One of the largest, but also most admirable, threats to the existing social norms of the corporate workplace is Mooks.
Wait, no… that’s not it. I mean MOOCs: massive open online courses, such as those offered by Coursera, Udacity, and edX. MOOCs, which bring a modularity and freshness into education, are not a fad. Their use will grow, and the rising generation will be so comfortable with the concept that they’ll become a regular component of educational and working life. Within 10 years, self-directed continuing education will be as important a component of career progress as traditional “resume” metrics like job titles and workplace accomplishments.
Much has been said about the potential for MOOCs to disrupt education, although I think the threat is overstated. While the current extortion (a choke-hold on the middle-class job market) that justifies enormous college tuitions will go away, as it should, there’s still an immense social value to the college experience, much of which occurs outside of the classroom. That won’t change. So if “disruption” occurs, it will be in the direction of making “the Real World” more like college. It won’t kill off the university. That topic, however, is too big for me to attack in one morning. I’ll focus on one subtopic, which is the effect that MOOCs will have on the modern workplace. They’re a serious threat to the entrenched corporate leadership, because they provide a path to alternative credibility that is independent of a single workplace or manager. The current corporate workplace operates based on a credibility drought. Artificially scarce job titles, project allocations, and referrals are used to motivate people to put years into dues-paying grunt work. The alternate credibility that MOOCs, in maturity, shall offer disrupts that, because people can learn faster than they acquire credibility in an artificially slowed-down institution.
Open-source projects have a similar potency, but there’s one difference. An indignant employer, when it discovers that an employee has favored the open-source project on working time, can attempt to claim ownership of the code– that it was “work for hire”. This limits the willingness that most people have to subversively pursue it on work time. With MOOCs, such firms won’t have that recourse. No court will invalidate an educational accreditation simply because it was earned on “working time”.
The MOOC generation
When the Baby Boomers went to work, the rules were simple. Do what’s asked of you, don’t complain, and when you have time to spare, ask for more work. That was how one showed ambition and the potential for leadership: always being “done” ahead of schedule, always being “caught up”, always wanting more work to do. If you were lucky, you eventually started getting a higher quality of work and would eventually (after years) start to acquire credibility within the organization and possibly be tapped for a leadership role. If you weren’t, you got more grunt work, took on as much as you could handle and plateaued. Most people weren’t especially lucky, and the dues-paying period lasted for 3 to 10 years– longer than the average job lasts for us.
That model doesn’t work for Millennials. As a generation, we’re poorly paid. (Software engineers are adequately, but not exceptionally, paid.) We’ve seen the corporate ladder disintegrate, so we have no faith in it. We’re not willing to sacrifice the now in favor of a promised future when we’ve seen such promises discarded for convenience. However, we have one thing the Boomers didn’t. There seems to be more variety in the kind of work that’s out there, making more avenues toward success. These alternatives take time and focus, but they’re there: one doesn’t have to climb an institutional ladder to be successful. My general impression is that, while the corporate world “proper” has become worse, there’s a wider variety of interesting jobs out there now than existed for my parents. Consequently, if we start investing in our careers very early and do so aggressively, we can grow our earning potential by 10-30 percent per year for many years, and eventually work our way to a position of high pay, autonomy, and flexibility. Boomer managers complain about us being “entitled” or expecting rapid career progression. We’re not. “Entitled” is the last thing we are. Rather, we work very hard, and we’re extremely loyal when we believe that loyalty is deserved. We do, however, tend prioritize our own career goals well above those of our companies or managers– and we’re nakedly obvious about it, which is something that Boomer managers aren’t used to. Why? Because the future pays us. We knew, at 22, that corporate loyalty was done-for and that we are our own bosses.
Boomers had a “company man”, one-firm-for-life model. At least, that was the ideal. Leaving your firm for a promotion was considered disloyal and couldn’t be done too often, and getting fired could ruin your career. Generation X, which followed, entered a winner-take-all world that emerged as the corporate social contract disintegrated. A few people got great mentors and became millionaire options traders, or connected venture capital with a good idea and managed to protect themselves well enough from investors to strike dot-com gold. Others (most of them) languished on busy-work they had to endure to pay the bills, and their career trajectories were nasty, brutish, and short. We, the Millennials, are the keep-learning-and-carry-on crew. We saw what happened to the laid-off Boomers and the less successful Xers and refuse to let it happen to us. We’re not going to let our creativity be sapped by subordinate roles. We don’t stop learning. When there’s slack in the schedule at work, we don’t ask how we can “help out”. We log in to our Kindle reader or Coursera and learn the skills that we’ll need to get where we want to go, and to perform well once we’re there.
I’ll also note that most of us have no ethical problem with doing this and I, personally, agree with that stance. We may call it “stealing an education” from a boss, to give this practice an anarchist flair, but the reality is that we do it with the intention of becoming better at our jobs, which is a valid use of work time. It may be insubordinate, but it’s not unethical. We believe that we don’t have to ask for permission to dedicate half our working time to what we think is important, and when we’re young and unestablished, that’s often development of new skills. We just go off and do it, rather than ask for clearance. It’s an awkward conversation, and the manager might say no. Channeling Grace Hopper, we’d rather ask forgiveness.
What’s coming into form is a generation that will prove itself extremely capable, but also extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to manage in the traditional sense of the word. The old approach won’t work anymore.
First, the traditional mechanisms for evaluating leadership potential are done. Old-style companies allocated new hires to low-relevance grunt work and measured their potential for leadership based on how eagerly they took it on, and how fast they completed it. This worked in 1990 when there wasn’t much to do at work but the assigned work. Rather than face hours of boredom with nothing to do, the most competent would “give back” any slack in their schedule by asking for more work to do. The current generation won’t. Opening a CS textbook at work may be a faux pas outside of research– this guy’s reading a book at work?– but Kindle and PDF versions solve that. What this means is that the rising leaders are hard to detect based on performance on assigned work, where they manage their performance to the middle for the purpose of freeing time for self-directed learning.
What shall happen when an employee is “caught” putting half her working time into online education? Well, she could be fired, but that would mean terminating someone who was more skilled and competent than the person who was originally hired– an inconsistent decision. That might make sense if it raised questions about integrity, but the rising generation doesn’t view this behavior as unethical. So I see that extreme response as unlikely. Blocking MOOCs is a non-starter, since many departments and managers will want their reports to have access to them, or to use them themselves, and people won’t gladly work for a company that gets a reputation for blocking Coursera. This is not a change to be fought; it can only be embraced.
So what might this mean, at the macroscopic level? Companies won’t be able to prevent the rising generation from putting the bulk of their working time into self-directed learning and projects, and the more progressive ones won’t even want to do so. Companies will have to accept the self-executive mindset of the most capable people. Thus, work will be redefined, and the relationship will be more like one of sponsorship than subordination. On the whole, this will be a positive change. One of the nastiest tensions in the modern corporation surrounds the lack of career coherency in work as presently defined. Career incoherency refers to the fact that a worker’s assigned tasks may not be what is best for her long-term desirability in the workforce. Present-day young workers are often forced to balance competing job and career needs, and afraid of catching the “not a team player” label if they serve the latter too obviously. Hence, the current need to be furtive in “MOOCing”. That will change under the sponsorship system, where young people are expected to serve their career needs and their employers are just there to fund them and collect products they produce along the way. That will be superior and, in the long run, produce better technical work. The proliferation of high-quality, free, online education is the start.
I, for one, welcome our new MOOC overlords.