Innovation Requires Mass Customization – of Ourselves

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We hear a lot these days about mass customization as a consumer trend, about how technology now allows us to mass produce products that are customized to the needs and desires of individual consumers. Examples range from smart phones with thousands of available apps to shoes that can be designed and ordered online to the ingredients in a fast food sandwich. So, why stop with consumer products? To fuel innovation, we need to be talking about mass customization of people.

In one sense we already are an example of mass customization. No two of us are exactly alike. We differ in everything from hair and eye color to height, aptitude and disposition. Yet we are all a product of the same means of production (unskilled but reliable).

In our education systems and employment practices we prize standardization. We’re grouped by date of manufacture (age), features (grades and test scores) distribution channel (school) and market niche (career path) and within each of those lanes we turn out a largely uniform product (doctor, lawyer, project manager, accountant, truck driver, mechanic, computer technician). This made sense when we had predictable jobs to fill that provided stable employment, but that’s no longer the case in many fields. And our uncertainly going forward is increasing. It’s hard to prepare students for the jobs of the future when we don’t know what they are.

Training large numbers of people to do the same job is no longer an efficient system—especially when the job they’re trained to do may disappear. To be successful in the future, individuals and organizations need to be able to constantly adjust, changing (customizing) themselves to meet ever evolving requirements. What’re needed are transferable skills like the ability to adapt and invent and problem solve…and innovate.

We need educational systems that produce personal flexibility and creativity rather than standardized test scores. We need organizations that realize that personal competency is a moving target that needs to be constantly updated and that doing that is itself a crucial skill. And we all need to recognize that our most important personal competency is the ability to continually customize ourselves.

Innovation is a global economic imperative. To achieve its full benefits we need people who can evolve just as quickly in the way they think and work. What do you think? What do you see our schools and our careers looking like in the future, and how do we get there?

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