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Educate Thyself, Educate Others

Educate Thyself, Educate Others

A new era of education

A lot has changed since Frederick Taylor published his Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. A little over a century later, what was then cutting-edge management practice has been demonstrated to be a most destructive way to think, as predictability gives way to turbulence. What used to ensure employability for people and success for organisations – the ability to perform learned tasks efficiently – is now at the bottom of the list of desired qualities and is soon going to be dropped off the list altogether as automation of everything from production lines to legal compliance takes hold.

Learn to learn

At the top of the list are now an ability to learn, flexibility, problem solving skills and above all creativity. British businessman, and concert pianist, Sir Ernest Hall put it in crystal clear terms: “The only reason to employ people in the future will be to benefit from the qualities that raise them above machines, the qualities of inspiration, creativity, imagination, commitment, enterprise and ambition.” Everyone whose job depends on performing a learned skill – from truck drivers to accountants – is already in need of retraining, and the sooner they realise this, the better. Some might say that retraining might be considered something best left to education systems, but that is buck-passing on a global, industrial scale. Other than a few highly visible examples, education bodies of nation-states are already unable to cope with the pace of change, while some are actively turning against the tide and attempting to impose nineteenth-century models as a solution. To rely on them solely to design appropriate education streams and put through them the tens of millions of people who are at risk of displacement by machines and algorithms, would be unwise and unrealistic.

Plug the gaping skills gap

The realisation is quickly dawning on the World’s business leaders that to plug the gaping skills gaps, they themselves must create educational opportunities – by building systems for teaching their people where they are, and where they are needed. If they wish to retain the best people, they need to retrain them. The former CEO of Siemens USA, Eric Spiegel, had this to say on the subject in a New York Times interview in early 2017: “People on the plant floor need to be much more skilled than they were in the past. There are no jobs for high school graduates at Siemens today.”

Company-sponsored MBAs are, of course, nothing new, but here we are talking about a far broader scope. United Technologies has run its Employee Scholar Program for two decades. In that time in the order of forty thousand employees have earned tertiary degrees in a process that CEO Greg Hayes calls “the best $1.2 billion we have ever spent.” In 2014 Starbuck’s announced that it would help its employees gain university education through a partnership program with Arizona State University. Through its eponymous Academy, Oracle is working in partnership with the European Commission and DigitalEurope to dramatically increase the number of computer science graduates.

Learning as a recruiting platform

In the meantime, it is becoming clear that prospective employees select companies in part based on learning opportunities they offer, and consumers like to spend their money with companies which support education. A 2013 Nielsen global survey pointed out that the vast majority of consumers “would be more likely to buy products from a company that supports education initiatives” regardless of geography. The Vice-chair of Nielsen, Susan Whiting, drew this conclusion: “When companies share their resources, which go beyond monetary contributions, they have the power to help bring innovation to the classroom by helping young people gain access to the tools they need to realize their full potential. It’s a winning situation for both corporations and students. Corporations can bring employees together in a powerful way to share in this common purpose, and students reap the benefits of an enhanced learning experience.”

Supporting education as part of Corporate Social Responsibility has been a popular activity, as in the example of Banco Santander spending close to 200 million Euros or 80% of their CSR budget on education-related activities. Telefonica supports integration of information technologies in schools around the world, IBM spends nearly three-quarters of its CSR budget on educational programs and partnerships. Toyota has been funding literacy programs for a quarter of a century. Companies have been donating substantial sums for many years. What is required, however, is a wholesale change in attitude to education. “Corporations have a role beyond just providing money,” said Sandi Everlove, CEO of an NGO dedicated to advancing STEM education, in an interview in Fast Company in 2012. “There’s this tendency to think that we can throw money at the problem and fix it. That’s simply not true. We need capacity building—companies sharing their unique resources in order to fill critical gaps.”

Prepairing someone for jobs that don’t even exist yet

Companies must become part-time educational institutions, and partner with education providers to create relevant education opportunities. This needs to happen on a formal level as well as on informal levels, and we only have a very short window of opportunity to get this right. The level of challenge, and urgency, was enlarged upon very well by Richard Riley, Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton, as quoted by Ray Williams in Psychology Today: “We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, in order to solve problems that we don’t even know are problems yet.”

Easier said than done. In the meantime, Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, has already noted that their recruitment strategy centres on hiring “learning animals.” EY recruiters are saying loud and clear that they are looking for not just domain expertise in new hires, but also a deep desire to “ask the kind of questions that have the power to unlock deeper insights and innovation for our clients.” The scramble is on, who can capture and train the right people in the right way. The skills required by your people, for your company to still have relevance in ten year’s time (or less) are all of the “soft” kind. These will need to be added to their existing hard skills as soon as possible – and the order in which your departments will need to receive training in those will need to be arrived through close conversation among your Learning & Development people.

The most valuable soft skills in which many of your people will need training to fall into two general categories: skills related directly to dealing with the new technological environment, and those relating to working closely with peers in ways which take into consideration the effects of that technological environment. The first category includes using current knowledge sharing and communication tools, as well as any specialised methods of virtual collaboration that have come up as being particular to your industry. Those are actually fairly easy to deal with, and the extent of training or value that you as an employer can offer is defined by simple requirements: most people need communication tools; not everyone will need to be proficient in augmented reality. The second category is more difficult to both define and to train for, as it centres on the psychology of dealing with the new.

In Conclusion

Given the already prevalent, and growing, cognitive overload, an ability to assess information and pick out what may be relevant and valuable is going to be crucial. Artificial intelligence may be helpful in many instances – it already is – but humans will still need to make decisions as to what to concentrate on and what to filter out. This will take specialised training which, in a lot of instances, is going to have to be written from scratch. Openness to the new, an ability to quickly adapt to changing contexts, and to help others adapt also, is of course one of the central themes of this book, and this “skill” is going to define those people and companies that thrive within digital transformation, instead of withering because of it. The days of rule-based, procedural thinking ruling the roost are over.


Author, speaker and consultant on strategic creativity, innovation & communication, working with leading corporations (Volkswagen, Google, HP, Danfoss, RBS) as well as knee-deep in Europe’s and Australia's startup community. Good at seeing the big picture and spotting connections between people and concepts. Startup founder (web, mobile, blockchain) and mentor for Founder Institute and PwC StartupCollider. Curator for TEDxWarsaw and contributor to technology and media events as speaker, programme director and/or moderator.