Amazon is quietly becoming its own university

A lesson in world domination.
A lesson in world domination.
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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Jeff Bezos’ Amazon empire—which recently dabbled in home security, opened artificial intelligence-powered grocery stores, and started planning a second headquarters (and manufactured a vicious national competition out of it)—has not been idle in 2018.

The e-commerce/retail/food/books/cloud-computing/etc company made another move this week that, while nowhere near as flashy as the above efforts, tells of curious things to come. Amazon has hired Candace Thille, a leader in learning science, cognitive science, and open education at Stanford University, to be “director of learning science and engineering.” A spokesperson told Inside Higher Ed that Thille will work “with our Global Learning Development Team to scale and innovate workplace learning at Amazon”; Thille herself said she is “not really at liberty to discuss” her new project.

What could Amazon want with a higher education expert? The company already has footholds in the learning market, running several educational resource platforms. But Thille is famous specifically for her data-driven work, conducted at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon University, on nontraditional ways of learning, teaching, and training—all of which are perfect, perhaps even necessary, for the education of employees.

Corporate learning is a freshly lucrative market, estimated to be over $130 billion in size, and still booming. Research has found that the majority of employers aren’t paying much attention to employee learning—which includes everything from picking up new computer skills to taking formal career development courses—but it’s an oversight that will need to be addressed soon. Given how quickly the modern economy is automating, millions of workers will need training (and retraining) in the next few years alone.

Amazon, with the poaching of Thille, seems to believe in an even faster timeline—or perhaps the company, which has faced complaints of toxic culture and overwork in the past, simply wants to keep all its employees for as long as possible.

“Amazon is experimenting with new ways to offer products and services five times a day in different places around the world. You need learning [for employees] that keeps up with it, almost in real time,” Louis Soares, vice president for policy research and strategy at the American Council on Education, said to Inside Higher Ed.

Thille faces no small task. After its new headquarters go up, Amazon will have more than half a million employees—roughly the entire population of the state of Wyoming.