The joy of learning is among the most valuable ways to find meaning in life. Combine that with the substantial imbalance between supply and demand of skilled labor in the United States, and a period of economic upheaval, and you've got a recipe for for something magical to happen.
While traditional schools struggle to fit the bill, the internet is finally rising the the occasion. Startups like Treehouse, CodeAcademy, Lynda.com and of course Khan Academy are capturing the imagination of learners around the world, of all ages. Can these sites give traditional education the "Wikipedia vs. the encyclopedia" treatment? Why are these new websites aimed at teaching new skills so hot right now? A discussion of those questions leaves me feeling very optimistic, for the future of humanity even.
Human Capital Management is Hot
The phrase human capital might seem cold and unappealing, but when you think of capital as something with the capacity to create economic value, then having some becomes important for anyone who can get it. The future may be characterized by the big gap between the quality of life of a relatively small population of highly skilled workers and a much larger population of unskilled workers. There certainly can be dignity and value in unskilled or semi-skilled labor, but I'm guessing that most readers here are people interested in the world of skilled or highly skilled work.
I remember first reading about Human Capital Management years ago when people were writing about the huge waves of baby boomers about to retire. What could be done to retain the incredible body of business knowledge they had amassed after they leave the workforce?
I'm not sure how well that human capital was maintained, but the paradigm seems to have become even hotter in recent years. Looking at the economic outcomes of some recent companies in this sector should make anyone sit up and pay attention: SAP acquired talent management service SuccessFactors for $3.4 billion in cash this month. Jason Corsello, of talent management company Cornerstone OnDemand, once called SuccessFactors "not only the hottest vendor in the HCM (Human Capital Management) space but in the entire enterprise software sector."
As computing gets faster, lighter, more mobile and more powerful, optimization of precious human resources to leverage it is becoming an increasingly imperative and potent opportunity for software and services to focus on.
"The total US training market is massive, it's a $125 billion market and it's moving online fast," says Tom Turnbull of training marketplace OpenSesame. His startup aggregates training content from more than 100 providers with 10,000 different courses. "We're creating Amazon.com for courses," Turnbull says. "And many of the content creators are individuals who didn't previously have access to the corporate market. It's also a chance to make education more affordable and broadly available."
Enter the DIY Web Apps
How does the individual relate to this? As Napoleon Dynamite said 7 years ago, "Nunchaku skills... bowhunting skills... computer hacking skills... Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills!"
Where are you going to get those great skills?
Treehouse is a subscription site where you can view videos about and acquire skills in web and mobile application design and development. Founder Ryan Carson says a number of factors have contributed to his startup's rapid early growth:
"Huge numbers of people are switching careers because they got laid off or their business failed. Professionals in other industries are realizing they need to learn how to design/build web sites or iOS apps. There is a massive global swell in the desire to learn Web Design, Dev and iOS. Movies like the Social Network have popularized the idea of creating tech startups.
"We take people from knowing nothing to being able to launch a site or app. There really isn't any other service that holds your hand and guides you through that entire process.
"We're hoping to help people land jobs after they finish a certain number of Badges. We've partnered with Facebook, Living Social, WordPress and more to help them start recruiting Treehouse Members."
Self-Actualization as a Service
It's not just about amassing human capital to maximize your employability or workplace effectiveness. Another set of startups is emerging that is focused on skill building and life change outside of work. Startups like DailyPath, MightyBell and Obvious Corp-backed Lift could be described as instrumenting self-actualization through social software.
Whether at work or in life, there is a continuum of skill levels that we all can be understood within; you could say it goes from "low task," in which people must be told what to do and how to do it, to "high task" circumstances in which people are capable of being given a general direction and then figuring it out on their own. We probably all sit in different places in that continuum in different circumstances in our lives. (I got to thinking about this after listening to this brain-exploding podcast interview from SuccessFactors with Marc Demerest, CEO and Principal of Noumenal Inc., titled Leading knowledge intensive organizations under duress.)
These kinds of web applications could be understood as helping people move up that continuum towards higher level functioning in life and work. The independence, confidence, power and freedom that come from that represent some of the best things the web could possibly offer us.
With so much business and personal potential, learning services like this are only going to grow in number and sophistication. When there's a crowded market looking to serve a world hungry for these kinds of technologies, then all the startups will have to continually improve in order to compete with each other.
That sounds like reason enough to feel very optimistic about the future, for the growing number of people with the access and time needed to take advantage of these rapidly expanding opportunities.
Illustration titled "Blogging Au Plein Air, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot" by Flickr user Mike Licht