The Luddites Lost, Workforce Development, and Man Versus Machine

Perhaps you’ve been in a room where someone is called a Luddite. Or, maybe a person proudly or sheepishly self-identifies as one. You likely know enough about the term to understand that it has something to do with being a skeptic about modern technology, but that isn’t the entire story. Thee term “Luddite” has come to have the modern meaning of a person who is a skeptic about or critic of the alleged promise and benefits of one or more modern technologies, but its historical counterparts did not just stop at skepticism or criticism.

The original term come from the early 19th century when new technologies replaced and displaced workers in the textile mills in England. Owners of the mills determined that these machines were a justifiable improvement upon what the workers were able to do. Angry and uncertain about their futures, some of the workers started a revolt. Led by a fictional/mythical character who came to be known as Ned Ludd, some of these workers broke into mills, destroying the machines that risked their livelihood.

In other words, the original Luddites were not just skeptics or even outspoken critics. They were people who were willing to break the law and even vandalize to be heard or seek to change the course of technological developed that risked their way of life. They were rebels and activists fueled by the personal impact of new technological developments.

Today, those who embrace the label of Luddite are far less likely to represent such an approach. Instead, they are usually people who resist the use of emerging technologies in their personal life, perhaps partly in their work, or perhaps they are outspoken among friends or colleagues about how they don’t like or support all of this technological development in their lives (but it is usually limited to certain domains that conflict with certain values). Most Luddites today, for example, are quite happy with advancements in medical technology. They might enjoy the benefits of modern transportation technology. They live in homes supported by a  variety of modern technologies. They benefit from advancement in sanitation technologies in their communities. Yet, like their original counterparts, there is some area where the technology risks their preferred way of life. Or, there are times when their jobs are on the line if they refuse to embrace and learn to use modern technologies. This applies whether you are working in sales, education, healthcare or almost any industry today.

There are, of course, people today who parallel the plight of the first Luddites in the sense that they have been or soon will be displaced by new technologies. In fact, in this emerging age of robotics and new technological developments, our broader conversations about workforce development must take into account the fact that we will continue to see people replaced or, at minimum, augmented and changed by technology. There are countless articles and presentations of this future in the media, academic publications and elsewhere.

Yet, we can learn something from the modern Luddites. One important lesson is just that they failed. Their revolt and vandalism for a half decade didn’t ultimately save their jobs. It didn’t prevent machines from replacing people. It didn’t slow technological development in society or even their industry. The same thing is ultimately true today.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t resist and strive to shape the ways in which technology can and should be used. In fact, I contend that we have a moral obligation to do so. Yet, it does mean that we must also recognize that we are indeed moving into a future where the man versus machine dichotomy (or synergy) will become increasingly common. It will change the nature of work and we are wise to have far more serious and candid conversations about what this means for modern education, society, families and the workforce.

What should education look like in an age where many tasks accomplished in the past by humans are now accomplished by non-human creations?

When Every Family is a Startup

What I’m about to share is nothing new, but it is a significant societal and economic change in this connected world, and I contend that it has large and important implications for thinking about the nature of education in a connected world.

I returned from a trip to Hanoi, Vietnam a couple of months ago. While I was only there for a couple of days, I continue to think about the cultural experience. I don’t know what this says about me but I thoroughly enjoyed crossing busy streets in Hanoi. Amid countless cars and scooters rushing by, friends told me to just drop my head, step out into traffic and walk slowly but steadily across the street. Just don’t stop or change pace as someone may well hit you, they explained. Again, I’m not sure why I enjoyed this so much. Perhaps it was because I got to disregard pretty much every childhood rule that I’d ever learned about crossing the street or “playing in traffic.”

Walking or riding through the streets of Hanoi, you can’t help but notice the line of small businesses run out of the street-side first floor of each building, with families often living above. I’m certainly no expert on Vietnam, Vietnamese economics or the Vietnamese business landscape, but I was told that almost all of these are family businesses do not reach the financial threshold that requires them to go through formal processes with the government. Or some do, but they just don’t report it. If it is run by you and family, and you don’t make too much money, it is pretty quick and easy to start as many family businesses as you want, and that is a common way of life for families in a city like Hanoi. As such, one person indicated that many, perhaps even most, families living in Hanoi had one or more family businesses. It might be making and serving one type of street food. Or, it might be a simple and singular craft or service.

As other businesses develop in Vietnam, this massive family small business framework may well fade, with more people opting for jobs in companies. Again, I don’t know the Vietnamese landscape so perhaps that transition is well underway. Regardless, I’m intrigued by the parallel between what I saw in Vietnam and what is happening in the United States and the digital world at large, the growing options for work from home, self-employment, and small businesses.

Could it be that what I saw in Vietnam gives me a glimpse into what is happening in the digital landscape? The more I thought about this, the more similarities I saw between Ebay and these family businesses of Hanoi. One difference, and this is obviously a major one, is that the business efforts happening in the United States are often experimental and supplemental, offering people disposable income above and beyond what many do for full-time job. Yet, that is not true for all, and this digital marketplace has extended around the world. In fact, I just hired a person from Vietnam, another from Russia, and two more from the United States through an online service to do some graphic design work for me. There are plenty of people who have learned how to tap into the connected world to generate significant income or even a full-time salary.

The digital world, even going back to the 1990s, helped to create spaces for people to explore and experiment with self-employment, even if mainly for supplemental purposes. I remember the personal realization in the 1990s that, if I could generate any kind of website that garnered the attention of 10-20,000 viewers a month, I could create a business out of it.

Just scan what is happening on Ebay, Etsy, UpWork, Udemy, Fiverr, Patreon, Kickstarter, TeachersPayTeachers, and hundreds of other similar online services.

  • With Ebay, anyone can become a broker of used (or new) goods.
  • With Etsy, anyone skilled in a craft (or who gain access to purchase crafts so they can resell them to people in other parts of the country or world where there is higher demand) can set up a storefront.
  • With UpWork, you can be a consultant or independent contractor as a programmer, graphic designer or illustrator, administrative assistant, writer, social media specialist, editor or dozens of other areas. These people make money ranging from a few dollars an hour to well over a hundred dollars an hour, they can set their own hours, and they can do their work from pretty much anywhere.
  • With Udemy, people are designing fee-based, non-credit online courses on everything from photography to setting up a blog, and there are plenty of people who are making solid five and six-figure incomes doing it.
  • With Fiverr, people are making extra money by doing even simple tasks like writing a 300-word blog post.
  • Patreon is a digital platform that draws from a century-old tradition of sponsors or patron’s of certain people’s work, especially artists, but it extends far beyond that.
  • With Kickstarter and dozens of other crowd-funding sites, people are getting the capital necessary to produce a product ranging from a documentary to a new electronic device. Or, they are just using it to get pre-orders for products and services.
  • With TeachersPayTeachers, educators are selling worksheets, lesson plans and other products of their work as classroom teachers; and some boast of making six figures doing as much.

With modern debates about workforce development and the role of college education, these sorts of platforms offer us a glimpse into a future where most families have what many still consider a non-traditional revenue stream, even if it is a supplemental one. It shows us that anyone with valued knowledge or skill, regardless of how it is developed or acquired, has a better chance than ever to turn that knowledge and skill into an opportunity for significant income. We live in an age where it is easier than ever to create multiple streams of income without ever leaving your house. Who knows, we may well see ourselves venturing into a future where almost every family is a startup or small business. Given this emerging future, what are the implications for our schools and education system?

Job Interviews: What is the Worst that Could Happen?

“In most cases, the best strategy for a job interview is to be fairly honest, because the worst thing that can happen is that you won’t get the job and will spend the rest of your life foraging for food in the wilderness and seeking shelter underneath a tree or the awning of a bowling alley that has gone out of business.” – L. Snicket (in The Carnivorous Carnival – Book 9 in A Series of Unfortunate Events).

The more that I’ve studied and learned about high-impact learning organizations, the more I’ve found myself grappling with and exploring matters of talent management, especially finding and hiring the “right” talent. As I try to understand that “special something” in distinctive learning organizations, it is often a subtle blend of forces and factors. However, one of those factors is always people. It isn’t just a compelling vision, functional model, scalable framework, or set of best practices. People cast and embrace visions. People implement models and frameworks. People embrace or discard best or promising practices. Different people will thrive in some contexts and not others.

That is where my mind wandered when my wife drew my attention to the opening quote for this article, an entertaining piece of advice from Lemony Snicket (pen name of Daniel Handler) in A Series of Unfortunate Events. Yet, is Lemony right? Is that the worst that could happen? Practically speaking, I suppose so. From another viewpoint, I have a different concern amid job interviews.

I’ve come to believe that one of the most important responsibilities of leadership in a learning organization has to do with decisions about who to hire. It has everything to do with the mission and distinct vision of that organization. It isn’t about who is good or bad. It is about who will amplify the mission and vision, who will be inspired and empowered by the mission, who has the gifts, talents and abilities that are right for that time and place in an organization’s life-cycle.

Apart from homelessness and poverty as pointed out by Snicket, the worst thing that can come out of a job interview is that a person would be hired for a job that is neither a good fit for that person or the organization. A mis-alignment of mission, vision and gifts can be a soul-crushing experience for the person hired, not to mention a missional train wreck. A strong organizational culture can survive some of these, but if it becomes a pattern, this is the sort of thing that can derail and entire organization.

I’m not just talking about hiring executive leadership. I’m referring to everyone person and every responsibility in an organization. If the front-end or sales people are not on track with mission and vision, we can quickly find ourselves creating a disconnect between what and how we “sell” or recruit and our core identity as a learning organization. The same thing is true for every part of an operation.

From the perspective of the interviewee, I persistently advise people to apply for jobs where they really do buy into what the organization does, why it does it, and how it does it.  When you get up in the morning, are your energized to be part of that organization? When you go to sleep at night, do you do so with a measure of pride that you contributed to something meaningful? It doesn’t necessarily need to be that you were progressing toward a cure for cancer or world peace, but finding and investing in something that matters is, to me, one of the more important parts of a great place to work.

Who Cares What College You Attended?

You worked hard throughout high school to earn a spot in that top ranked college. Throughout your time there, you continued to work and learn, hoping that it will pay off after graduation. You graduate college and apply for that first full-time job, proud to have the name of that well-known school near the top of your resume, right beside, “Bachelor of Science.” It is a large company, but you are excited that going to that top school gives you an edge over the competition, at least you think that it will. To your surprise, you come across a news article explaining that the company for which you applied a job strips out the school names from all applications, leaving you to compete with others on the basis of your basic background, but even more so your demonstrated competence.

The value and perception of credentials and competence is expanding as we continue to see experiments that highlight a regard for competence as much (or even more than) affiliation with a given higher education brand. Consider this recent news about a Fortune 500’s adjustment to their hiring practices. We are seeing an interesting tension in societies around the world, where more people are realizing that the top talent comes from all over the place, and popularity heuristics for narrowing a large pool of applicants is also causing these companies to miss out on some of the best talent in that pool. They take the Stanford graduate for a marketing job over the genius who went to a state school and could have transformed their business. As business analytics continues to reach and reshape human resource departments around the world, more people are coming to discover this fact. As Willing Hunting said amid an altercation in a pub with a proud Ivy League student,

“See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxxx education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.”

The quote isn’t factual, but it has proverbial truth. There is an unquestionable difference between going to a top college and having a library card. Yet, it is true in the sense that a motivated person can obtain a world-class education in alternative ways; whether through self-study or getting the most out of a less prestigious college. This is not to say that Ivy League and other élite schools lack value. Many of them continue to show themselves to be outstanding learning communities, providing students with unprecedented access to some brilliant and world-class thinkers, doers, and difference-makers. They also nurture a community where willing people can build some of the best lifelong networks available. At the same time, “some” is an important word. They don’t contain all or even the majority of the world-class thinkers, doers and difference-makers.

This is why we are seeing news headlines like this: “Professional services firm Deloitte has changed its selection process so recruiters do not know where candidates went to school or university.” As explained in one of my favorite talent management books, The Rare Find, people in all types of organizations who ultimately care about the highest level of performance are seeking new ways to review applicants, no longer leaning on a simple strategy like only hiring people from a certain school or set of schools. That might work relatively well in terms of hiring solid employees, but it is also a bit like only narrowly insisting upon only buying one brand of food or clothing because you know and trust the quality of their product. That meets your needs, but diminishes the possibility of you discovering and experiencing all the other amazing food and clothing in the world.

All this is happening just as we read and learn more about the value of not just nurturing or hiring well-rounded people; but understanding that some of the highest performers are not well-rounded. They are what some refer to as “spikey” or what I call wonderfully lopsided. They play to and build on their strengths instead of spending most of their time trying to round themselves perfectly by fixing all their flaws. Of course, some flaws hinder the ability to flourish and need addressing, but there is also a compelling case for focusing on what you do well. There is a place for the equivalent of the decathlete, but there is also plenty of room for the world-class sprinters, distance runners, or high-jumpers; and this is coming from a person who has a lifelong fascination with what it means to be a renaissance man.

This is not about diminishing one pathway. It is just about recognizing that there is more than one path to high-performance, excellence or competence. I recently learned about a large and well-known company that seeks to only hire from three or four schools that they trust. This probably makes their job easier. These schools have consistently produced good graduates who do well on the job. That is not the problem. The problem is that, in doing this, they might have missed out on a more diverse and even higher performing cohort of new hires who could set them apart from the competition and take their company to the next level. Heuristics are helpful, even necessary, as we only have so much time in the day. I understand the reason of the hiring unit that cuts down the people quickly by only accepting applicants with a certain credential or sifting by looking for people from certain schools. However, there is also value in evaluating our heuristics on occasion to see if there might be better ways to find the best and brightest. This is also a great way to address at least one workforce development problem today, namely wasted gifts, talents and abilities from willing people with uncommon backgrounds.