Career Success in the Age of Disruption

November 23, 2009

The image of disruption, painted previously, should not be seen as particularly gloomy. Indeed, we must all stop seeing the economy in old fashioned boom-bust terms, an example of a norm no longer useful. Rather, it is more important to note which set of changes is bearing down on us, which arrives next and how shall we take advantage of the change, while deflecting danger.  That is, however, sobering in the sense that this response is a high challenge, requiring energy, focus, discipline, knowledge and insight. The tragedy lies in the legions who will  failed to rise to these new requirements, leaving them mere commodities to be sold at auction.

Yet for those who would respond aggressively to the challenge of change and disruption, a seductive argument lies awaits. Of course, you want to take action, the siren voice says; of course, you do not want to wait passively for disaster to strike. But the siren tells you that there is so much change coming so quickly, it is impossible to see ahead to a useful degree. So wait watchfully. When something is already happening, jump at it or away from it. Agility with a touch of eagle-eyed daring is a survival skill of the twenty-first century, it is said.

However, the suggestion that victory in this dynamic and complex world is reliably won by opportunistic pirates swooping down on passing treasure is absurd.

Of course, the lure of the argument is clear. It avoids the pain of intense thought or methodical research; it avoids looking into the future lest you see ghosts and horrors. Instead, the typical male can run around in circles and try to knock something down. That reaction, however, is now outside the slipstream of history.

Remember, no pirate ever built a city.

Inconveniently enough for the siren’s song, the future can be anticipated reliably and in useful detail. All it takes is a lens ground to a different focus, one that accommodates the tumult in which we find ourselves. This focus is far from new; it is however routinely ignored.

When all is roiling on the surface, the currents deep below still run true. Strike to those deep currents and you can feel the tides of history — one such tide is the force of the global economy.

The idea that there is now a planetary economy is accepted as almost commonplace. It is spoken 0f almost glibly. But while this single economy of ours is still in its early days, with parts of the world still omitted, other parts half committed and everyone cheating, the gathering force is near irreversible. And the consequences are certain no matter what else happens: rising competitive pressure.

The second great tide of history is the march of the machine. For millennia, we have substituted machines for human labour. As the machines became more capable, the substitution proceeded more quickly. And then the computer came — the most flexible tool humanity ever created. Obviously, this takes machine capability to a new level; obviously, few have noticed the consequences thus far. We will now replace people at an even faster rate than we did in the past. Moreover, when the army of software developers finally stops obsessing about the communication and marketing functions of a computer, they will inevitably turn their full attention to productivity tools. Imagine the effect of quadrupling, at least, the number of programmers and companies focussed on eliminating human workers.

Of course, the old argument that machines do not really destroy jobs in general will afflict us for awhile yet. For each job the machine eliminates at least another appears. These new jobs, it is said, represent the people who design, build and maintain the machines. But if these jobs equal those lost, why use the machines at all? The logic fails. It is true that the worker made available (unemployed) is a resource that can be applied to other work. And therefore most of the workers unemployed by the machines thus far, or who would have been employed if the machines did not already exist, have found jobs in new industries and new occupations. But such mobility was easy in the old gentle world of the past.

The standard of performance of all work had not yet started to rise so sharply. But as competitive pressures rise, the standard for all work rises and, for new work no less so. While society and its marketplaces could certainly create a new job for every job lost, it will no longer be automatic or easy.

Thus, the onslaught of job-destroying machines bears down on us and combines with the force of the global economy to drive competitive pressures ever higher and ever faster. And the inevitable disruptions and dislocations add further stress. The result could hardly be less surprising.

As the standard of performance expected of all of us rises and keeps rising, many more will fall to the periphery of society, with just enough to sustain themselves as they spend their hours immersed in the warm cocoon of the entertainment media.

But what does it mean to say the standard of performance is rising? We know what the typical responses are to it. Aspiring professionals increase their educational attainment. At least two degrees. With a selected professional designation, or two. Plus executive short courses for good measure. But how much distinction does this education provide when there are, today, at least 80 million university students enrolled on the planet?

Professionals, already employed, respond to rising standards by working ever longer hours. Yet as the workday lengthens, what advantage does this give anyone when all work the same hours? Moreover, this tactic is limited by the biological necessity to sleep and the inevitably deteriorating quality of decisions made on the run. Thus, if professionals do no more than educate themselves and work longer hours, these professional workers slowly becomes  commodity — available to the lowest bidder.

True, there remain pockets of protected professionals, who guard their monopolistic enclaves fiercely as they harvest abnormal reward. That they escaped scrutiny in the booming economy of the past is not surprising. In tomorrow’s more stringent world, that privilege becomes progressively harder to hide or to defend.

The accumulation of experience will appeal to many as their only hope for some sort of advantage. Older workers will hope that their experience remains an inherently impregnable barrier to the armies of the young. This assumes that their experience suddenly does not become obsolete, or that two degrees do not equal fifteen years on the job.

Younger workers, on the other hand, have a different hope — that experience will eventually earn them distinction. This constitutes a strategy for career success based birthday candles. The trouble is that everyone else keeps having birthdays.

Yet if education and experience are not enough for competitive advantage, what is left? Hope for the best? Hope that mother corporation will look after you? Hope that at least government jobs are secure? Expect that “the best” is likely to be barely okay? Or follow the thread of logic to its conclusion?

The global marketplace, the advance of machine intelligence and systemic disruption continue to drive up competitive pressures, which in turn drives up the standard of performance. There is no reason whatsoever to expect this process to abate.

Once education was enough for advantage, now it is not. Once education and experience were enough, now it is not. Only one capability is left to be demanded. Now the marketplace wants a worker to have new ideas, new solutions, new thoughts and new facts.

Knowing what is in the textbook is not enough to provide advantage since everyone knows it. Having experience is not enough when so many others also have it. Knowing “best practice” is not enough because the best is already being done. Knowing what others also know is not enough exactly because others know it.

Commanding advantage in tomorrow’s world accrues to the individual who knows something no one else knows, has an answer of which no one else has thought or has a solution that works much better than someone else’s. Will such a capability be an advantage forever? How could it not? Is it a punishing standard? Yes. Does the marketplace care that this standard is almost brutal? No.

Unfortunately, neither our society nor our schools are prepared to  train aggressively this highest of all skills, the one of which we can never have enough. Fortunately, there are steps individuals can take to nurture their innovative skills, to become elite trailblazers of the twenty-first century. (A detailed discussion of how to do so will be the subject a further post.)


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