Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Human capital spin-offs, free agent (learners), encore careers

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 was my last day as an employee of IBM Canada.  I have been with company for almost 28 years, and was offered an option for an “early retirement” as an exit from the organization.  However, I expect that I will continue to work (and study) elsewhere for at least 10 to 15 years.  Since I’m not expecting to draw from the Canada Pension Plan any time soon, the label of “retirement” as applied by the company isn’t the same as that as applied by the government.  Statistics Canada has three categories in the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics.

  • Career employment means having employment income or Employment Insurance (EI) benefits, no pension income and not reporting retirement as the major activity.
  • Bridge employment means having employment income or EI benefits, pension income or reporting retirement as the major activity, and not out of the labour force for more than six consecutive months at the end of the year.
  • Retirement means having pension income or self-identifying as retired with no employment income or EI benefits, or having pension income or self-identifying as retired with employment income or EI benefits, but out of the labour force for more than six consecutive months at the end of the year [Hébert and Luong 2008].

I don’t intend to take myself out of the work force in the near future.  It seems as though it’s not uncommon for retirement-eligible individuals to work.

Chart B: The prevalence of bridge employment doubles after age 60

Not only are the numbers of age 50 to 69 individuals active in bridge employment increasing, but so is the proportion increasing with aging of the baby boom cohort.

There’s three ways (and probably more) in which I could portray myself:

  • 1. A human capital spin-off
  • 2. A free agent (learner)
  • 3. An encore career

Each of these descriptions has a balance between accuracy and understandability (by the layman).

1. A human capital spin-off

A spin-off is normally viewed in an organizational sense, but there’s little in most definitions that couldn’t be extended to individuals.  One description comes from research specifying a base taxonomy.

… new business formation based on the business ideas developed within the parent firm being taken into a self-standing firm. An additional qualification … was to include only spin-off firms the establishment of which was initiated, or at least allowed, by the parent firm. This was done by excluding hostile or competitive spin-offs. [Parhankangas and Arenius 2003, p. 464]

There are two dimensions to categorizing spin-offs:  relatedness and integration.  On relatedness, success is more probable if the venture is similar or complementary to conditions in the parent.

… we expect that the nature of the relationship between related spin-off ventures and the parent firms differs significantly from the relationship between the unrelated ventures and their parent firms. Based on the resource-based view, we believe that higher levels of relatedness make it easier for new ventures to access resources. In a similar vein, we assume that it is easier for the corporate management to manage ventures similar to the core businesses of the corporation than totally unrelated ventures. These differences are expected to translate into enhanced competence development experienced by related ventures. [Parhankangas and Arenius 2003, p. 466]

Integration of the venture with the parent is a two-edged sword.  Higher integration allows a small organization to lean on the economies of the parent.  Lower integration opens up the venture to more readily reach out to parties outside organizational boundaries.

Staying quasi-externalized means that they develop an ongoing relationship with the parent firm after the formal separation to secure the continuation of the resource sharing relationship. Resource-based literature suggests that the replication of resources previously provided by the parent firm tend to be slow, due to time compression diseconomies, asset mass efficiencies and asset interconnectedness …. Thus, maintaining collaborative linkages may prevent the negative impacts of the separation, possibly leading to disregard of some previous knowledge ….

However, maintaining an ongoing relationship with the parent may also have negative implications for the development of the spin-off firm. Preserving a symbiotic relationship with the parent firm, like with any major customer or partner, may expose the spin-off venture to the risks of relationship-specific investments. Highly relationship-specific investments decrease the ability and/or willingness of the spin-off firm to exploit its resources in exchange relationships with other firms and to build competencies unrelated to the needs of the parent firm. Small new firms usually have limited resources and cannot afford spreading their resources on several product applications. Therefore, the spin-off firm may simply feel too comfortable with having the parent firm as a secure source of business, not sensing the need to seek new customers or invest in new product applications. This might became a barrier to learning from other customers and applications …. [Parhankangas and Arenius 2003, p. 467]

In the research, three clusters emerged.  In cluster 1, the spin-off were engaged in new-to-market technologies, developing ideas and new business areas from outside, eventually bringing them back to the parent.  In cluster 2, the ventures used research and development facilities of the parent, and then targeted customers not previously served.  In cluster 3, mature technologies were packaged into a distinct organization that were gradually weaned off parent resources.

Figure: Comparison of disintegration processes across the three clusters (Parhankangas and Arenius, 2003)

Rapidly separating from a company after a 25-year-plus career as an individual is a pattern most like Cluster 2.  If the parent was to serve as a patient investor over a long transition (e.g. IBM’s divesture of the PC Division to Lenovo), that pattern would appear in Cluster 3.

In other studies of spin-offs, i.e. from academic institutions, there’s a recognition that human capital can be spun off, just as technologies are spun off.

Another point of difference centres upon whether a transfer of human capital must be involved, as opposed to solely the transfer of technology …. The importance of the transfer of human capital is that it embodies the tacit knowledge that accompanies the technology and which is usually important for the development of the technology in the fledgling company.

Whilst there are cases in the literature of spin-offs not including either technology or human capital …, we defined a spin-off as:

a company formed through the transfer of technology from an R&D company, which is completely independent of the parent company, and involves the transfer of human capital.

[Davenport, Carr & Bibby, 2002]

As an individual, my career at IBM has embodied me with skills, practices and a way of thinking.  These all represent passive capital that might be activated (or not) with alternative organizations in the future.

2. A free agent (learner)

The idea of a free agent was popularized by Dan Pink.

The residents of Free Agent, USA are legion: Start with the 14 million self-employed Americans. Consider the 8.3 million Americans who are independent contractors. Factor in the 2.3 million people who find work each day through temporary agencies. [….]

So let’s hazard a guess. If we add up the self-employed, the independent contractors, the temps — a working definition of the population of Free Agent Nation — we end up with more than 16% of the American workforce: roughly 25 million free agents in the United States, people who move from project to project and who work on their own, sometimes for months, sometimes for days. [….]

“Free agency forces you to think about who you are and what you want to do with your life,” she says. “Previously, it was only those wonderful, flaky artists who had to deal with this.”

The old social contract didn’t have a clause for introspection. It was much simpler than that. You gave loyalty. You got security. But now that the old contract has been repealed, people are examining both its basic terms and its implicit conditions.

Free agents quickly realized that in the traditional world, they were silently accepting an architecture of work customs and social mores that should have crumbled long ago under the weight of its own absurdity. From infighting and office politics to bosses pitting employees against one another to colleagues who don’t pull their weight, most workplaces are a study in dysfunction. Most people do want to work; they don’t want to put up with brain-dead distractions.   [Pink, 2001]

While scheduled training within a day job may seem as a nuisance, a company has an interest in its employees keeping up to date.  Outside of corporate structures, individuals have to take more individual responsibility.

The term free agent is applied to employees who focus on their long-term employability security within the new career model (Kanter 1995), without seeing themselves as bound to any one organization (Packer 2000). They manage their own careers, moving to those jobs and organizations that offer them the opportunities for growth they need to maintain their employability (Packer 2000). Given their attention to growth, lifelong learning is important for free agents who look for opportunities to learn and apply that learning (Caudron 1999). [Opengart and Short 2002, pp.  220-221]

I’m in the midst of writing my dissertation for the doctoral program in Industrial Engineering and Management at Aalto University.  While I’m not otherwise working on projects or looking for longer-term engagements, my focus will continue on writing that.

3. An encore career

An encore career is a midlife transition to work that not only continues income, but promises personal meaning with a potential for social impact.  The idea of an encore career was popularized through Marc Freedman as Civic Ventures, a non-profit organization funded by a variety of philanthropic organizations.

I hadn’t heard of this initiative before, and it’s an intriguing endorsement to see U.S. President Obama using the word “encore” in a speech.  There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm in the U.S., but I may exhibit more scepticism as a Canadian.  Some New Zealanders also have a cautionary view.

Phrases such as ‘encore careers’, ‘plowing a lifetime of experience’ and ‘positive ageing’ are used rhetorically to achieve certain ends. While the authors do not question claims about beneficial aspects of such phenomena, they do question the apparent lack of reflection and critique on the generally one-sided positive framing of such terms. These terms thus cry out for a critical analysis of meanings and discourses.
The purpose here is to address the need for critical examination by presenting findings of an interpretive study of older New Zealanders’ experiences with encore careers [Simpson, Richardson, and Zorn 2012, p. 430]

As quick summary, the article sees three perspectives.

Table. Three perspectives on encore careers [Simpson, Richardson, and Zorn 2012, p. 436]

Vision Instrumental Idealized Suspicious
Productive path Promising path Seductive path
Goal of encore careers For elders to be useful and productive so that individuals, organizations and society reap material benefit For elders to achieve dreams and celebrate regeneration, so that individuals self-actualize For elders to take individual responsibility and absolve society, and add to a disposable workforce
Used primarily by Managers and younger male encore workers Encore workers – women, and older men 65-plus; and popular accounts Researchers, and sometimes encore workers
Goal of encore careers For elders to be useful and productive so that individuals, organizations and society reap material benefit For elders to achieve dreams and celebrate regeneration, so that individuals self-actualize For elders to take individual responsibility and absolve society, and add to a disposable workforce
Discourse in use Productive ageing Positive ageing Enterprising ageing
Discursive resources Narratives of necessity and currency Narratives of power and powerlessness Enterprising ageing
Purported outcomes Encore careers as ‘resource-full’, actualizing, privileging:
Experience
Currency
Flexibility
Necessity
Contingent workforce
Encore careers as self-actualizing, privileging:
Self-fulfilment
Enhanced identity
Meaningful work
Valued workforce
Encore careers as exploitative, privileging:
Self-responsibility
Individual focus
Absence of context
Casualized workforce
Barriers Lack of flexibility Lack of vision Naivety

My prior roles in IBM have had income, meaning, and social impact, so I don’t necessarily see that those conditions would change in a second career.

In any of the descriptions above, I may expediently use the label of “retired from IBM”, as long as there’s an appreciation that I’m not retired in the industrial age sense.  Saying that I’m a “human capital spin-off”, free agent, or on an encore career will probably lead to extended conversations.

References

Davenport, S., A. Carr, and D. Bibby. 2002. “Leveraging Talent: Spin–off Strategy at Industrial Research.” R&D Management 32 (3): 241–254. doi:10.1111/1467-9310.00257. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-9310.00257.

Hébert, Benoît-Paul, and May Luong. 2008. “Bridge Employment.” In Perspectives on Labour and Income. Statistics Canada. http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2008111/article/10719-eng.htm#a2.

Opengart, Rose, and Darren C. Short. 2002. “Free Agent Learners: The New Career Model and Its Impact on Human Resource Development.” International Journal of Lifelong Education 21 (3): 220–233. doi:10.1080/02601370210127837. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02601370210127837.

Pink, Daniel H. 2001. “Land of the Free.” Fast Company. http://www.fastcompany.com/42901/land-free.

Parhankangas, Annaleena, and Pia Arenius. 2003. “From a Corporate Venture to an Independent Company: a Base for a Taxonomy for Corporate Spin-off Firms.” Research Policy 32 (3): 463–481. doi:10.1016/S0048-7333(02)00018-5. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0048-7333(02)00018-5.

Simpson, Mary, Margaret Richardson, and Theodore E. Zorn. 2012. “A Job, a Dream or a Trap? Multiple Meanings for Encore Careers.” Work, Employment & Society 26 (3): 429–446. doi:10.1177/0950017012438581. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0950017012438581.


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