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The Disorderly March IX

December 20, 2010

Well, I found my dream job.  Imagine getting paid to be a creative commando, parachuting into new situations all the time and brainstorming wildly.  The Times did their annual Ideas issue of the magazine yesterday, and one of the longer articles was on a company that does just that.  A recent project called for the employees of Jump Associates to “[dream] up 1,000 of the wackiest home-storage items they could imagine.”  The company

comes up with ideas to solve what it calls “highly ambiguous problems.” Exactly what problem was being solved in the room, and which client asked Jump to solve it, the company wouldn’t say. But Jumpsters, as its employees call themselves, are chattier about closed cases. Procter & Gamble asked Jump to study the future of water and what it portends for a company that makes water-dependent products like soap and laundry detergent. Mars, the candy maker, asked Jump to define the current meaning of “indulgence,” on the theory that it now conjures pampering rather than stuffing your face. General Electric has retained Jump for at least 10 different projects.

Jump’s work has elements of management consulting and a bit of design-firm draftsmanship, but its specialty is conceiving new businesses, and what it sells is really the art of innovation. The company is built on the premise that creative thinking is a kind of expertise.

Most of the employees have Master’s degrees and are “in their 30s,” so I’m probably SOL, but I can dream – not that I’m not qualified, I believe, but companies like Jump have to sell themselves to clients based on image as well as results, and advanced degrees and “young fresh thinking” look better in the brochure than 48 year old autodidacts.  (PS – an idea to “improve the experience of commercial air travel”?  How about a sliding divider between my seat and the next guy’s?  Something that would prevent him from hogging my armrest or falling asleep on my shoulder or just fatly spilling over onto me – an easy addition to existing plane and seat configurations that would provide a large dose of comfort and privacy for very little money.) 

One of the things that struck me was what one of Jump’s employees said about management, and the skills it now requires. 

“My dad was a midlevel manager for I.B.M.,” Patnaik explains, “and I remember him in the ’70s, sitting there with plastic 3M transparencies, by hand, with marker, to make presentations. For years, the good manager was one who had data at their fingertips. What’s our sales in Peoria? ‘It’s actually 47 percent above last year.’ People say, ‘Oh, he’s a good manager.’ ” By the early ’90s, though, companies like Microsoft and SAP were selling software that digitized this task. The days when a manager at, say, the Gap could earn a bow just for knowing how many sweaters to ship to Seattle were over. “When that happens, what is the role of the manager?” Patnaik asks. “Suddenly it’s about something else. Suddenly it’s about leadership, creativity, vision. Those are the differentiating things, right?”

As higher education faces more and more cutbacks, we’re looking at an educational system that wants to prioritize a technocratic-vocational curriculum, eliminating funding for “wasteful” programs like art and history.  Our political and corporate leaders want us to be “more like China,” where all teaching is teaching to the test and “Chinese students spend less time than American students on athletics, music and other activities not geared toward success on exams in core subjects.” (Which also eliminates the pesky tendency of a humanities education to make one question authority.)  And yet, as an employee of a wildly successful creative/cognitive business reminds us, even as we need (I never thought I’d say this) a “well rounded” education more than ever, we are talking about retooling the higher education system to increase the number of graduates prepared only for jobs already being outsourced to cheap labor and/or software. 

I should be happy, I suppose – the more the formally educated are limited in their skill set, the broader the opportunities for someone like me.  Companies will eventually have to reach outside the line of orderly marchers to find talent with the broader creative skills they need.  On the down side, though, I’d have to live in a world with fewer people who can carry an interesting conversation or create stimulating art or do much of anything other than pass a lifetime’s worth of “standardized” tests of one kind or another.


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