There has been a significant change between what career development means in the 21st century and what it meant when our parents' generation, or even when my fellow Boomers, entered the workforce. Career development has evolved from the traditional career regimen of joining a company or field, and staying with it for most of your useful life while working your way up the ranks, into being a lifelong pursuit of building a portfolio of meaningful experiences.
These experiences collectively enable employees to attain increasingly rewarding roles within an organizational setting based on their enhanced ability and motivation—while their career grows around them. This also means careers are now as much about lateral moves as they are about moving up the organizational pyramid.
Consequently, the change is having a substantive impact on the field of learning and development.
The 21st Century Career
Let's start the discussion by asking you to think retrospectively of your own career. Consider the following questions...
- What do you do now?
- Is it the same job and/or in the same field you were in five years ago? How about 10 years ago?
- How did you get here?
- Are you doing the job in the field you imagined when graduating from college?
- How many jobs have you had since you were 18?
- How many different organizations have you worked for?
- How much education have you had since leaving school?
- Do you think this is your final stop?
According to the U.S. Department of Labor and its Bureau of Labor Statistics, if you were born between 1957 and 1964, you will have had 10.8 different jobs by now—with nearly two-thirds of these jobs being held from ages 18 to 27. But aging isn't slowing you down either, among jobs started by workers when they were ages 38 to 42, 31 percent ended in less than a year, and 65 percent ended in fewer than five.
All of which reinforces a statement made by Earl Nightingale around career development in the latter half of the 20th century, "The biggest mistake you can make is to believe you are working for somebody else. Job security is gone. The driving force of a career comes from the individual. Remember: jobs are owned by the company, you own your career!"
What it all means to learning and development
That may be all well and good, but how does this pertain to learning and development? The answer to that question can best be found along two important guiding principles.
The first is the need to re-frame our view of career development from one of a series of jobs to one of building a portfolio of experiences. These experiences collectively enable employees to attain increasingly rewarding roles within an organizational setting based on their enhanced ability and motivation—the basic building blocks of any meaningful career. This also means careers are now as much about moving within an organization as they are about moving up the corporate ladder—i.e., tracking enriching experiences versus looking for the next promotion.
The second guiding principle is to accept the fact after all these years of talking about it, people REALLY have become our most important asset! People truly are the organization's proprietary IP and they alone provide the only true sustainable, renewable competitive advantage in the marketplace.
Given this framework, learning and development needs to play an essential part in developing people in ways that contribute to their career aspirations (as mercurial as they have become) while helping the organization execute its strategy.
Let's be more specific. There are at least three areas where learning and development can and should address the implications of the emerging view of career development, namely, playing a more active role in the talent management processes; providing a greater focus on developing potential (along with our role in enhancing performance); embracing a more practical and balanced approach to how people truly learn and develop.
1. Learning and development has to become integrally linked to the core talent management processes. This especially applies to the three foundational processes—performance management, talent review, and development planning. Learning and development can provide important input to those processes as well as leverage the output to design and deliver more targeted learning programs.
As an example, at EMC as part of our annual Organization and Talent Review process, we provide input to the process by outlining the amount and type of learning that has happened across the enterprise at all levels of the company as well as identifying the development activities in which our High Potentials have been engaged. At the back end, we take the output from the process to define our annual learning agenda aligned with the corporate strategy, as well as defining the next wave of high potential development to maintain a healthy leadership pipeline.
2. In terms of providing more of an emphasis on developing employee potential, we need to provide more stringent programs that target developing the potential of our people as well as enhancing their current performance. If we accept the basic principle that performance is about enhancing performance in a current role, and potential is about preparing people for a future role, then we in learning and development need to make sure we have each dimension covered in our "catalog"—enabling our people to accumulate the "right" kind of experiences.
At EMC, we have made a concentrated effort on building out offerings that target the transition of individuals into new roles and/or assignments (tapping into their potential) and augmenting those efforts with a range of personality and behavioral instruments.
3. The framework of a career as a portfolio of experiences also forces us to rethink how to facilitate learning through multiple modalities that go beyond "training." A model that is gaining acceptance is to view learning through three basic formats—education, experience, and exposure. A movement that has its roots in the work of Lombardo and Eichinger at the Center for Creative Leadership. The good news is today, with powerful Web-based approaches and social media, we have the ability to embrace a consistent, global approach to developing people in more interesting, powerful ways.
At EMC, we are increasingly leveraging the power of experience and exposure in the way we design developmental solutions. This has entailed a tight alignment between our talent management team to re-frame the expectations of leaders as the key enablers of learning in the workplace and "installing" a talent development mindset as integral to our company's success.
Ultimately, careers are born out of a series of experiences. For proof, look no further than your own work history. In today's "free agent" marketplace (to borrow Tom Peter's phrase), companies need to recognize the implications of 21st century career development and build learning organizations that bake it into the fabric of their development strategy.
To accelerate growth for our people and to provide the organization with the capabilities necessary to execute its strategy now and into the future, learning and development must provide our talent, our true IP, with the opportunity to accumulate a portfolio of experiences over time while positioning them to contribute to the success of the company.
Brian Powers is senior director of EMC Corporation's EMC University.