Impact

This is a terrible time, challenging in almost every respect for people and companies alike, but it does also offer an opportunity to do something symbolic and high-impact to help our customers, colleagues and society at large.

I re-read this famous little story in HBR and want to relay it here, because it makes me smile but equally because it defines ambition and determination and impact.

When Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs was presented the first iPod by the designers, he said the device was too big. The designers replied that they could not fit the components into anything smaller, so Jobs took the iPod over to an aquarium and dropped it into the water, pointing to the air bubbles floating to the top and explaining that it had some air inside it, which meant that it did indeed have some free space.

To do anything show-stopping, but especially today, you need to move up and out of the normal flow of organisational life. Incidentally, I showed my kids the first iPod I bought and they were mesmerised by it. Next week I will show them a cassette tape.

43 pages

This wont take long, but I think it is an important metaphor for the world returning to some semblance of normality. If companies think everything will fall back into place, just as it all used to be, they may be in for a bumpy ride.

A friend recently left the banking world (his choice) and we talked about the bank’s dress code policy, a document of 43 pages. What does it say? Do they prescribe sock colour to tone of shoe leather? Is that the way to attract the next generation of talent, as the loosening of lockdowns around the world are gradually introduced?

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff talks not about a version (of its software) but a vision for Salesforce, and a company centred entirely around its values. No wonder there are queues of people wanting to work there.

Strange & Change

These are strange times that we live in. Technology has truly come to the fore, helping people connect, not just for work purposes, but to stay in touch with family members and those not able or allowed to travel.

I’ve said repeatedly that technology has and will continue to influence the way we live, work and learn, but nobody quite expected this; although humans are largely very good at change and we have adapted again, working from home, balancing lives and being productive. I wonder how much this unique period in history will alter work for the long-term? Will organisations eschew the large, central corporate office and branding, for a smaller core that serves only as a place to meet and strategise? Will workforces be more dispersed and will technology services like Teams and Zoom restructure how we operate forever? Aside from dealing with bandwidth and having to coordinate when kids are watching Netflix and gaming online, and waiting anxiously as our video conference meeting stutters for a minute or two, is this the new modus operandi? It wouldn’t surprise me.

I wonder also if people will question why they commute for hours each day when they can start earlier, work for longer and still accomplish more. I have talked to more customers since the lockdown than in any single month before it and we have had time to think and explore the future – in a strange way it has helped to manage the work day.

In adversity you see true colours and I close by saying I have witnessed the true essence and culture at Pearson first hand, from John at the very top putting our people first, to the testing centre team prepared and ready to go back and open the doors to allow frontline health workers to take their exams and help the nation. Technology has been a super aid in this lockdown period, but it has been about the people yet again.

Thank you to our NHS and all the care workers. You are remarkable.

Skills not just degrees

I want to make a triangle of points and echo what Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase, said earlier this month: the future of work is about skills not just degrees.

Mr Dimon claims this is one of the reasons young people are held back and not progressing. The next point of this is that employers’ needs are not being met and as we well know a team is made up of diverse people and skill sets.

But technology is shifting everything, especially in the pace and ways of conducting business, which creates a pressure on companies to stay in touch with change, so we need to open the doors to everybody, not just the degree students.

The third point in the triangle is the role that universities have to play, because that is critical to this – the Higher Education sector is perfectly positioned to interpret employer needs and to help develop curriculum and training programmes that meet the on-the-job needs, even and especially as they change. As non-technology companies emerge as the source of many new technology roles – automotive, aerospace, retail, healthcare – Higher Education will have an opportunity to build more industry ties with vocational offerings, as employees and their employers will look for proof of their skills, which in turn will lead to more demand for continuing education.

It may not be a triangle but a circle that is ongoing, with opportunities for employers to get the skills they need, for the education providers to play a pivotal role in teaching and for people to find work in an area that suits their skills and helps them flourish.

Connecting not Cocooning

Technology is a tool that should empower us to reach more people and bind us together, connecting communities, workplaces and ideas. Although technology helps create great individual experiences, social interaction is a basic need and fundamental part of humanity, and we must encourage against people locking themselves away in their rooms for hours on end, especially at meal times.

As part of this humanisation endeavour, here is an interesting story to share: a law firm research revealed that the senior management profile pages (usually found under About Us) of its website were the most visited. So the firm decided to turn up the spotlight, including the addition of video interviews with its lawyers which included answering unconventional questions!

The message was: you wont find corporate stuffed shirts here; we are real people who value relationships with other real people. I like that. Put technology to use as a platform to inject some personality into our companies and humanise what we do. It’s about people. It always is.

Naivety and inexperience are essential

I came across an enlightening interview with Chinese contemporary artist Ai Weiwei where he was asked how young people affect his work.

Rather than turn his nose up or scoff at the question, he replied that the young generation is amazing. He said “they have less of the burden of history, but a clear sense of right and wrong.” He went on to say that they have more imagination than their parents and they are naive and full of inexperience – but it is this naivety and inexperience that are essential for creativity and being brave. Isn’t that refreshing?

By 2025, this generation will make up 75% of the workforce and the important thing is not just that they might bring new ideas and values, it’s that there are going to be so many of them. They will be the largest generation ever to enter the workforce – so how do we make our products, our services and our companies attractive enough so they choose us?

The best technology of all

At an industry event I attended recently, industry stalwart Amy Cardel shared her views on the changes and impact of technology on doing business, but one simple statement has stuck – that the best technology of all is face to face.

Despite the overload of information, the bombardment of news and the almost permanent connectivity, building relationships with other human beings, talking through issues and needs and resolving them together, remain the best partnerships of all. Somewhere in my early blogs I wrote about similar things that the Tupperware company emphasised back in 1953, and the principles remain today. Sitting across a table, reading and reacting to body language, smiling. It isn’t rocket science.

At the same event I had the pleasure of meeting and listening to NBA superstar Shaquille O’Neal – he was inspirational, he was very funny and entertaining, but most of all he was a normal guy with good values. It’s about people, it always is.

What we can learn from an ice cream cone

ice cream coneIn a previous job role, we didn’t have the funds to hire the most senior sales people, so I took the approach of hiring graduates with the attitude and drive to succeed, targeting a variety of new market segments for growth. Not everybody worked out, but several members of the team are Directors there or elsewhere, of which I am very proud. I had the opportunity to meet up with one of the team recently, and he reminded me of a story I used to share which is worth retelling.

At the 1904 World Fair in St Louis, the gentleman selling ice cream ran out of paper cups. He talked to the person next to him selling waffles, who then proceeded to flatten and roll them diagonally to form cones, thus creating the ice cream cone I grew up with in the 1970s (in the UK it was known as the ‘99’ and you could add a small chocolate flake as an extra treat – oh the memories).

The lesson in this? Look away from the obvious and consider the ingredients or components, partnerships or alliances outside of the norm, to create the new future.

We are in a new era of collaboration and partnerships facilitated with or without technology – who or what can we learn from, that sits outside our traditional sector and every day activities?

Secret Weapon

old_cincinnati_library_smallThis is a little story about the secret weapon of a specialist independent bookshop in London. It was shared with me by an individual passionate about books and life in general, and that alone means it’s worth relaying – but beneath lies an important statement about our future.

Today where most things are instant and short-term, where we consume online and read on smart devices, what chance has a small book shop against the giant online stores and discounters? There is not a single book in the store that customers cannot buy cheaper elsewhere.

But the store has a secret weapon. Her name is Claire. She works there and she knows most of the books that pass through the front door – her product knowledge, her people skills and service means people go back and buy again, having decided their loyalty means something to the bookshop.

People continue to make a difference, whether an independent bookshop or an enterprise that spans the globe. With automation on the increase, great people stand out more than ever. It’s about people – it always is.

PS. The little photo is the old public library of Cincinnati, with cast-iron book alcoves, spiral staircases several stories high and marble floors. Sadly it was demolished and the stunning building is worth remembering.

Fine Margins

I harp on about the importance data, how it is the oil of the twenty-first century, but here is a quick story about just how fine the margins have become.

At the end of a winter Olympics, one national team – renowned for its skiers – won zero gold medals. Post-event the management team sat down to undertake the deepest analysis based on all the data it could muster.

They figured out that with just a 5% improvement in performance, they would have won almost every gold medal they competed in. That level of competition represents just how tough the modern world is out there – and how fine the margins are between great success and miserable failure.