In an insightful episode the Daily, the New York Times award winning podcast, the story revolves around a 22 year old college senior who struggles to complete her course work on line due the complexities of her home life such as lack of privacy, time and space to work and economic pressure.
The episode ends with the reflection that this woman, and the almost 3 million people who will be graduating from undergraduate programs in the U.S. alone, will be facing the most challenging job market in memory as a result of the downturn caused by SARS-CoV-2. Another 800,000 people will complete Masters degrees of one kind or another and also be looking for work.
My advice to people who are in this situation, or others who might have lost their job due to the crisis, is to use the time that the emergency has created to do some serious thinking about what they really want to do with the next couple of years of their professional life.
For many people, the best place to start is by thinking about the space they want to be a part of. I prefer to use the word space as opposed to industry or sector because the line between many businesses have been blurring over the last few years. Even the standard codes used to describe the economy such as SIC or NAICS appear to be out of step with where things are going.
When I speak about blurring lines, I mean that it is increasingly difficult to tell one business from another. One of the main reasons for this is the trend normally called technological convergence and is particularly evident in the impact of computers and digitalization in many sectors of the economy.
Media, for example, used to consist of many sub-sectors such as magazines, newspapers, television, film, etc. I saw this first hand ten years ago when I was the academic director of a program for media executives that IESE Business School offered in New York and Los Angeles.
At the beginning of the program, each participant felt that they faced unique challenges in their segment of the business. We typically had people from television, radio, newspapers and the movie business. After spending time together, however, each of the participants realized that they were facing many of the same challenges brought about by the digitalization and globalization of the larger media space.
Digital technology has had a tremendous impact on all types of media businesses. These changes are due to reducing production costs while at the same time increasing competition and altering distribution models and allowing for the emergence of many new business models. All of this has served to blur the lines between these businesses which had, once upon a time, very distinct characteristics.
In addition to technological convergence, the lines between industries are also blurring as consumers become accustomed to features they experience in one business that they then demand from others.
Amazon and Amazon Prime, for example, have taught us that we can get anything delivered to our homes in a short time so now more and more products and services are being delivered often at the touch of an app. Companies such as Good Eats and Uber EATS have created a new space that combines aspects of package delivery and goes beyond the traditional food delivery model that was connected to Pizza or Chinese restaurants.
Defining the space
While the lines between businesses are blurring, if you are looking for work in a particular space, not everyone will see things this way. You should bear in mind that many people in Sr. Management came of age at another time and place and may still have mental models defined when each sector and sub-sector had its own rules and a relatively stable structure.
Others, further down in the hierarchy might be somewhat aware of the changes taking place but resist changing the way they see things. Often, the underlying reason for such resistance is that the future is still far away and perhaps 80% or more of the business is still based on the old industry lines and existing status quo.
It is important, therefore to strike a balance between using the concept of space to open up new possibilities while keeping enough focus so that you can connect with specific people who see themselves as working in the same parts of the economy, use the same language and jargon or even wear the same types of clothes. Before the pandemic, such people would also go to the same trade shows.
Some people use the term eco-system, which has its roots in biology, to get at the idea of the larger space. All the plants, fish and creatures in a tide pool, for example, belong to the same eco-system. The term is often applied to the digital world as it casts a relatively large net (pun intended) and can include all kinds of actual and potential players.
While I use the ecosystem idea for developing strategy, I find it potentially too broad for choosing what to do on a personal level. The digital economy, for example, is much too broad a definition and while you may want to be part of that overall ecosystem, I think a more concrete definition of space is needed.
An example of this process of subdivision can be seen at Web Summit which, in a normal year, attracted about 70,000 people from all over the world to Lisbon each year. While the event does have keynote speeches in the 15,000 seat Altice Arena, most of the action happens in smaller sub-sections that are focused on things like financial services (Fintech), environmental sustainability (Planet Tech) and about a dozen other topics within the overall digital ecosystem.
The trick is to, therefore, to define the space you want to be a part of. To do that, I recommend you think about what products or services are you genuinely interested in? What service, product or technology can keep you motivated day after day and month after month?
Another way to tackle the question is to focus on customers. Are you more drawn to business to business relationships or business to consumer? What types of businesses or consumers do you find interesting? What challenges and issues do they need help with, in their businesses or their lives?
A good definition of space will lend itself naturally to being part of a compelling story. If, in other words, it is not possible to explain the space you are interested in a simple way, then you should probably re-define it and try again. You will have to explain it to people who “get it” as well as others who may need such an explanation to understand what you are looking for and how they can help you.
Using the time
So what to do while the job market is on hold and the country you live in is in lock down? My advice to dig deeper into the different spaces you might be interested in and then focus on one or two.
Sign up for additional courses on platforms such as Coursera, read books by thought leaders in the space, and reach out to people who you know that can help you learn more. if you have good questions to ask, then most people will be willing to receive an lined-in request which could lead to an exchange of messages or even a video chat.
I have seen, for example, a sharp increase in the people taking my own course on sustainability over the last month and regularly receive messages form people ho want to explore a professional career connected to the environment and the transition to a low carbon economy.
You might even think about tacking your research on one of the walls of your room or apartment like Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory or an episode of True Detective. The key is to learn as much as you can about what you want to do.