’s happening today is all about the pain and collateral damage resulting from the passage of the “me” generation to the “we” generation. People who understand this, like Tina Seelig (see video below of her work at Stanford preparing students to hit the ground running with world-class collaborative skills), are already in the “action” phase of this transition. Those who don’t – including the vast majority of administrators at educational establishments preparing to push another generation of “me”-prepped teenagers into tertiary education – will eventually get the message when sky-rocketing unemployment figures confirm the bankruptcy of their business as usual mindsets and banks start balking at giving easy credit to students for degrees which society deems useless.

Tina Seelig on CNBC – Collaboration Now Video

Posted using ShareThis

Lewis Lapham, in last month’s Harpers, refers to the products of our best universities as achievetrons whose principal distinguishing characteristic is a deep aversion to challenging the rules of the status quo.

“For the past sixty years the deputies assigned to engineer the domestic and foreign policies of governments newly arriving in Washington have come outfitted with similar qualifications – first-class schools, state-of-the-art networking, apprenticeship in a legislative body or a think-tank – and for sixty years they have manged to weaken rather than strengthen the American democracy, ending their terms of office as objects of ridicule if not under threat of criminal arrest.” Universities, he says, have “accepted their mission as way stations on the pilgrim road to enlightened selfishness.”

The backlash against this system is already underway. As Sandra Tsing-Loh puts it so neatly in The Atlantic: “the high-water days of the $50,000-a-year liberal-arts education are drawing to a close”.

So what will take its place and how do we – as the transition generation – bridge the gap between these two worlds?

Aside from working harder on our “we” skills – collaborating, facilitating, organizing – I can’t help going back to a piece of advice overheard at a high school career forum: “Do what you love and the rest will work itself out.”

I love the simplicity of that statement – which contains in its kernel the key elements which 2.0 wisdom has brought back to the table, notably the importance of passion-driven learning and improvisation.

Oh, and I can’t wait to read Tina’s new book “What I Wish I Knew When I was 20 – A Crash Course on Making Your Way in the World,” due out in April.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the pro’s and con’s of learning Chinese in middle school recently and I cannot make up my mind about whether it is actually worthwhile. I know all the arguments: economic, cross-cultural, neuro-science etc, and I am sure you do as well. But, just to play devil’s advocate, here are the con’s. Dr Jane Orton, who published a report last year at the University of Melbourne on the teaching of Mandarin in Australian schools, sums it up quite neatly: “The American Foreign Service Institute estimates it takes about 3.5 times longer to become proficient than say for us to become proficient in Spanish or Italian or German, and so it is quite a slog. And, at the same time, it’s not been terribly well researched and so to date it’s still not been terribly well taught.”

I grew up speaking Cantonese, a dialect of southern China which has been of no use to me as an economic citizen of a globalized world. None. In fact, I hated classroom learning of Chinese because I was alongside native speaking peers with two-parent Chinese households (I only had one Chinese parent in mine, and Chinese was a secondary language at home) and I felt constantly discouraged at my inability to get close to their level of written and spoken fluency. I follow a couple of Chinese people on Twitter just for the visceral pleasure of seeing some characters (half of which I can’t even read) on my Twitter feed. This is pure linguistic vanity and nothing more.

So, if our children are going to be shepherded into half-baked, inadequate Chinese learning programs which will fail to ignite a spark of passion for Chinese culture, then what is the point? Is even that marginal edge of extra information about an ancient culture populated by a highly competitive and educated workforce really worthwhile? Aren’t the Chinese going to speaking better English than most of us in 20 years time?

I think there needs to be a wider understanding of the fact that Chinese is not just a language, it is actually a whole other identity. In my experience, the Europeans who have been successful at learning the language have put incredible effort and energy into developing their Chinese persona. They have usually devoted the best part of a lifetime to their language skills, sometimes at the expense of other things such as the arts or sport or general culture. They then tend to devote their career to the pursuit of something which is more or less single-mindedly Sinophiliac.

Great for them, but is this really appropriate for everyone? Do our children really need to be press-ganged into yet another subject which has a good chance of making them feel like they are failing?

Jay Cross on the “Emergent Learning Paradigm ” via Robin Good at Master New Media.

Clay Shirky on hierarchy and leadership: the power of the individual to offer the “plausible promise”.

Applications plummet at top liberal arts colleges in the U.S. due to bad economy.