High-Commitment or High-Innovation?

dilbert-on-trainingI recently started reading and hearing about a new approach to hiring and learning called a “high-innovation system.”

We originally had a “high commitment system,” which valued long-term employment and on-the-job training. This is one of the focuses behind the research and analysis we do at Brandon Hall Group.

High innovation is much different. It goes something like this: Engineers, for instance, are typically hired because their skills and knowledge are required for a specific technology or product being developed. This system is seen as cost effective because the company can hire required skills and does not have to retrain experienced workers, who usually command higher wages than new graduates. Of course, this puts engineers, who are no longer retrained by their companies, at a disadvantage as they age.

I had an epiphany about why older workers over 40 are becoming an endangered species, not only in the high-tech industry but in companies worldwide.

I come from a generation of continuing education – employees tagged to go from event to event to learn new skills and improve or update old ones. I wondered why we consider so many older (read post-40) workers as part of the “long-term unemployed.” The answer is that “knowing” has replaced “learning.” According to the recent article in SFGate about Silicon Valley hiring and training practices, if a company can find a worker with a specific skill to fill a job that requires that skill, then there is no need to spend the time and money training someone to learn it. In today’s flat and hyper-competitive world, it’s the equivalent of trying to teach a square peg “roundness” when simply finding a round peg will do.

It is the difference between the “high-commitment system,” in which employees expect to be taught and learn and improve skills while they are working in order to perform, and the “high- innovation system,” in which people only become employees when they can already perform the skills that are required. How they learned them is not important. Being able to prove they can do them is all that counts.

In the industrial economy, where change happened more slowly, there was time and money to train someone in a new skill. In today’s digital economy, where there is more talent out there than time or money for training, the trend among some companies is that learning and development are irrelevant. The digital revolution happened so fast that an entire segment of the workforce now has a “use by” date stamped on their foreheads.  It appears that what a Digital Native has already learned will always be in higher demand than what a Digital Immigrant can learn.

To quote Mark Zuckerberg: “I want to stress the importance of being young and technical,” Facebook’s CEO told a Y Combinator Startup event at Stanford University. “Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don’t know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”

The problem with this approach to hiring and learning is that learning never stops. You may temporarily find the round peg for the round job but wait a few months and the shape of things will change. The Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives must both be continuous learners. And the experience of the older workers – especially in the area of soft skills – will always be an important part of the younger workers’ learning. Mentors are not born, but only made by adopting and adapting to success, failure, and more success over time.

How would you define your company, as high-innovation or high-commitment? And as time marches on, is this just a temporal blip on the hiring radar of the Millennial generation, or a serious trend?

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David Grebow



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David Grebow