In a world that’s changing ever more rapidly, we all need trusted advisors. It’s a significant unmet need that creates a very attractive business opportunity. This has been a central part of my research and writing for almost 20 years since I published a book on the topic, Net Worth. Most recently, I returned to this subject in a blog post.
Today I want to make an important distinction between two major trusted advisor opportunities. So far, most of my writing has been about “trusted customer advisors” – businesses that will proactively help us to connect with the products and services that are most relevant to our needs and aspirations as we confront a growing array of options competing for our attention in the marketplace. Digital technology infrastructures are for the first time making it possible to take this business model and make it a mass market offering, rather than something that is only accessible to the very wealthy.
But there’s another trusted advisor opportunity – something that I call the “trusted talent advisor.” What’s that? It’s someone who proactively helps us to learn faster by developing a deep understanding of our individual context, capabilities and aspirations and connecting us with services and resources that will help us to achieve more of our potential.
Forces shaping the unmet need
Why is this becoming so important? Because we live in a world of mounting performance pressure where we can’t afford to stand still and rest on the certificates and accomplishments of the past. Unless we accelerate our ability to learn and achieve more and more of our potential, we are at increasing risk of experiencing growing stress, becoming more and more marginalized and ultimately dropping out.
And to add to the pressure, our educational systems are fundamentally broken. We’re paying more and more for diminishing value. Think about it. What’s the model of education?
You go to school for a specified number of years and receive a certificate verifying that you have mastered certain skills and then you leave education behind and go into the workforce to apply what you’ve learned. And, while you go to school, your key assignment is to “fit in” – to be successful, you need to adapt to the institution and listen carefully to the sage on the stage who will transmit to you the knowledge and skills required to be successful. This model worked very well in more stable environments where the key challenge was to learn a fixed set of skills and fit into institutions driven by scalable efficiency.
In a world that’s increasingly going exponential, shaped by digital technologies and a proliferation of knowledge flows on a global scale, the half lives of any given skills are shrinking at a rapid rate. Learning becomes a life long imperative, not something that we can compartmentalize into a certain number of years at the beginning of our lives. Learning becomes far less about absorbing existing knowledge from a sage on a stage and much more about developing a growing capacity to create new knowledge and skills in collaboration with others in our unique context.
Rather than trying to “fit in”, our key to success increasingly becomes the ability to “step out” – exploring challenges and opportunities that have never been encountered before. Most fundamentally, the imperative is to find, connect with and pursue a passion that will motivate us to learn faster and take the significant risks that entails – we need to cultivate the “passion of the explorer.”
What's required to address that unmet need?
So, who’s going to help us do this? It’s a growing unmet need that creates a significant business opportunity. What we all need is someone who knows us very deeply and better than anyone else and who will use that knowledge to proactively recommend actions that will help us to learn faster. We need someone whom we can trust to be on our side – aggressively helping us to achieve more of our potential, wherever that might take us. We need someone who will challenge us to get out of our comfort zone and to abandon beliefs that are becoming obstacles to success. And we need that person to be at our side, through thick and thin, regardless of where our journey might take us.
Now, at one level, we’ve all had exposure to people who help us in becoming better. Many of us have been fortunate enough to have mentors who have provided valuable advice at critical turning points in our lives. Most of us who have close friends who challenge us to become better and help us along the way to achieve more in our lives.
On a commercial level, there are lots of players emerging to address elements of this need. I’m struck by the growth of executive coaches, personal trainers and mindfulness advisors. At another level, we have the growth of incubators and shared workspace providers that offer some of the services I am describing in a business context.
But most of these providers are still targeting narrow slices of our needs in terms of talent development – they don’t seek to address all of our talent development needs in a more holistic way. The trusted talent advisors that I’m describing would connect their clients with these more specialized providers when the need arises, but they would be focused on becoming an overall orchestrator of specialized services, driven by a deep understanding of our overall needs and aspirations. By the way, one of the key services of a trusted talent advisor would be to connect us with a small community of people who are in a similar context and driven by similar passion so that we can learn faster by sharing our experiences, holding each other accountable and encouraging each other when unexpected obstacles arise.
And there’s a growing amount of technology, loosely grouped into the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and data analytics categories, that provide an opportunity for trusted talent advisors to gain growing insight into who we are, what we’re doing and what we’re accomplishing. It’s this growing technology infrastructure that makes it feasible to take the trusted talent advisor business model to the mass market, rather than just restricting it to the very affluent.
Why is this such an interesting business opportunity?
There’s a big white space remaining to be targeted. This business is a particularly interesting opportunity because it’s likely to be driven by powerful economies of scope. What do I mean by that? Think about it. The more this business knows about you, the more helpful it can be to you. If the provider only knows a narrow slice of who you are, the provider can be helpful in a limited way, but it will never match the potential value of someone who knows much more about you. And the more clients this business serves, the more helpful it can be to each client, because it can start to see patterns in terms of what drives accelerated learning and performance improvement for people like you. In short, the broader the business, the more value it can deliver relative to more narrowly focused providers. These economies of scope are likely to drive the emergence of very large businesses over time.
Of course, acquiring such deep and broad knowledge about you will require deep trust. You need to be convinced that this provider is on your side, representing your interests alone, and won’t use this data to your disadvantage. It’s for this reason that I’ve suggested that the winning business model for a trusted advisor will be one where the clients pay the advisor, rather than having an advisor who is dependent on advertising revenue or commissions received from vendors. If you’re paying the bills and retain ownership rights to the data you are providing to your advisor, the advisor is much more likely to be on your side of the table, representing your interests.
There’s certainly a significant opportunity for existing educational institutions to target this growing unmet need. One powerful way to begin that journey would be to focus on building sustained relationships with alumni, not as targets for fund-raising, but instead as people who have just started out on their learning journey and finding ways beyond more classes to become trusted advisors to these alumni. But making the transition to trusted talent advisor will be very challenging and painful for traditional educational institutions, requiring them to ultimately transform virtually everything they do. New entrants will have the advantage of taking a clean slate approach to building a trusted talent advisor business.
In my writing on the likely evolution of business models, I’ve proposed that there are three key dimensions for the evolution of business models in our exponential age. The trusted advisor represents the highest form of evolution across all three dimensions.
But what about scalable learning?
In my broader writing on the Big Shift, I’ve proposed that all of our institutions will need to transition from scalable efficiency models to scalable learning models. Would that eliminate the need for trusted talent advisors? Wouldn’t all of our institutions then help us to learn faster? Well, no – there’s a paradox here: the more important scalable learning becomes, the more valuable trusted talent advisors become.
Here’s the challenge – institutions by their very nature are driven by their specific institutional mission. They will help you to learn faster within the context of that mission. But what about your mission? Your passion? As long as there’s a close fit between the institutional mission and the individual passion, the institution will help you to learn faster in areas that matter. But I suspect that there will always be a significant role for someone who is completely committed to help you learn faster as an individual given your specific aspirations and passion, regardless of the institutional setting that you find myself in at any point in time.
Is there an even bigger opportunity?
One more point before I wrap up. There’s an open question on the table. I’ve now outlined two trusted advisor business opportunities – the trusted customer advisor and the trusted talent advisor. Could one provider address both of these opportunities in the consumer space? Are these inherently two separate business opportunities?
There’s a part of me that wants to believe that these are in fact two sides of the same coin. As I’ve argued elsewhere, I believe that part of the Big Shift is a movement away from consumption as a status symbol (e.g., the type of car we drive, the size of our home, etc.) to creation as the source of status – what have we created and how many people have adopted our creation? To the extent that this plays out, it might make more sense to build a trusted advisor business that bridges these two arenas and focuses on helping each of us to achieve more of our potential through all the goods and services we access.
There’s a very powerful new business opportunity emerging. So far, it hasn’t been effectively addressed. It represents a significant white space in terms of value creation and value capture at global scale. But, given the powerful economies of scope that will drive this kind of business, there’s an urgency in pursuing it if you find it interesting. This is not the kind of business that will welcome fast followers. The race is on. Have you left the starting gate?