What do you do?
This was probably the most asked question last night while people were mingling over beer and pizza at a popular meet-up held at the event space of a well-known tech consulting company. Given the context within which the interaction is happening, the person asking the question makes some assumptions too — for example if you are at a medical conference you probably have something to do with healthcare. So you would expect that the answer to such a question would be simpler, given that we were all there for the Product Council meet-up. “I’m a product engineer”, “I’m a recruiter”, “I work as visual designer”, and more responses like that; easier to understand as these kind of roles are well embedded in our psyche.
And then there are introductions like “I implement our digital-first strategy”, “I help products scale”, “I help grow crypto-currency ecosystems”, “I enable new businesses to hire better”. One starts wondering what these people actually do in their daily work. These not-so-simple job functions must be more complicated than only being an engineer or a designer or a strategist and require different kinds of experiences and skills which are not taught in most universities in a single degree program. I introduced myself as a co-facilitator of an immersive educational experience called Stretch. Fun!
Changes in the economy
“Over the past few decades, the digital revolution has transformed the world of media, upending centuries-old companies and business models. Now, it is restructuring every business, every job, and every sector of society. No company, no job is immune to disruption.” Tim O’Reilly, Founder and CEO, O’Reilly Media and convener of the Next Economy Summit
The global economy is changing. Most of us still do not fathom the scale of this upheaval — new products and business models are created and destroyed every day across the world and the definition of work and workers are in a state of flux. I believe like many others, that staying relevant in your job and career is increasingly becoming harder every day. I’m sure all of us will have different job functions and roles in the next 3–7 years than what we are doing now (a quick show of hands in the meet-up confirmed this assumption). That demands new tool sets, seismic mind shifts; stuff that got us here is not going to get us there. So the topic of education, especially that makes you ready for staying calm in the face of uncertainty at the workplace and conquer volatility of job functions intrigues each and every one of us.
How do you build new skill-sets?
I was born in a joint household of 10 people in an urban setting in Calcutta, India. My father was one of the many people who migrated from Bangladesh to India while my mother was a young homemaker. Coming from that humble background and growing up in communist-ruled Calcutta and pre-liberalized India, the world was small — almost small to the point of being inconsequential. Fortunately, both my brother and I went to a private co-ed school which in a lot of ways shaped the foundations of our thinking and decision making principles.
I majored in Chemistry during my undergrad while simultaneously pursuing a 3 year graduate diploma for Systems Management. A few years later I pursued business studies and then entrepreneurship courses from IGNOU, Rutgers and Stanford. All these courses taught me plenty of valued skills in each of these subject areas and gave me grounding with foundational knowledge — tiny and invaluable bits of wisdom. The years at school gave me basic knowledge of language, arithmetic and an insatiable curiosity to define and refine myself.
Looking back, however, I feel that none of these prepared me for my actual work in a holistic way. None of the courses prepared me well for working collaboratively with global teams while managing client expectations across complex business domains. These years were not helpful in teaching me how to navigate the labyrinth of a flat organizational structure, nor to conceive and implement innovative engagement strategies with multiple clients while balancing risks and opportunities across planning horizons. None of the curriculum taught me what it means to be nimble in execution while balancing several initiatives simultaneously without losing context.
“ …In high school, ambitious students compete even harder to appear omni-competent. By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready — for nothing in particular.” ― Peter Thiel, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future
What those years of courses gave me was a solid foundation. However, one needs walls, windows, and doors to create a home on the foundation to live in. And that part is more than the traditional course-ware currently taught in most schools and universities.
So where do we all go from here?
Given that many of us realize how traditional education is falling behind, there are lots of initiatives happening in multiple directions to re-imagine how to deliver meaningful education that can prepare us for 21st century challenges. What is taught, How the knowledge is delivered, what is the subsequent impact, who is teaching the course, what is the context in which we are learning — everything needs a thoughtful point of view. One option that has been tossed around is the MOOC.
MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) — Transformation of print content to digital, availability of economically viable models for distributing that digital content through multiple personal media channels and devices, and the ability to create personal learning profiles based on robust analytic have created the opportunity to provide course-ware over internet. There is a revolution happening in the education space with companies like Knewton, Coursera and EdX now becoming mainstream. Obviously this has spurred more initiatives like No Pay MBA and much hyped startups like Degreed that intends to capture all learning (including MOOC) for all individuals at one place and “jailbreak” the degree. However in the very words of Sebastian Thurn, the creator of Udacity (MOOC funded by Google Ventures), the products that come out of MOOC are “lousy”, leaving students wanting for more. While it’s easy to reach out to millions over online channels and deliver course-ware, it’s really hard to measure original value created by the teachers, students and the course-ware when there is no or very limited ‘in-life’ interactivity. Something about being in a campus and bonding with your fellow students and teachers changes the way you learn and create impact.
At Stretch, we believe that the solution set is bigger and there is space for more to the innovation than just MOOC and traditional executive education. The emergent space is between MOOC and the traditional campus, the emergent learning is not by gobbling up high quality course-ware but also by trying new learned skills in the context of real world challenges, and then building mentor-ship connections and network that can propel any student to create the impact they desire. There are connected business models around this explored by ventures like Koru that offers job-specific training and workshops and Fullbridge that prepares students for the global economy. We think intrapreneurs, power hires and entrepreneurs need to be continual learners and expand their network for learning more than ever before.
21st Century Skills
Soon, almost everyone and almost everything will be connected. New job categories that don’t exist today will crop up in next 5–10 years. No one is safe with just any degree anymore and the capability to be outstanding, original, and a generalist purple cow will be the only way to direct and act in your own movie of yourself. What will remain most powerful is that of human cognition, the ability to make sense of it all and synthesize the know-how to find new opportunities, to excite others to collaborate with you on those opportunities and have a human impact on your audience. The key 21st century skills will involve Communication, Collaboration, Critical Thinking and Creativity.
At my current work I handle that change and learn continually through a mishmash of experiences, readings, self-run ventures, learning by following (leveraged learning), doing, and imitating others — the outcome is of original value that is hard to nail down in a course ware or module. It involves deliberate modeling of information from business strategy, design and technology horizons into knowledge and to subsequently create insights that help deliver results. Stretching the brain and mind to identify signals from the cacophony of waves of current feeds and in staying focused.
Here at Stretch, we have brought together the best minds for making you an innovation expert. Stretch is an immersive and collaborative educational experience with renowned consultants and awesome professors from the best NYC design schools. Plus we will address real world challenges of NY based non profits and help create a powerful community of culture brokers that you can tap into for future challenges.
Come as an individual, come as a group and get ready to lead innovation at your workplace and communities.