The old pattern of career development was based on hierarchies, corporations and meritocracy. The idea was so well known that it’s a commonplace to even mention it, but it was to invest in education so you could find a corporate management job. That system isn’t going away anytime soon, but it also isn’t working very well for many people. In the meantime other patterns are developing around digital platforms and they are substantially different. Let’s take a look.
In a corporation the real center of growth is mentoring. Young employees gets hired because of their track record at university and possibly because of personal connections or recommendations. But, the way up the ladder within the corporation depends on the corporate culture, and meritocracy often takes a backseat to corporate politics and the network of relationships that grow up over time in house at the company. Having a mentor who is an active, successful part of those relationships is an expedient way of negotiating the corporate ladder. A mentor is often the ticket to the corporate fast-track.
What happens when corporations are not hiring as many people as they used to? Those who are not successful in the corporate realm have to look elsewhere and the digital landscape comes into view. Digital is still new and still fast evolving and there are opportunities, but those opportunities don’t come about in the same way they do within the corporate world, so let’s take a look at what’s different and where opportunity now lies.
Sell A Machine
Let me tell you a short story about what I learned by selling a piece of machinery. In the first half of my career I was a cabinetmaker, shipwright and estimator. For years I was the chief estimator at a large millwork house in Brooklyn. We produced over ten million dollars worth of woodworking for architects and general contractors per year. During the day I managed a staff of estimators who I taught the profession of millwork estimating and I negotiated millwork contracts. But in the evenings, to keep my hands on tools, I made hand carved human form wooden furniture in my home shop.
The furniture pieces were 7/12ths real human size, and I used all the power machinery I could to save time with the bulk of each piece so I could spend more time on the hand carving and finishing. When my daughter (second child) was born, I stopped carving furniture so I could spend more time with my two children. The machinery, including two electric duplicating carving machines sat in storage for over twenty years. During the last few months I sold those machines on Craig’s list and Ebay and I met some amazing woodworkers in the process.
Very few people want analog, pantograph carving machines anymore. Since the onset of CNC machinery, which is all digitally driven these machines are only used by hobbyists and, as I found out, luthiers. Guitar makers and violin makers like to machine carve their necks to approximate shape and then hand carve them. That’s what I had done with the human form furniture. So I got emails and phone calls from half a dozen guitar makers. Now the point of this story is to indicate how specialty knowledge is being reshuffled by the onset of digital networks and technology. I found a lot of new information about an industry I had left over twenty years earlier because I tapped into digital networks.
Oddly, as savvy as the luthiers are with sourcing old machinery (old machinery is preferred because it was better made twenty years ago) those same luthiers aren’t very savvy about online marketing. So as I got to know two of them I asked to see their guitars. I had made several guitars when I was a teenager so I had a little experience with the methods and some idea what was good and what was mediocre. During our conversations I realized there was a great opportunity to help market their instruments. I also have a son who has a boyhood friend who spent three years selling guitars at a custom guitar store. Through my son I got in touch with this friend and he and I began an online hand crafted guitar marketing program.
What’s so interesting to me about this story is the opportunity for varied skills and knowledge to come together in a way that produces employment. I’m older than the guitar salesman. His skills and mine are a great match, and I have business experience that he doesn’t. He needs a mentor and I need a younger man with energy and sales knowledge. The mentoring structure is not in a corporate environment, so it’s not hierarchical. There don’t have to be so many structured impediments between the two of us. Now that is both a huge advantage and also a concern. But working in a multi-generational structure has so many advantages that I believe it is always preferable if the skills and knowledge that each person brings to the table are aligned correctly.
The larger point here is that by following the physical tools, of a particular area of activity, I was able to discover a whole pool of knowledge and experience that I could leverage and rearrange into a structure that offers business opportunity. With hierarchy removed, which is often the circumstances of how digital networks produce connections, skills and knowledge can be structured to suite the needs of the project and people involved. Those structures can use inter-generational relationships to support the viability of the project. After all, people of different age levels generally have different needs and different wants, which means they don’t have to compete as much. The digital era is offering new opportunities. It’s not that the corporate world or its hierarchy are going away, but a new blend of social structures is in the offing.