Creative Destruction of Work and Careers

On November 1, 2017 LinkedIn published its Top Companies | Startups: The 50 industry disruptors you need to know now.  Three of those companies -- Coursera, Udacity and General Assembly -- are post-secondary educational enterprises, though none are traditional colleges or universities.  They all offer short-form, professional or continuing education with many classes geared toward the workplace.  It is not clear whether they are disruptors of the education industry or if they are simply following a dramatic shift in the nature of work and careers.
In 1942 the economist Joseph Schumpeter observed that “creative destruction” – incessant product and process innovation that remakes companies and industries/sectors – is the fundamental characteristic of economies and economic growth.  In 1990, focusing on technology as the change agent and companies and sectors (rather than economies) as the unit of observation, Clayton Christensen gave us “disruptive innovation” as a catch phrase to describe this process.

The concept of disruptive innovation has entered the popular lexicon of business-speak so I was surprised and pleased that the recent McKinsey Global Institute report, Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained, did not label the recent and anticipated waves of automation as disruptive.  They were careful to label the anticipated changes as “transitions”, consistent with historical patterns, and wrote reasonably about the changing nature of work and the displacement of some workers even as new jobs, requiring new skills are created. We expect an economy in constant transition, as waves of innovation and creative destruction wash over us.  It seems, however, that the waves are closer together, moving faster, and bigger than they were just 30 years ago (i.e., within the span of a working life).

To get a handle on this (in less than the 160 pages of the McKinsey report) it is useful to look back just 17 years to 2000.  In 2000, Amazon’s $2.7 billion in online sales were dominated by books, CDs and DVDs.  After 17 years of rapid growth and diversification of products offered, it is clear that Amazon led a revolution that pulled the largest bricks and mortar retailers into a new economic reality, even as they also led the revolution in cloud storage and computing with AWS.   In 2000, both Facebook’s founding and Google’s first public offering were still 4 years in the future and the iPhone would not be introduced for another 7 years.

In more traditional industries, in 2000 very few people were reading media online, and the 130-year-old Washington Post daily paper circulation was over 2.5 times what it is today.  And both the Post and a very large number of print publications were supported by advertising revenue that is now captured by online publishers (including the Post) or directly by online sellers.

 In oil and gas, the technology of fracking (with patents dating to the 1800s) saw significant innovation as late as 1997.  Historically and continuously high oil prices in the early years of the 21st century pulled hydraulic fracturing of unconventional (shale) reservoirs forward very quickly, developed a deep knowledge ecosystem around hydraulic fracking, and changed global oil and gas markets forever.

And the newer “traditional” industries are not immune either.   In 2000, big software enterprises such as Oracle and SAP sold ERP software systems for computers housed at an enterprise, and Microsoft “owned” desktop software worldwide.   While Salesforce offered enterprise services through a simple web site in 1999, it was only the advanced technology groups in companies and universities that were looking seriously at pervasive cloud storage, cloud computing, software as a service, or machine learning.   Today, cloud-based and increasingly intelligent services – provided by both the “old” software companies and dozens of start-ups – dominate the landscape of industrial and commercial information technology, including individual desktops.

Returning to work and education, it is important to acknowledge that a transitional phase in an economy may be short in historical terms but can forever alter (and even disrupt) millions of individual's work and lives.   LinkedIn’s 2017 disruptive educational start-ups -- along with dozens of other startups and new programs offered by existing community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities – are the leading edge of response to the recent waves of transition in the workplace. 

Given the pace of change and the degree of disruption across the economy it is no wonder that a traditional four-year BA or BS, or a two-year Associates degree, seems to have a half-life of about a decade in the workplace.  While a traditional college education may lay the base for future learning there is absolutely no question that post-graduate learning will be needed -- sooner rather than later -- by individuals who spend 30 years at work.

So, are educational innovators such as Coursera, Udacity, and General Assembly disrupting education?  Perhaps.  Are they following a continuous shift in the nature of work and careers? Absolutely.  A bit of push, a lot of pull.