The expression, "uberization of the workforce" requires some explanation. What does it really mean? At the outset, it is linked to a trend that is growing in almost every sphere of our lives — that of "as a Service" or *aaS for short. Don't buy an asset, such as a car; instead, use an uber/driver/car drop facility as a service. Don't buy a collection of videos and DVD’s; instead subscribe to Netflix, Entertainment as a Service. Likewise, don't buy a learning organization with its bureaucracy of administrators and facilitators; instead, outsource your requirement (with some qualifiers) to benefit from Learning as a Service.
There are many advantages to 'uberization'. From a client perspective, I can: (a) get immediate gratification in the here and now; (b) at a cheaper price — be it a car drop (vs. investing in a car), an evening gown for a night (versus maintaining an inventory of designer outfits that I seldom wear) or a learning workshop (vs. the cost of maintaining a learning department). I can also (c) take advantage of upgrades that become available due to changes in the technology (like subscribing to Adobe’s Creative Cloud versus enduring the sunk cost of out-of-date software) or — in the learning arena — progressing seamlessly from e-Learning to Digitizing content to Virtual Reality and beyond. Finally, (d) I can cater to changes in my whims and fancies (like wanting to travel in a Mercedes vs. a Fiat or switching from Indian apples to New Zealand kiwi fruit). With so many advantages, one must wonder why uberization did not take off in an earlier era. What is it that makes us so eager to embrace this trend today?
Our VUCA world is probably a big part of the answer to that question. We don't know what will happen tomorrow and that uncertainty is not conducive to making a heavy investment. It feels wiser to rent a cheaper, mobile, temporary service than to buy a more expensive, static, permanent asset. Investing in real estate makes sense in a world that is stable. Our VUCA world is anything but! The rate of change in technology and our own expectations from technology have also risen exponentially. Our grandparents bought a Sumeet mixie and it lasted them 35-50 years; we want a new kitchen gadget every 3 or 5 years! And then there’s the mobile revolution: the software platform offered by mobile telephony enables the aggregation of similar needs with matching service providers. It achieves economies of scale, while still catering to the demand for customization. So, the VUCA world, exponential changes in technology and the mobile revolution have, collectively, created conditions in which uberization can thrive.
There are some disadvantages to uberization, however. The biggest is more psychological than real: (a) the perceived dependency on the service provider. If I have my own car and I know how to drive, I am self-sufficient. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that I am independent in addressing my transportation requirement. But if I don't invest in buying the asset i.e., a car, then I am beholden to whomsoever is providing the service. Another disadvantage is that (b) *aaS has some limitations when it comes to customization. I may be able to get quality vegetables delivered to my doorstep but if I like to choose each bhindi when I go shopping (as my mother tends to do!) then I may not find the personalization of the service sufficiently satisfying. And so it goes with Learning as a Service: I can benefit from a cheaper cost per class, a seamless transition to using new technologies, and a celebrity motivational speaker for a special occasion. But my service provider/s may not always prioritize my organization’s needs ahead of other customers’, especially at short notice. Also, their trainers may not be so successful in customizing programs that truly align with my organization’s unique culture.
And that really brings us to the topic of how ‘Learning’ must change to better serve an uberizing workforce. Consider that Learning has three core components: Education, Exposure, and Experience (3Es). Of these, Education, the more formal classroom type training, is the one that is easiest to outsource. Consequently, the generic parts of Education – soft skills for employees, beginners & intermediate level technical training, even basic leadership skills – will increasingly become outsourced to external service providers that will deliver more efficiently. Corporations can reap significant savings by paring down on the visible and invisible costs of delivering generic learning in-house. Delivery of education of a more strategic nature should probably remain within the organization, however. These learning interventions are seen as core to the company’s competitive advantage. That means learning facilitators must upgrade their skill-set to focus on delivering the organization’s strategic learning needs.
While refocusing their Education initiatives to the strategic, Learning teams must also expand to contribute in the Exposure (e.g., mentoring, job shadowing) and Experience (e.g., international assignments, job rotations) arenas. These are not one time but ongoing interventions that, if executed effectively in partnership with the business, have potential for real culture change. Success requires building commitment not only from the learner but also from other members of the organization (the coaches, mentors, leaders, etc.) who must demonstrate behaviors the organization wants to foster. So, learning facilitators and administrators (especially those freed up from delivering generic education) would be wise to grow their consulting skills – engaging with the business to understand learning needs and providing expert advice toward positive cultural change. Further, they must enhance their project management skills to co-create and then oversee a medium to long term learning intervention with the business.
Strategic Learning Delivery, Consulting, and Project Management Skills are, thus, emerging as three core skills learning departments must nurture to satisfy an uberizing workforce.
These skills are harder to outsource and will remain value adding in-house. To these I would add one more – neither knowledge nor skill, rather, the attitude toward change. Learning Teams must embrace the VUCA world instead of merely managing around it. This mindset orientation, which is not limited to Learning alone, can be encouraged in an organization that is adopting agile principles: (1) clarity on the outcome for the customer; (2) listening, iterating, and course correcting versus aiming for perfection; and (3) encouraging self-direction of teams to unleash innovation. These principles and the practices that go with them will help Learning to adapt and course-correct, while continuing to add significant value to the business.
Many forward thinking established Learning departments, including IBM’s, are already in the process of reinventing themselves in line with the above. The journey is not without hurdles as one must move forward not only by learning new ways of working but also by unlearning and letting go of old ways. For organizations that are young and not entrenched in an alternative operating mindset, there is a very real opportunity to leapfrog over existing stalwarts by truly embracing uberization of the workforce. But young or old, large or small, what is undeniable is that a significant change is under way in Learning – ride the wave or risk floundering in the shallows!
(The perspectives and views expressed in the article are author's own and not of IBM.)