Guest Contributor from the Public Sector
These days, most of us are accustomed to laughing off cynically the idea of a true and pure capitalist meritocracy as easily as we do Marx’s socialist workers’ paradise. Both ideas are warming to the heart and inspire hope when we’re young, but we slowly let go and begin pursuing more attainable compromises that fall somewhere between the two but without the ideals offered by either. In some respects, we as a society may always cling to certain perceived advantages and barriers, such as personal or professional pedigree as a way of sorting who is allowed through the door of our institutions. Technology, the modern wild west of innovation, is changing that. With its great diffusion across cultures and socioeconomic levels and direct relationship between inputs and capabilities, it may enable us someday to achieve both something resembling a true meritocracy and social equity simultaneously.
While either political utopia is likely untenable for large, complex societies, technology may be offering modern humanity a third option. This is not to say the rise of SkyNet from the Terminator anthology, although technology certainly possesses countless negative potential implications for our species, but rather a way to achieve both a meritocracy and considerably more equity and opportunity than we have now. While we cannot always help that people’s professional and personal backgrounds (e.g. schools, jobs, communities, etc.) largely dictate whether they’ll be allowed to enter an organization, what happens next is usually up to them. Those with the firmest command of technical skills and knowledge complemented by the strongest soft-skills often rise to the top of organizations quickly and ahead of those who possess more experience and “time in role.” While this has led to some consternation across every organization, it has become clear that technology is possibly the single greatest catalyst for allowing ambitious individuals to have original ideas, demonstrate their command of knowledge, and receive recognition for advancing the organization’s ability to pursue its mission.
In many of the professional meetings of which I have taken part, particularly those with directional uncertainty at the beginning, the person with the strongest technical understanding and softest delivery wins the day. This has remained true regardless of race, background, accent, gender, disability, or any other distinguishing characteristic. By the same token, those who cling to their positions through political savvy or institutional inertia are quickly identified and eventually, if their organizations value efficiency, “let out to pasture.” Coming to these meetings without sufficient technical knowledge and soft skill delivery is as entering a medieval battle unarmed; it is painful, regretful, and leaves one wishing their life had taken other turns.
Mastering technology in the professional world means not only knowing the technical details and possessing imagination for how they might be applied to an organization’s mission but also delivering those ideas in a palatable way that inspires accordance. For that reason, students must learn not only the technical skills to provide them with the ability to compete on any field but also the liberal arts background sufficient to enable them to assess correctly and respond actively to their professional context. Anyone can learn technological mastery and be a naturally charismatic professional, but proactive refinement through practice and education will alone allow individuals long-term success.
Modern history has shown that the potential for technological and soft skill mastery to promote social equity and, simultaneously, monetary and professional reward may be limitless. To that end, one might expect modern day disciples of both Karl Marx and Adam Smith to work side-by-side on laptops at a technology start-up, one to enable society through technology and the other to reap potentially limitless reward through their individual skills, ability, and imagination. These days, personal benefit and societal equity need not be at odds. The exponential increase in technology and its mastery are offering us a third option.