Image by Michael 1952, via Flickr.

It’s ironic that we often hear about CEOsconcerns for the future of their organizations’ talent supply at the same time that we read about the abysmal unemployment rate in the news.

Billions of dollars are spent annually on recruitment, training and education, and yet unemployment rates continue rising in many economies while purchasing power drops. Worst of all, employers are having considerable difficulty finding talent to drive business growth as the skills gap widens.

In the digital age, the market evolves so fast that it has become impossible for professionals to stay relevant in their careers unless they evolve ahead of the changes. As Seth Godin recently wrote, “[n]ow that the industrial economy is over, you should forget about doing things just because it’s assigned to you, or never mind the race to the top, you’ll be racing to the bottom.”

I call those racing to the top “the lifelong learners.” They are the knowledge seekers in every industry who are always searching for new things to learn and new ways to develop.

The problem is that only a very small portion of the population (I once heard someone say “one in six” at a recruitment conference) has the opportunity to find an occupation that will motivate them and the learning conditions that will allow them to become lifelong learners.

That’s not only terrible for 21st-century businesses that desperately need qualified forward-thinking individuals, but it’s really sad from an individual’s point of view. Work can take up to two thirds of our waking hours and the vast majority of people spend that time wasting their potential and counting the minutes until the weekend.

An opportunity for brands

At the same time that there is a shortage of talent, brands are having a tougher time than ever engaging with their customers. Skeptical consumers no longer buy products simply because they’re endorsed by movie stars.

Brands now need to genuinely and indisputably stand for something that matters. But as strange as it may sound, I take these two scenarios to be interconnected – and a great opportunity for brands.

New communication technologies are allowing us to return to our roots; they’re letting people form communities around shared interests and find new ways to collaborate. Tribes, as described by Seth Godin, are back because people have the means to communicate with each other and organize themselves around what they care about, rather than being passive receivers of broadcasted information. The very definition of “organizations” also changes because of it, and now the notion of the tribe represents a brand’s entire ecosystem.

By building a community of employees, prospective employees, contributors, consumers and the general public around their knowledge (read: content), brands will achieve a profound educational influence that goes way beyond a simple “social media strategy.” It’s already happening.

Google Campus in London. Image via www.campuslondon.com

Google, known for its “20-percenttime policy for employees, is now opening that mindset to the entire tech community by setting up a working Campus in East London – a place where entrepreneurs can collaborate in an open environment.

IBM has been working with open-source software for some time now and O’Reilly has published a number of open-copyright books. In education, TED and Khan Academy use social technologies to distribute education for free while Stanford, University of Michigan and several other universities make many of their lectures available to the public online.

I keep returning to memories of my favourite teachers teaching me useful and interesting things. Imagine how powerful it would be for a brand to have the same impact on people’s lives.