January 10, 2014

Communities of practice...

US bike messenger stamp 1902

As I've written before, the limiting factor in the Industrial Age was information processing. [Links] You could build a trans-continental railroad system, but you still moved information on little slips of paper. Which was painfully clumsy and inefficient. So every organization became a sort of "computer with human components." Processing information into reports and graphs; filing, collating, retrieving... boiling it down.

Colleges and the college degree was one of those mechanisms. A degree was worth having because it was a compilation of information an employer could rely on. In a rough way, you could say that an Ivy League degree would put you on a track into top management, a state college degree said you were middle-management material, and a junior college diploma meant you were a person for supervisor level jobs. (A degree worked the same way for social status. An Ivy degree said you were fitted for the elite.)

But the degree system was an awkward work-around, because there was no simple way to investigate thousands of people in detail.

The Degree Is Doomed - Michael Staton - Harvard Business Review:

...The value of paper degrees will inevitably decline when employers or other evaluators avail themselves of more efficient and holistic ways for applicants to demonstrate aptitude and skill.  Evaluative information like work samples, personal representations, peer and manager reviews, shared content, and scores and badges are creating new signals of aptitude and different types of credentials. Education-technology companies EduClipper and Pathbrite, and also general-interest platforms such as Tumblr and WordPress, are used to show online portfolios.  Brilliant has built a math-and-physics community that identifies and challenges top young talent. Knack, Pymetrics, and Kalibrr use games and other assessments that measure work-relevant aptitudes and attitudes. HireArt is a supercharged job board that allows applicants to compete in work challenges relevant to job openings.  These new platforms are measuring signals of aptitude with a level of granularity and recency never before possible.

There are sites -- notably Degreed and Accredible -- that adapt existing notions of the credential to a world of online courses and project work. But there are also entire sectors of the innovation economy that are ceasing to rely on traditional credentials and don't even bother with the skeumorph of an adapted degree.  Particularly in the Internet's native careers - design and software engineering -- communities of practice have emerged that offer signals of types and varieties that we couldn't even imagine five years ago.   Designers now show their work on Dribbble or other design posting and review sites.  Software engineers now store their code on GitHub, where other software engineers will follow them and evaluate the product of their labor.  On these sites, peers not only review each other but interact in ways that build reputations within the community. User profiles contain work samples and provide community generated indicators of status and skill.

In these fields in the innovation economy, traditional credentials are not only unnecessary but sometimes even a liability. A software CEO I spoke with recently said he avoids job candidates with advanced software engineering degrees because they represent an overinvestment in education that brings with it both higher salary demands and hubris. It's a red flag that warns that a candidate is likely to be an expensive, hard-to-work-with diva who will show no loyalty to the company.  MBAs have an even more challenged reputation in the innovation economy.  Several of the education startups I advise that directly provide programs to students -- notably Dev Bootcamp and the Fullbridge Program -- recently met with other immersive unaccredited programs to consider whether to jointly develop a new type of credential. Their conclusion: Credentials are so 20th century....

And note, when you have "communities of practice" doing the evaluating and sorting of people, this is using all the brains of the community to solve a problem. This is the opposite of top-down management.

Posted by John Weidner at January 10, 2014 8:12 AM
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