The Case for Companies to Share Knowledge

February 2, 2017 By Chris Johnson

There’s an economy-wide job market crisis playing out in front of us – driven by a profound skills mismatch.

Some seven million routine office jobs were eliminated from 1996 to 2015, per The Economist. Meanwhile, a report from Deloitte suggests that there will be one million data science jobs in the economy by 2018 – a profession that few were talking about just a few years ago.

Automation, unforgivingly swift technological change, and global trade has made one thing clear: the traditional education system does not give people the knowledge and skills to keep up.

Only 16% of Americans believe that a four-year university degree prepares people for high-paying job in the modern economy, per a recent Pew Research study. (I detailed the problems with the linear education in this post.)

The consensus answer to the problem is obvious: ongoing learning. And a number of services have cropped up around it, everything from MOOCs to lighter-weight mini-degrees to the offline digital trade schools and bootcamps.

The answer may be obvious, but it’s not easy.

These solutions are fraught with challenges: MOOCs have hefty dropout rates, bootcamps are expensive, and online learners skew massively towards people who already have a university degree (potentially furthering the skills divide).

But there’s one major source of knowledge that’s virtually untapped – and it’s potentially the most powerful.

Companies themselves as educators.

We’re not talking about on-the-job training. (That, too, is on the fritz, incidentally. Training provided by employers has fallen steadily in the US since the mid-1990s. In the UK, such training has dropped by nearly half over the same period, per the Economist.)

We’re talking about companies educating people that don’t work there.

IBM’s video on Uncubed

Why on earth would they do that?

It’s simple. Sharing knowledge is some of the most powerful marketing you can do. And to attract millennials, delivering content of value – instead of a commercial – is some of the most important marketing you can do.

When someone learns a skill from a company, a relationship is built with that person that’s very different from the interaction achieved through a commercial.

The direct benefit of doing this for companies is to attract top hires. Sharing knowledge creates interest in open jobs.

Learners often make for the most attractive hires. Google prides itself on hiring “learning animals”. And sharing knowledge is a great way to find them.

This is the reason Etsy’s revered engineering blog Code as Craft reads like a massive how-to. And it’s the reason that companies host technical meetups – to show off their work and generate interest in their companies and open jobs.

What’s in it for the end user?

Am I suggesting that Coca-Cola might be able to convert a displaced line worker into a functioning data scientist? Not necessarily. (Could Google? Maybe.)

But having broad access to how companies are building what they’re building is invaluable to people looking to add new skills. It’s the purest form of learning practical application.

For someone considering a move into data science, watching a quick video from a company showing what they did with a recent data set, might be the thing that inspires them to make the move. That’s a mighty big win for a company.

The user is also getting insights directly from the frontlines. This is something that universities can’t compete with – they’re notoriously slow to update curriculum content. And in an economy like this, that’s a major hindrance.

Time will tell what role companies play in solving the skills gap that workers are wrangling with. But it’s clear that it fits somewhere in the spectrum of solutions for filling the massive skills gap.

And it’s certainly true that the companies that actively share knowledge will build dedicated followings and will attract that mythical beast – the learning animal.

(Note: Several of the stats and research included here are from the Economist’s recent Special Report: Lifelong Learning. If you haven’t read it, it’s excellent.)

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