More on Learning, Platforms and the Gig Economy

In this interview with Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte US, Tom Friedman expands on some of the central themes of this course, which I’ve written about earlier. (The Deloitte Center for the Edge is home one of my favorite education writers, John Seely Brown.) These documents provide a good starting place for considering the interactions between technology, work and education.

For me, one of the most striking claims in this article was the statistic showing that 94% of new employment between 2005 and 2015 came from alternative work arrangements–such as the gig, or freelance, and off-balance-sheet kinds of work (1). Our students will be living in a world where work is being disconnected from traditional jobs and more and more jobs are being disconnected from companies. The companies of the past are becoming the “platforms” of the future.

The idea of companies becoming platforms certainly sounds like Silicon Valley technobabble, but if most of the new jobs in the future really will be “alternative work arrangements,” we need a new way of being “college and career ready.” And not just for our students. Our own jobs are just as likely to be disrupted by these types of innovations as any other industry.

A company becomes a platform when it no longer controls either the jobs or the assets needed to perform a job. For example, Marriott is a traditional employer–owning hotels and hiring people to staff them, but AirBB is a platform that owns no properties and hires no staff. Moreover, Uber is a platform in that owns no cars and hires no drivers. Facebook is a media platform with no writers and Google makes billions searching web sites that others create.(2)

In a world where livelihoods depend on workers connecting directly with customers, via highly competitive platforms, workers will need very different skills than they would to fill traditional jobs. Regardless of the “product” they offer, successful individuals in the gig economy will need to be marketers, bookkeepers, and customer service specialists; these are roles that employees who worked for companies never had to worry about in the past. There were staff specialists who worried full-time those things.

Perhaps most importantly, people working in the gig economy will also have to be experts in managing their own ongoing education. Unlike “traditional” employers, platforms provide none of the support and structures typically provided by corporate training and development departments. When there is a need to learn something new, the onus will be entirely on you.

If it’s any consolation to those of you who find yourself thrust into the gig economy, many workers in traditional jobs are losing their support for training as well. As an article in the Harvard Business Review stated, credible data on what businesses spend on training are scarce, but clearly investments in training and development are the first to go corporations cut budgets.” (Friedman cites a company or two who provide support for lifelong learning. If you work for one that does, make sure that you grab every opportunity to learn that you can.)

As most graduate students can attest, when they begin thinking about dissertations, being a good student is not necessarily an indicator of being creative and self-directed.. Most of us need develop additional skills in learning to learn if we’re going to be successful at managing our own careers.

Bearing that in mind, the next posts will cover three essential tools of self-directed adult learning: the learning journal, the learning project and the learning contract.

Stay tuned for more information.


1 For more on the “gig economy” you might want to take a look at this report.
2 A more comprehensive analysis of the the role of platforms in the new economy is Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future by Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, both at MIT.