Career skills in the new (networked) world

Thomas Friedman’s piece in the NYT this morning, The Do-It-Yourself Economy talks, in so many words, about the decomposition of production that has been taking place over the last four decades.  This decomposition has financial and strategic origins as much as technological, with such milestones as IBM deciding to outsource to Intel for its PC microprocessor, and to Microsoft for its operating system. 

This buy-versus-build (or “asset-lite”) strategy was pushed, by McKinsey among others, because it offered greater financial returns and strategic flexibility.  And as outsourcing increased, so did supplier sophistication and market acceptance. Here we are, 30 years later, and nobody blinks when, for example, Amazon releases a consumer electronic product relying on cellular connectivity. After all, anybody can now find the suppliers and service providers to put that together.

The technophile in Friedman sees the half-full cup of Americans now able to do, in small offices and with contract employees, what used to take entire companies (and full-time employment—which of course is the cup-half-empty view of the same trend). Everyone loves innovation.  In this column, he credits the internet and personal computing with enabling people, like marketer Ken Greer, to produce films for a fraction of what it used to take.  And his conclusion is right:

By being able to access all these cheap tools, Greer got to focus on
his value-add: imagination. The customer got a better product for less
money. But he didn’t create many new jobs. For that, he needs the
economy to pick up. “If we could only borrow a buck and invest,” said
Greer, “we’d all be rolling again.”

The irony of not hiring employees to do your work, but needing employment (needing others to hire employees), is noted but not the point of this post. 

The actual point is about being needed—about getting hired and doing well in this “new era.” In other words, employment is changing.

Q: What’s the ideal worker of the future? 

A: It’s not going to be the imaginative ones.  Sure, they’ll be involved.  But skip over the dour, hip, designerly types and look for those who can actually execute.

Why? Because behind Greer’s process of making a film that’s 20% the cost of traditional projects, there were roughly 5x the number of contracts with external suppliers, each of which required some form of project briefs, request for proposals, reviews and decisions, contract, work, evaluation of work, payment, and integration.  All are decisions that require initiative, independent thinking, integrity, and communications skills (to mention a few). Can you name more than 5 people in your organization that you would trust to do that at a strategic level and without adult supervision?

Contrary to popular jingoism, imagination is not America’s most important skill and saving grace. Innovation is about recombining existing resources in
new ways and always has been.  The challenge in this “new era” is not
simply imagining how old pieces can come together, but being able to actually make it happen. That’s execution (and not to be confused with the “executing-on-someone-else’s-ideas” implementation).

For us, the most important skills we stress in our entrepreneurship classes are not having new ideas but rather honing the skills to pull together networks that never existed before. Employment in this “new era”  hinges on your ability to execute across organizational boundaries, creating new partnerships in ways that traditional corporate work never involved, let alone allowed.

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