Four Lessons from the Future of Talent Development

6a00d8341d55ee53ef012876940c9a970c-400wiOne of the parts of this job that I like best is hearing about talent-development startups. You know, those crazy, smart, ambitious folks who are quietly reinventing the way we learn.

Together, they’re part of a larger trend away from the traditional one-size-fits-all factory model of learning, and toward what you might call an organic-farm model: simpler, individualized, targeted programs that are more aligned with the way talents actually develop.

Here are two I especially like.

1) Bitmaker Labs in Toronto, founded in 2012, teaches software coding in the same way that the Navy SEALs teach marksmanship — as an intensive, immersive, no-holds-barred boot camp. They transform students (many with no previous technical experience) into proficient coders in the space of three months. And it works: 90 percent of Bitmaker grads have been hired by tech firms.

Bitmaker does it, in part, by reverse-engineering the educational process. Rather than taking the theory-based academic approach, founder Matt Gray and his partners asked 50 software companies what skills really mattered. Bitmaker built its curriculum around that feedback: an 80-hour prep course followed by nine weeks of project-based learning at Bitmaker’s headquarters — which, naturally, is open 24-7, the better to replicate the intensely immersive startup environment.

Here’s what one 18-year-old Bitmaker student wrote in his blog:

“The education system was designed during the Industrial Revolution to prepare students to become workers by, for example, having them follow instructions and do repetitive tasks. This resonates with my experience in college and I didn’t want to spend a big chunk of my life doing things that weren’t meaningful to me. I didn’t want to learn so I could get a diploma or a job, but so I could be empowered to affect the world in the way I want to.”

2) Joy of the People, a Minnesota youth soccer program that aims to reinvent how kids learn the game. (It’s named after the famous Brazilian player Garrincha, who was so exciting that Brazilians called him Allegria do Povo — Joy of the People).

JOTP founder Ted Koerten has a simple idea: to provide American kids with the chance to learn soccer exactly as Brazilians learn it: having lots of fun in small spaces. So he got rid of elite teams and elite travel and instead built a kid magnet: a series of small inflatable soccer fields — smaller space, smaller goals, with barriers to produce more continuous play. Younger kids are focused almost entirely on fun; older kids on more deliberate practice.

As Koerten told me in an email:

 The old models tend to structure youth soccer (and all youth sports) heavy on the deliberate practice…. The dark side of the idea that players are made is that now mad scientists are all trying to make them. But our model is kid centered and understands that kids need to be kids in order to complete the hard work of adults.

Koerten is full of ideas: for instance, he has the kids play with balls that vary in size from tiny to large, and employs a tennis-ball machine to increase touches. He’s interested in cross-pollinating with newly invented sports like Puckelball. And it’s working: he’s drawing 600 kids a week.

Which brings us to the deeper question: what lessons do these organic, free-range models provide? How can they help us improve and innovate our own talent-development spaces? Here are four:

  • Focus on creating rich, people-centric ecosystems. They are based on the principle that the best learning happens when humans are in intense collaboration.
  • Put fun first. These aren’t solemn, self-important places — rather, they’re looser, more user-driven. Emotion is not some background factor, but a vital part of the process.
  • Design for lots of mixing. People aren’t  segregated into levels and classes; rather, they’re mixed together in a style that might be described as Montessori-like, which provides a rich environment for relationships and mentoring.
  • Focus far less on lectures/theory, and more on doing stuff. Knowledge isn’t transferred from the top down so much as it is grown from the bottom up, through challenge, smart design, and lots of intense reps.

Do you know of any new, surprising, and/or innovative talent-development programs? I’d love to hear about them.

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