Sunday, 13 July 2008

Inspiration and Aspiration

The UK Skills Commission's inquiry into careers advice and guidance was published in April 2008. They concluded that professional information advice and guidance services (IAG) were inaccessible and often not of high quality. The inquiry was sponsored by The Edge Foundation, and one of their initiatives - Horsesmouth - gets a prominent mention.

The inquiry suggests current delivery models are not fit for the 21st century and that we need to maximise the use of technology, so people can access IAG from home. Professor Michael Thorne chaired the inquiry and in his introduction states:

Online Social Networking creates a new opportunity for people to talk about different careers with people who have experienced them.

By encouraging use of interactive networking everyone can learn from those in skilled and rewarding careers. Professor Thorne sees personal inspiration and aspiration arising from such activity. While recognising that face to face advisors will always have a place, the inquiry asserts that many IAG advisers (including careers teachers in schools) lack the necessary skills to perform their function. In my experience this is very true! There is a huge job to be done bringing this workforce uptodate on the power and potential of the social web. Many employers in the sector have simply blocked access to ALL social networking sites, and consider it a dangerous thing. This may explain many guidance worker's almost total lack of experience of social networking.

One of the report's recommendations (Recommendation 2) was that most of the demand for IAG can be met online with well designed websites for information, and forums to discuss careers with those who have experience of them.

Recommendation 9 asks that the design of the new adult advancement and careers service in England should "make maximum use of the internet and telephone based provision". We already know that online and telephone services such as Connexions Direct and Learndirect are popular, so this seems a logical suggestion.

Social networks allow peer to peer support to become more accessible and effective. Learndirect's recently introduced forums garnered 60,000 entries in their first five months of operation. The forums are moderated by paid, qulaified guidance staff, who are ensuring the "correct answers" are prominently posted to every IAG question. In a way it is a "pseudo social network" because while users can create a profile and give some information about themselves and their background, they cannot contact or subscribe to content from other users directly - they can only reply to comments of users within a discussion thread. So it is a highly managed environment lacking the features and connectivity of a true social network. But it is still a commendable start to the journey and knowing Learndirect the site will be enhanced and upgraded in future as users become more engaged, interested and demand more features. So in future I would anticipate the site will be more about connecting as well as sharing ideas and information.

At the opposite extreme, Horsesmouth does allow users to connect with each other and also share ideas and information. It matches volunteer online mentors to young people, who can in turn become mentors and offer advice to others. In July 2008 there were over 4,500 mentors offering free support on the site. Here you can read other people's profiles and contact a like-minded mentor to seek career and personal development advice. The service is currently operating on a fairly small scale when compared to national, government funded services like Learndirect, but clearly has potential to expand and provide beneficial career support to young people.

I think the report seems to suggest there is a dividing line between - on the one hand internet careers support; and on the other hand the face to face work of careers advisers. I think this could be misinterpreted (especially by advisers) to mean they can happily continue just delivering face to face work with the difficult, more challenging client groups the report suggests, and leave other young people to the internet and peer to peer support. But I believe this is actually far from the truth.

Firstly, advisers MUST embrace the use of social networking sites and technology. It is not an OPTION, but an integral part of the way they will communicate with their clients about the world of work. They will need to connect professionally to others in the labour market to access the wealth of insight and knowledge from people in the work in order to build their labour market knowledge. They may well be doing this on behalf of their clients. This is how their face to face and online guidance will become better informed, and they will become "enablers" and "connectors" bringing people and opportunities together. They may indeed be acting as safe intermediaries to protect young people on the web.

If the incentive of being better informed about the labour market is not a good enough incentive to get advisers using social networks, then new approaches such as referral based recruitment networks may peak adviser's interest..... because they could be PAID for successful referrals to recruitment agencies and employers. Jobtonic (see the examples on this blog) pays users a fee when they refer a specfic vacancy to someone they know within their own network. So jobhunting on behalf of your friends and contacts could start to become more attractive.

Secondly advisers and teachers should help clients make proper use of social networking technology to the benefit of their career and personal development plans. This needs to include discussion of issues around safe social networking.

Thirdly advisers need to help clients make sense of the varied views and opinions, insights, tips, misinformation, and errors they will be exposed to on the social web. It's ironic we have worked so hard in the guidance profession to make information advice and guidance fair, impartial, accessible, and to promote the principles of equality and diversity. Now at a sweep, anyone can offer careers advice online, and all the stereotypes, biases and discrimination are resurfacing. This is why I think there is a job to be done by the professional advice services to get into this space and provide clients with support in understanding and making use of the mixed IAG they can access through social networks.

Some people will welcome and embrace these new approaches to IAG work, others will denounce and reject them. It is however clear that these changes are already here and we cannot ignore them.