Dynamic capabilities in personal career planning

Have you ever been asked where you will be in five years? Or what is your career plan? With the pace of change in the world being as rapid as it is, and with no signs of it slowing down, these questions do not make quite as much sense as they perhaps used to.

The same applies to strategic management, and there one of the more popular answers to rapid change has been the adoption of the dynamic capabilities framework. Interestingly, its teachings apply equally well on an individual level when it comes to career planning.

I have written about dynamic capabilities in more detail before, but in this post I wish to explore the application of dynamic capabilities to individual career planning as an intriguing analogy.

Dynamic capabilities framework in strategy and on a personal level

According to the dynamic capabilities view, the long-term survival of a company depends on its ability to create dynamic capabilities, which come in three categories:

  1. Sensing: identifying and assessing opportunities.
  2. Seizing: mobilizing resources to address opportunities and to capture value from them.
  3. Transforming: continuously renewing itself.

A company has to adapt to a changing environment, whether because of technology or other shifts in demand, but it can also affect the market and create new opportunities for itself.

OK, so let’s consider how we could use this same framework, applied on an individual level. Rephrasing all of the above to an individual could look like this:

The long-term employment potential of an individual depends on his ability to create dynamic capabilities, which come in three categories:

  1. Sensing: identifying and assessing opportunities.
  2. Seizing: building the competences to address opportunities and employ oneself.
  3. Transforming: continuously renewing oneself.

The dynamic capabilities view considers job markets to be endogenous. An individual has to adapt to a changing environment, but he can also affect the market and create new opportunities for himself.

Identifying opportunities and building competences

There are fewer and fewer of us who can start on a career confident of the path all the way to retirement. Maybe it’s robots that will take my job, maybe it’s artificial intelligence, or maybe my job will simply cease to exist altogether. This applies equally well to plumbers, construction workers, engineers, and teachers. And even if there is no foreseeable threat to a profession, the same is not true of companies: being a Financial Controller, for example, looks pretty solid in today’s world, but there is a difference whether you’re a Financial Controller at Google, or at Kodak.

As Confucius discovered a long time ago, and Toyota standardized into an operating model, life is a journey of learning and self-perfection. However, if the world is changing rapidly (as it is), there is no way to plan several years ahead. The logical strategy, then, is to constantly evaluate the changes in the world, the competences needed, and how to nudge your individual competences and career towards a better position given this information.

It is possible that the new competences needed are so completely alien to everything you know that you would need to re-educate yourself from scratch. I have seen this happen lots of times as computers took over the offices and even the shop floor (CNC machines). That is a difficult position to be in. However, it is unlikely that you will be in that position if you embrace the dynamic capabilities view, as making smaller changes, one at a time, will, over a period of several years, naturally move you to working on completely different things. As an added bonus, you will have such a wide range of competences to draw from that something from your past may become useful again. In case of the shop floor, for example, Toyota is nowadays again doing manual work in its factories – but not in order to run mass production, but in order to examine manufacturing techniques and thus program machinery better! This takes a combination of skills in manual labor and understanding of machinery, a complex skill set that is not easily built, but that has become very valuable.

The companies of tomorrow will have an increased need of people with wide skill sets, often in surprising combinations, and by constantly building your skills in new directions, you have a possibility to come by with such a valuable combination of skills.

Creating and seizing new opportunities

Creating and seizing an opportunity does not only mean working for others, it can also mean working for yourself. In fact, when it comes to creating a new opportunity, it can even be easier to create it from scratch than getting one to open up for you someplace.

Examples I am thinking of include Guy Kawasaki self-publishing a self-publishing guide (APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur) just at the eve of the self-publishing boom, and Matt Ridings founding SideraWorks, a consultation company with a process-based approach to social business at a time when social business and processes hardly fit in the same sentence in general perception (they do now, maybe).

You can, of course, also stay an employee and work for others and still develop your competencies either by moving to a new type of position (or adding in new tasks that are in the right direction) or by moving to another company that is a better match to your vision of the world.

Transforming yourself

A word of warning: I’m about to get a little autobiographical here. To return to the initial question, where do you see yourself in five years, it is perhaps useful also to look back in five-year intervals and see whether you could have guessed it right at those points of time. I could not!

I am in what I consider my third career. Actually, I did not even get my first career right five years before it started, as I had thought I’d work in IT, but then I got into philosophy in high school and got a degree on that and started my first career as a researcher. I later on moved to documentation/localization, again a career move I had no idea of five years before it happened, and finally I moved to a mixture of process improvement, Lean, innovation, and strategy.

Have I bounced around mindlessly? That’s definitely an option. Another view would be that all of these careers built on some of the competences I had acquired in the previous ones, and added in new competencies, which in turn enabled new opportunities. And in many ways, when it comes to strategy, I am again closer to philosophy than I was for many years!

Where to next? I have still not finished combining Lean and social business, so there is still work to do there. Other than that, one key part of Lean is not just the development of processes, but the development of people, and I am definitely interested in how new generations can be fostered to be more creative and better at problem-solving – which are, incidentally, categorized as 21st century skills and subject to much hype in the education community nowadays. So, there are always opportunities for an inquisitive and open mind!

Will this mindset make me more attractive to recruiters, then?

In general, probably not. Unless the industry has underwent a dramatic change recently, it is mainly based on keywords and the number of years you have held positions with specific titles. (There are exceptions, though)

Alas, there is no need to despair! First of all, adopting this mindset keeps you moving and prevents you from becoming completely unemployable. Second, it makes for an interesting discussion in a recruitment situation (if you actually get to meet a person) by giving you a third option between having no idea what you want to do and having a completely unrealistic career plan for the next decade. Third, once you get a little further down this path, you will notice that there are lots of ways you can go and lots of opportunities to combine your skills to create unique value (unless all of humanity start thinking of life as continuous learning, of which I am sadly skeptical).

We have now reached the end of this tale. It has been one of taking a concept from one context (that of strategic management) and applying it by way of analogy to another (career planning). The validity of this story probably would need some more thinking, but I find this analogy extremely interesting and seemingly plausible as well. I think this could be a good building block for career planning in the future.

Photo: Death Valley by Robert Stewart (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.