The past five years have seen the rise of tumultuous events and technologies affecting virtually every industry and economy ranging from health care to transportation. These events and technologies include the rise of digital disruption such as big data, predictive analytics, artificial intelligence and platform technologies as well as the effects of COVID-19 that are radically transforming how we understand entire economies, industries and ourselves. These shifts lead us to a broader question: How do we define our values in a fluid and potentially disruptive ecosystem of change? Moreover, what does it mean to have an impactful career in this newer context?
How and why challenging the concept of horizontal and linear careers is necessary
To answer both questions requires that we no longer can see our careers as just fitting into a specific path and organizational outcome. In the past, institutions and organizations functioned more as a closed system whereby they could control economies and individuals. For example, if we look back 100 years, much of how individuals saw themselves was defined by the skills development and career pathways that their employer dictated they would follow. Schools followed easily in concert by training students for economic needs demanded by industry rather than emphasizing how individuals could be more independently resourceful and entrepreneurial.
These dynamics created careers based upon path-dependency, whereby individuals were dependent on institutions and organizations for validation of their values and professional identities. However, with the rise of choice, innovation and disruptive technologies, individuals must increasingly foster independence in making career decisions that embrace innovation while also building upon their past successes.
The problem of developing “ambidextrous” organizations and careers
This issue of exploiting past successes while also building for innovation is called “ambidexterity” in organizational research. It comes from a 40-year line of research in organizational strategy but grew in popularity as companies faced the challenges of becoming more agile (See O’Reilly and Tushman, 2013 & 2016 for a review of this concept). As O’Reilly and Tushman note, we can think of examples of companies such as Sears or Blockbuster, which stuck to their historical competencies and failed to rapidly innovate their business models in the face of market disruption. In contrast, we can also think of other companies that have successfully addressed the need to exploit past competencies with innovation, such as Amazon, Facebook and Apple. The need for ambidexterity, however, is not just limited to organizations. Rather, it is also increasingly essential for individual career management (a notion that I introduced into the career management literature with my co-authors).
For example, increasingly, the expectation among employers is that individuals should not just fit into existing models of success but should also become cutting edge thought-leaders in their careers to deal with various levels of disruption (See Jackson, Lescent-Giles, and Dunn-Jensen, 2017). Career research, though, has mostly lagged on this topic, focusing on the effects of disruption on work-family balance, remote work, and diversity and inclusion issues, for instance.
While these areas are important, they still overlook a broader question: Where and how do individuals need to become both resilient and resourceful in their careers? What newer forms of impact do individuals need to create that require greater “ambidexterity”? This may require a growth mindset (See Dweck, 2016 for a description of this term and concept). At the same time, it is important to recognize how careers need to be grounded in what people value and identify as to what is critical to them.
Anchoring careers through identity and value dives
We need to be more mindful of our inherent opportunities and our non-negotiables as we manage our careers through greater economic volatility. This is not just a question of where and how to become more “ambidextrous,” but also how to ground these into our core identity and values. For example, how do we see our identity and values as both independent from and based upon existing places of work and institutions that have historically defined our core competencies and careers? Where do we want to take risks and develop alternative pathways? How might our existing career assumptions, workplace practices and social networks move us forward in this light, or how might they hold us back from having an independent and ambidextrous career?
While the concepts of identity and values in career management are not necessarily new, they are important for individuals and career development professionals to surface and to see where they fit into this broader system of agility and impact.
Final thoughts on careers for the newer economic ecosystem
In today’s employment ecosystem, where disruption is the new normal, there is a need to understand where and how we can build careers that are no longer based upon systems of dependency but rather on alternative models of success and validation. Careers are no longer vertical, horizontal or even diagonal. They function akin to a jungle gym where individuals can move up, down or move independent from specific context. However, to do so successfully requires an ambidextrous mindset that is proactive amid a dynamic economy.