“The pace of technology development has outpaced the pace of learning.”

The Lab’s Kathleen deLaski was on a panel with David Leaser, IBM’s Senior Program Executive for Innovation and Growth Initiatives, and was fascinated by some of the ways IBM is starting to use badges. Most timely is yesterday’s announcement about IBM badges counting as credits toward graduate degrees at Northeastern University. David agreed to sit down with the Lab and describe why he advocates for badges as a key hiring and development tool as it becomes clearer to IBM that traditional methods can’t keep up. Much of the conversation was driven by this observation by David: “The pace of technology development has outpaced the pace of learning.”

A 21st century problem: Products vs. Skills

Consider IBM’s hiring challenge: In the old days product cycles were a year to 18 months, which gave time for workers to train on each product or offering before launch. Now that products have “gone to the cloud” and are getting updated every 60 days, it presents a huge challenge for training. When IBM hires talent for products like Spark or Swift, the app could change by the time the employee gets hired. “We have to think beyond foundational technical knowledge to the rapidly changing ‘liquid skills’ that help the developer adapt quickly.” Digital badges can play a role in validating fast moving technical know-how as well as the 21st century skills that signify an employee has learned how to learn, demonstrating competencies such as creative problem solving, collaboration or empathy. IBM has issued 500,000 badges to employees and product users for competencies ranging from “mobile app development” to “design thinking” and is thinking carefully about how to further use them to identify potential hires. Under its “New Collar” program, the company proudly reports that about 15% of its skilled jobs are now held by workers without college degrees. And badges are seen as a way to build “competency stacks” toward those roles. The urgency, as David described, is clear: “Based on Department of Labor data, there are 500k new jobs with an IT component, even though colleges are only producing 50k graduates. We want to create alternative pathways to develop skill and verify talent.”

“We have to think beyond foundational technical knowledge to the rapidly changing ‘liquid skills’ that help the developer adapt quickly.”

How does it work?

If you search “view my verified achievement” on Twitter, you can see examples of the many IBM employees who have successfully earned a badge. Say the IBMer or IBM wannabe earns a badge in Experience Design: She can use this portal to explore and filter job opportunities with other positions (screen shot example is below), in other locations, and even at other companies. Example Tweet of an IBMer earning a digital badge Other companies are joining in to designate clear pathways with badges. Peter Janzow, senior director for business development for Pearson’s Acclaim badging platform, says “a couple of dozen companies are pursuing this strategy currently.” He says most haven’t gone public, but besides IBM, he mentions that Microsoft and Ernst and Young have recently announced badging programs for talent development or competency based hiring.  David says the “competency-based stacks” curated by one employer and shared with others have the potential to open up visibility for learners and learning institutions trying to prepare students. They could also drive down the costs of certification or credentials. Because of the portability and open design of the badges and pathways, David argues “Now that we’ve digitized everything…there is a real opportunity to think about the possibilities, we can literally change the [hiring] game.”  Job openings for Experience Design in the United States Peter from Acclaim says most of the early adopter companies “are already sold on the value of badges for promoting their learning and certification programs, and now they are realizing the value of the ‘global skills registry’ that can be created by recognizing Open Badges, which can represent learning outcomes and professional achievements at the micro-level and at the macro level, where a badge might represent a complete diploma or third party, high stakes professional certification”. Peter says badges for skill recognition and hiring decisions are already exploding in the IT sector and on the rise in health care and professional services.

“Now that we’ve digitized everything…there is a real opportunity to think about the possibilities, we can literally change the [hiring] game.”  

IBM and universities: partners or competitors?

Some higher ed disruption watchers have opined that these employer-driven stacks are competing or will compete with some degree offerings, particularly graduate degrees. IBM is offering its courseware for free at Cognitive Class, and is starting to figure out how to offer college credit with institutions. They just announced a first partnership with Northeastern University in three graduate programs, where the IBM badges can count for credit towards a graduate degree.  According to yesterday’s press release, “Northeastern is the first university to recognize IBM digital badge credentials toward graduate degree programs and certificates, providing a seamless pathway from workplace learning into academic degrees and certificates.” For IBM, this is not about competing with universities. It is about enriching the student experience with industry knowledge. David finds that many new graduates “don’t understand what it takes to work at a large company,” lacking the ability, for example, to manage a project or advocate for a new idea. These are the 21st century skills for which the Lab has prototyped micro-credentials with universities to put some intentionality around teaching and assessing these skills, and David likens the concept to that of the T-shaped individual, IBM and the Lab have been separately promoting.

“Northeastern is the first university to recognize IBM digital badge credentials toward graduate degree programs and certificates, providing a seamless pathway from workplace learning into academic degrees and certificates.”

Profile of the T-shaped learner

Profile of a T-shaped learner

One idea is that the “T” can help delineate “jobs to be done” between undergraduate education and industry. The top of the T holds the 21st century skills, some cognitive, some non-cognitive. Perhaps a university should “own” the top of the T and arm students with enough technical foundation to land that first job, to get them one or two rungs up the T stem.  Then let the “employer stacks” inform development “up the T stem.” Rather than competing to form this T, industry and higher ed could team up so that each can do what they do best. What’s also interesting is that the top of the T is very transferrable if you change careers, which is why 21st century competencies have recently been referred to as “mobility skills.”