More on Learning, Platforms and the Gig Economy

In this interview with Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte US, Tom Friedman expands on some of the central themes of this course, which I’ve written about earlier. (The Deloitte Center for the Edge is home one of my favorite education writers, John Seely Brown.) These documents provide a good starting place for considering the interactions between technology, work and education.

For me, one of the most striking claims in this article was the statistic showing that 94% of new employment between 2005 and 2015 came from alternative work arrangements–such as the gig, or freelance, and off-balance-sheet kinds of work (1). Our students will be living in a world where work is being disconnected from traditional jobs and more and more jobs are being disconnected from companies. The companies of the past are becoming the “platforms” of the future.

The idea of companies becoming platforms certainly sounds like Silicon Valley technobabble, but if most of the new jobs in the future really will be “alternative work arrangements,” we need a new way of being “college and career ready.” And not just for our students. Our own jobs are just as likely to be disrupted by these types of innovations as any other industry.

A company becomes a platform when it no longer controls either the jobs or the assets needed to perform a job. For example, Marriott is a traditional employer–owning hotels and hiring people to staff them, but AirBB is a platform that owns no properties and hires no staff. Moreover, Uber is a platform in that owns no cars and hires no drivers. Facebook is a media platform with no writers and Google makes billions searching web sites that others create.(2)

In a world where livelihoods depend on workers connecting directly with customers, via highly competitive platforms, workers will need very different skills than they would to fill traditional jobs. Regardless of the “product” they offer, successful individuals in the gig economy will need to be marketers, bookkeepers, and customer service specialists; these are roles that employees who worked for companies never had to worry about in the past. There were staff specialists who worried full-time those things.

Perhaps most importantly, people working in the gig economy will also have to be experts in managing their own ongoing education. Unlike “traditional” employers, platforms provide none of the support and structures typically provided by corporate training and development departments. When there is a need to learn something new, the onus will be entirely on you.

If it’s any consolation to those of you who find yourself thrust into the gig economy, many workers in traditional jobs are losing their support for training as well. As an article in the Harvard Business Review stated, credible data on what businesses spend on training are scarce, but clearly investments in training and development are the first to go corporations cut budgets.” (Friedman cites a company or two who provide support for lifelong learning. If you work for one that does, make sure that you grab every opportunity to learn that you can.)

As most graduate students can attest, when they begin thinking about dissertations, being a good student is not necessarily an indicator of being creative and self-directed.. Most of us need develop additional skills in learning to learn if we’re going to be successful at managing our own careers.

Bearing that in mind, the next posts will cover three essential tools of self-directed adult learning: the learning journal, the learning project and the learning contract.

Stay tuned for more information.

1 For more on the “gig economy” you might want to take a look at this report.
2 A more comprehensive analysis of the the role of platforms in the new economy is Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, both at MIT.

Fostering Self-Direction in an Age of Smart Machines

One of the last pieces that I read, when shutting down for the summer, was a column by Tom Friedman that captured many of the the central themes for our class this fall. (If you want to follow more about the design of the class, you can use the tag EPPL639 on my site. The core theme of Friedman’s piece is key to the class: an increase in the power of computer technology generated by robotics, artificial intelligence, deep learning and “the Internet of Things,” has created a world where every job worth having demands more skill AND a stronger commitment to self-directed, lifelong learning.

Friedman quotes the C.E.O of Intel about the belief that his grandchildren won’t drive their own cars. History has shown, the danger of putting too much faith in the predictions of the managers of technology companies. Still, it seems increasingly likely that we’ll see fleets of autonomous vehicles in the next couple of decades. Those vehicles may create good jobs for engineers, but doing so will have a massive impact for those who drive for a living, sell liability insurance or own parking lots.

The main catalysts for the move to autonomous vehicles are the exponential increase in power and the decreasing cost of computer power. The next generation of computer chips will allow car manufacturers to shrink the brain of a self-driving car from, “something that fills the whole trunk, to a small box under the front seat”. The result, as Friedman notes, is “a world where we can analyze, prophesize and optimize with a precision unknown in human history”

This ability will transform far more jobs than most of us realize. (We need to constantly remind ourselves that if combined computer capability really does double every year, we’re looking at increases of more than 100 times over the next eight years.) For example, when many of us think of the oil industry, we think of roughnecks, roustabouts and riggers on drilling platforms in the Gulf. That’s only part of the story. As Friedman reminds us in his description of the the control room of Devon Energy in Oklahoma City, a “half a floor of computer screens are displaying the data coming out of every well Devon is drilling around the world…if you’re working on a Devon oil rig today, you’re holding a computer, not just an oily wrench.”

The underlying reality for oil workers is that they will need be be able to use a computer AND a wrench, plus manage their learning in order to keep up with the changes in the world of computing technology. The wrench may not change much, but it’s pretty certain the computer will be telling workers what to adjust and when t should be done.

Friedman also describes one study that showed how reshaping some of our most traditional institutions (like the College Board) can foster self-directed, lifelong learning to the tune of 115 points on the PSAT:

We analyzed 250,000 students from the high school graduating class of 2017 who took the new PSAT and then the new SAT,” College Board president David Coleman told me. “Students who took advantage of their PSAT results to launch their own free personalized improvement practice through Khan Academy advanced dramatically: 20 hours of practice was associated with an average 115-point increase from the PSAT to the SAT — double the average gain among students who did not…

Practice advances all students without respect to high school G.P.A., gender, race and ethnicity or parental education. And it’s free. Our aim is to transform the SAT into an invitation for students to own their future.

As we move forward with our EPPL 639 course this fall, we’ll look at how the lessons of industries, as diverse as oil drilling and long-haul trucking, can shape our personal and professional approaches to learning. For me, Friedman gets it right when he notes that, “And that means: More is now on you. And that means self-motivation to learn and keep learning becomes the most important life skill.”