Ride ‘Innovation Waves’ for Career Success

Posted January 17, 2017 by Jay Walsh

Catch the wave or be caught under it.

Advice for surfers has become a universal cautionary adage, something that we all should take to heart because we now embrace change or else are swept up by it.

The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously coined the term “creative destruction” to describe the complex relationship between innovation and the marketplace over time. Building on the work of other scholars, including Karl Marx, Nikolai Kondratiev, and Simon Kuznets, he showed that the business cycle’s ups and downs could be seen as “waves,” ranging in duration from decades to years. He and other like-minded colleagues also theorized that these fluctuations were getting shorter, coming at us faster. 

Driven by invention and investment, these waves can bring revolutionary technologies to the market, resulting in new industrial production, often spurred by entrepreneurs. Schumpeter believed that these “wild spirits” challenged the status quo with their vision and determination, supplanting old models with new ways to solve problems or get things done.

Such creative destruction surrounds us now. 

A decade ago, if you owned a computer it sat on your desk; today, a huge fraction of the world’s population carries one in a pocket. Many daily commercial transactions used to be cash-and-carry, but because of digital advances this is now increasingly rare. (In fact, my recent week-long trip abroad required the exchange of exactly zero currency.)  Certainly the likes of Uber, Netflix, Amazon, and Twitter are driving change, and rapidly. Robotics and automation, too, continue to develop in ways whose impact will alter how we make and do, live and learn.  While previous innovation waves that advanced society were largely ones where machines and technology improved how we did mechanical work — consider the impact of water wheels for the textile industry, the steam engine for trains, the internal combustion engine for cars and heavy machinery, and electronics for automation and communication — today’s innovations are different. Now we are increasingly seeing machines that perform not only mechanical activity, but also augment (and perhaps replace) human cognitive activities. The impacts of this newest wave are manifesting themselves in many ways; indeed, they are the foundations for significant political shifts we’ve seen in the past few years, including in the European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

For some, creative destruction represents new career prospects. For others, it can rattle their livelihood to the core.  Society’s challenge will be to maximize the number of those who benefit from these changes while limiting any harm caused by the disruption. Individuals generally thrive by capitalizing on new opportunities.

Lifelong Learning for Lifelong Learners

Careers once lasted decades, aligned with the longer business cycles. A person could remain productive and employed in one field for nearly 45 years. That is now rarely possible — in any arena, including academia. Perhaps especially academia.

Faculty attend meetings and conventions, in part to present their own insights but also to update their knowledge through engagement with other experts. They must stay current about emerging ideas and technologies that can impact their disciplines. Students and post-docs do so, too. On campus, Northwestern hosts seminars and forums with outside speakers for the same reason. In fact, attracting world-class speakers — whether an arts luminary, such as composer Steve Reich; award-winning journalists, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates; or eminent physicists, such as Rainer Weiss — to the University is a vital part of keeping our academic community vibrant, relevant, and utterly modern.

It’s just as vital that our staff stays current, too, so we provide many ways for our administrators to update their skills through participation in groups, forums, seminars, workshops, and other on-campus meetings. The University’s Human Resources Office offers diverse education and training courses, including the Workplace Learning portfolio, which features an array of professional development options for staff and faculty.

I encourage my Northwestern colleagues to benefit from these opportunities, and complementary off-campus ones. Ideally, start when you are young: find a presentation or a forum that aligns with your current job, or with one that you might be interested in learning about, and then make time to attend. These efforts build a meaningful professional life. If you are mid-career, or even later, still be sure to leverage the opportunities.

Once upon a time, incremental rather than wholesale change was the threat facing the workforce. Today, this is no longer the case. Schumpeter’s waves of creative destruction will keep coming. As they do, embrace the changes they bring; where possible, drive those changes, and remain prepared to thrive by gaining new knowledge. You do not want to enter the last decade of your career without the talents to remain productive. The skills you needed in your 20s (or 30s or even 40s) may still prove helpful later in life, but likely will be insufficient.

As members of the Northwestern community, we are part a great educational institution, one that helps produce disruptive innovation and that understands the value of lifelong learning to avoid being disrupted by that change.  We are fortunate to be part of an environment that allows each of us to learn, grow, and pursue meaningful creative activities and discoveries. 

We are part of Schumpeter’s waves. Catch one and enjoy!