Didn’t Go to College, but Have You Seen My LinkedIn?

What people might learn from the combined companies after the Microsoft deal.

Microsoft's Nadella: LinkedIn Deal Helps All Users

You’re staring at a spreadsheet and you’re stumped. Waiting for you in Help is a suggestion to connect with a freelance expert on LinkedIn. You exchange messages. Problem solved. 

Now you’re worried about your Excel skills. Help suggests coursework. You spend nights becoming an Excel specialist through Lynda.com, the online learning company LinkedIn acquired last year. Not only does your expertise earn you admiration at the office (and a date!), but a recruiter also discovers the new course certificates on your LinkedIn profile. New job, healthy raise.

This isn’t the real world, at least not yet. But Microsoft’s $26 billion acquisition of LinkedIn includes big dreams, and among them is education.

“We're both very passionate about learning,” LinkedIn Chief Executive Officer Jeff Weiner said of himself and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella on a conference call about the deal.

Weiner spoke of LinkedIn’s vision to develop its Economic Graph, “a digital mapping of the global economy,” including profiles “for every university or higher-educational organization [and] vocational training facility” that gives people the skills they need to get jobs. He mentioned the Lynda acquisition, suggested “coursework deeply integrated throughout Microsoft’s ecosystem,” and discussed an overlay in Microsoft products that would show “who you can tap within your network, within the entire broader ecosystem, freelancers, and the actual coursework itself.” A slide presentation promised to “transform learning.”

It all raises the question, with fresh urgency amid rising tuition: What is the value of a degree?

At the end of March, LinkedIn and Lynda.com released more than 50 “learning paths.” As of November, though, Lynda wasn’t the source of the most certifications on LinkedIn profiles. Microsoft was. It already has a stake in the education world, both as a provider of training and certification programs and as a maker of products that require skills to use optimally. Six of the 25 most popular courses on Lynda are related to Microsoft products, Weiner noted in discussing the acquisition.

With LinkedIn’s data at hand, Microsoft could control the currently fragmented corporate-training market, education consultant Michael Feldstein suggested to Quartz. On-the-job training has changed, with the employer now “pushing the training cost back onto the employee, in a sense, and demanding more evidence of work-readiness at the point of hire,” said Jeff Strohl, director of research at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

At the same time, LinkedIn is betting on a broad view of education. It joined a Markle Foundation initiative that helps people in Colorado and Arizona with a high school diploma, but not a four-year college degree, get skills and jobs. As part of that effort, it launched Training Finder in March. In April, it released the LinkedIn Students app in the U.S. to help college students approaching graduation find their first jobs through personal recommendations. The company also presents information on alumni career paths.

At this point, it’s hard to say exactly how LinkedIn and Microsoft will integrate in terms of learning. “Suffice to say there’s a lot of opportunity,” said LinkedIn spokeswoman Julie Inouye. Lynda.com won’t be just a library for Microsoft-related Lynda courses, though. “This is about providing skill-based learning opportunities for professionals that extend beyond just Microsoft productivity products,” she said. Microsoft e-mailed information about its current training and certification programs and declined to comment further.

Ideally, Microsoft and LinkedIn would help match jobs with talent, offering courses that could provide those who are unemployed, underemployed, or seeking new positions with what they need for advertised jobs, or “last-mile training,” said Jeff Selingo, author of There Is Life After College. They would also help with continuing education, especially for those without full-time work with a single employer, such as gig-economy workers.

The traditional certification market, in which Microsoft plays a role, has been disrupted in recent years. The tech skills that people are looking for now are “not necessarily the domain of the leading legacy software companies,” said Gates Bryant, a partner at Tyton Partners, an investment-banking and consulting firm primarily focused on education.

Meanwhile, companies such as Lynda have been gaining traction in an environment “less formally organized around specific certifications and more organized around demonstrating competencies with specific technical skills.” In terms of learning, the deal’s promise, to Bryant, lies in an even less formal category he called “unstructured informal just-in-time learning.”

The flip side: It isn’t just the skills you can learn in order to work, but also what can be learned about your skills from your work, in, say, Microsoft Office.

“In my perfect world, I have a competency profile—you know, on LinkedIn, presumably—that is kept up to date in real time on the competencies that I am exhibiting in my work, as well as competencies that I’ve demonstrated through assessments, through my education, the formal credentials that I’ve accrued,” said Ryan Craig, managing director at University Ventures, an investment firm focused on higher education. That competency profile is part of a transformation Craig sees coming, “the great unbundling of higher education,” to borrow his 2015 book’s subtitle.

“In five to 10 years, most students will buy their post-secondary education differently from the way they buy it now,” he said. “It won’t be a degree bundle. It will be a series of courses and assessments and projects and virtual internships that add up to something different.” 

The challenge will be to map people's competencies against the ones that jobs require, find the gaps, and determine how to fill them. Sounds kind of like LinkedIn’s vision of the Economic Graph.

Craig doesn’t think elite schools that draw top students need to worry; their degrees will still be used by employers as a sign of quality. For other schools, “their credentials will need to be shorter, less expensive, and much more tied to employment,” he said. 

Hang on, says Debra Humphreys, senior vice president for academic planning and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges & Universities. She doesn’t see skills-based education competing with four-year colleges and universities soon, but predicts a new group of “hybrid educational experiences.” 

If employers “have somebody walking in the door with a bachelor’s degree from X university, and then another one who comes in and says, ‘Well, but I have all these badges because I did a bunch of skill-based stuff online,’ I mean, I still think they’re going to go with the person with the degree,” Humphreys said. “But I think it’s going to become more of a competitive advantage to build on top of the degree a series of badges or skills.” 

The more vulnerable part of higher ed is professional master’s and certificate programs, which are long and expensive and provide more than someone needs to get the job, said Selingo, the There Is Life After College author. Bryant, of Tyton Partners, sees LinkedIn, Lynda, and Microsoft tapping into continuing and lifelong learning, an arena in which he thinks higher-ed institutions have done poorly.

The Microsoft-LinkedIn combination is subject to some tensions, such as whether it will favor its own training programs. Ultimately, the competency marketplace “really needs to be Switzerland,” Craig said. 

LinkedIn spokeswoman Inouye said the focus is on members’ success. The portfolio of Craig's firm, University Ventures, includes companies that deal with credentialing, competency display, online learning, and employment.

Also, the real economy is cyclical. “When the job market cools, and we enter the next phase of the economic cycle, my concern would be that there’s not as much mobility for people in the LinkedIn audience as they would like,” said Bryant, whose firm has worked with businesses that provide training. “And because there’s less mobility, there’s less desire to spend additional money on additional learning.”

And is it a little creepy, a computer telling you where you’re deficient and where you might go with your career?

“It's like analytics in anything,” Selingo said. Amazon and Netflix make recommendations, too. And if Word wanted to suggest a person on LinkedIn who could help write a killer sentence to end this story, who’s to say it wouldn’t be great?

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