Business school thinking about careers has shifted several times over the past fifty years, creating confusion for managers and discord among professors. A wide range of ideas have been released into the world of practice, and it can help you to know what’s been going on. The ideas can be organized into five recognizable trends, each with resultant consequences for your career.
Individual motivation: At the start of the 1970s, the underlying influence of almost all business school thinking about human motivation came from one man, widely considered as “the father of enlightened management.” His name was Abraham Maslow, and his work proclaimed that motivation reflected a “hierarchy of needs” – from physiological to safety to social to esteem and finally to self-actualization – or realizing one’s fullest potential. People could understand themselves, and managers could understand their subordinates, by reflecting on where someone stood in the hierarchy. In turn, new ideas on job design were brought forward. A job could reflect a person’s present hierarchical level, for example as a shop floor worker, while providing an opportunity to move up.
Organizational careers: The late 1970s and 1980s brought the establishment of a new initiative. It was to complement ideas about job design with a deeper exploration of how jobs evolved over time – that is of careers. The ideal of lifetime employment was widely supported, so it made sense to see both the individual and the organization taking a long-term view of their relationship. At that time also, it was the view that organizations – and especially large organizations – would have enough variation in functional areas and departments for people to move toward what they would like to do next. One consequence, though, was a concern from advocates of “human resource planning” that an organization might not want to look like an aggregate of its employees’ career preferences.
“Boundaryless” careers: The notion of organizational careers was challenged in the late 1980s and 1990s by developments in global trade and technological innovation. These brought about trends in outsourcing and off-shoring, and the frequent downsizing of organizations in their wake. Jack Welch, then CEO of General Electric, called for a “boundaryless organization” so its leaders could do what they needed to do to run with the pace of change. In response, business school career scholars (including this author) began to examine “boundaryless careers,” defined as sequences of job opportunities that go beyond the boundaries of single employment settings. However, many other business school scholars – for example, in organizational behavior, leadership and project management – continued to assume an incumbent rather than a mobile workforce.
Strategic human resource management: A forceful response to the boundaryless career idea gained momentum in the 21st Century, building on the earlier concern of human resource planners. This time, though, the point of departure was more explicit. The organization’s strategy was the only legitimate mandate, and the role of human resource management was to implement that strategy. To this end, only some employees’ careers mattered, and their talents ought to be developed to explicitly serve the organization’s strategic interests. Strategic human resource management saw all other workers (including providers of outsourced functions and short-term contact workers) as simply part of the “flexible workforce,” to be hired as needed but in whose careers the organization held no interest. Some organizations’ talent management programs reflect this view, while seeking not to antagonize the wider workforce.
Career ownership: This brings us to today. The career ownership perspective insists that every worker take ownership of their own career, rather than allowing any organization to do that. Lifetime employment is no longer viable, the future is unpredictable, and the only party that can make sense of where you’ve been, and what that can mean in the future, is you. Moreover, career ownership is becoming recognized by other business school scholars, for example in their writing on “superbosses” or “project-based learning” that take team members’ careers into account. Further voices emphasize the importance of location, in cities or industry clusters, as an alternative context and meeting ground for both organization strategies and individual careers.
In summary, by taking and maintaining ownership of your career, you will be contributing to, rather than deferring to, any organization’s view of your work. You will be letting go of an arrangement tracing back to the factory shop floor, and joining a wider movement seeking to re-claim responsibility for your career and its consequences.