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.

From Mad Men to Math Men

2022 Skills OutlookI had a lot of fun presenting at an uplifting Pearson event in London recently and we talked a lot about millennials, their expectations, work styles and torn jeans!

The World Economic Forum’s latest Future of Jobs Report underlines the need for analytical thinking, innovation and creativity, but I sense it is important not to run down a path that promotes only the STEM subjects and instead also takes into account the significance of humanities and soft skills as part of our well-rounded future workers. Data crunching isn’t much good if the individual cannot articulate the findings with her colleagues.

I stand by what I said at the session – I don’t think the needs of millennials are wildly different to when I was searching for work in the mid-1980s. Yes, they operate slightly differently; yes, the major shift is that there are so many of them entering the workforce at once so there will be style changes (no 9-5 is one example), but the good old-fashioned needs of making a contribution to something important and a career in which they can visualise growing and succeeding remain the major motivators.

I recognise that the Don Draper character from the Mad Men world of advertising in the 1960s isn’t well placed for our times, but we don’t all have to be brilliant mathematicians like John Nash from the movie A Beautiful Mind either. There is a place for all of us.

Automate the work – humanise the jobs

Let’s make a further case for humans: there was a great feature in this week’s Sunday Times on President and CEO of Hewlett Packard, Antonio Neri. Talking about artificial intelligence and how it relates to his business, he said, “AI will not replace human beings, but will enable human beings.” He goes on to say they are making their infrastructure more intelligent and reliable, thus allowing humans to focus on innovation.

I truly endorse this and want to underline that we need to automate the work and humanise the jobs – let the machines do the mundane and our teams add value to our customers.

It will help give purpose back to our people.

Can you smell the roses?

Day in the life of corporate vs startupHow many of us can remember the New Year or what we did in December?

We are well into 2019 and have launched straight into the roller-coaster of another year. Whether we are employed by a large organisation or self-employed, it seems everybody complains of the same thing; taxi drivers share anecdotes of people rushing in and out of their cabs with no time to eat or think, but nobody appears to be doing much about it.

This has to be the year to slow ourselves down and build some time into the schedule to think; not to stop or do less necessarily, but to focus on what delivers most impact and brings in the results to achieve more.

I had a few decent ideas in 2018, how to help one of my clients, how to better position a team of people for their future, how to add value at home, but these ideas came on train and plane journeys. Journeys with quiet time where I couldn’t be interrupted.

There is no irony that my post on social spaces which received the most feedback was one where technology should be put down for a moment to savour what life has to offer. Can we learn from this: should we introduce ‘make a connection Monday,’ ‘talk to a human Tuesday’ or ‘work on a solution Wednesday?’

Whatever it is, and with spring in sight, we need to slow down to create time to ponder, to think a little more long-term and to stop and smell the roses.

Are things really changing?

Somebody prompted me to write this, by asking earlier this week, “Are things really changing?” I think they wanted me to say “well, not really” so they could go back to doing the same thing in the same old way, probably because it would be easier to do so.

We don’t have the space here to quote all the areas of change, but one of the most impactful will be the demographic shift. Populations in the US and UK especially are aging: in the US 10,000 people turn 65 every day.

By 2035, the number of Americans that will be of retirement age will be larger than the number of people under 18 for the first time in US history. It is a setup that has never been experienced before, plus it will be interesting to watch 5 different generations all interacting in the workplace with their varying characteristics and demands.

Sprinkle over the top some of the unchartered trends and behaviours and we have a melting pot of transformation; an experienced 55-year old protects their information and doesn’t share too much, whereas an 18-year old is upset if the public doesn’t read and respond to their weekend exploits. This change in living very public lives will be an area of contention and yet this is just one behaviour that is cascading down to organisations and forcing them to rethink.

No one quite understands millennials but they are hugely important to the future – they will have different views, ideas and work styles for sure, but more importantly they will make up 75% of the workforce by 2025. There will simply be so many of them and they are going to be the largest generation ever to enter the workforce. We need to attract them on their terms, or they will choose not to work for us.

Remember the (recruitment) ‘milk round?’ Back in the ‘80s we used to attend job fairs wearing horrid ties pleading for companies to give us a chance. Today, organisations must shift from creating an environment where they assume that people need to work there to one where people want to spend their time.

We are mobile, geographic boundaries do not exist, attitudes are disruptive and the work day is being redefined. I feel sorry for companies that refuse to change. I feel more sorry for manufacturers of mens ties!

Women in Learning & Leadership

I was proud to be invited to speak at the Women in Learning & Leadership (WILL) event today in Manchester. It was a great meet with some very good speakers and lots of interaction and participation – Pearson at its best!

I opened with a quote from Accenture that stated digital is the main reason half the companies have disappeared from the Fortune 500 since the year 2000, and we delved into technologies impacting the workplace, education trends we need to be cognisant of and especially the need to attract and retain the best talent.

I referenced one well-known UK businessman who said, “You have to Kill Your Business,” and whilst dramatic, I agree that you have to embrace digital transformation and do business totally differently. We lamented the demise of Nokia and a former CEO made a great comment that they didn’t do anything wrong necessarily, but somehow the industry disrupted around them. The frightening aspect of this is that the traditional graph with a 30-degree growth line is now even referred to as the “path of doom;” in other words, if you are only growing at that rate, you may not survive the disruption. Plus those that are complacent are at greatest risk.

We don’t own our ideas for very long either, according to a former Marketing Officer of McDonalds – today we own our ideas “for about an hour and a half” before somebody is snapping at our heels updating and improving what we started. A simple yet great line cited from Cisco Chairman John Chambers summed it up: “It’s no longer a question of if or when the digital revolution will happen, we are in the middle of it.”

Somebody asked about AI in education: educators and teachers must not stop the drive of AI in the classroom; it is in the real world so if we don’t introduce it into our learning, the next generation wont be ready when they go out to the workplace – we must think of the future.

I closed by using the Fox and Hedgehog story to answer a question about why Pearson VUE is so successful at what we do – we have a laser focus on what we do and we hire and develop the best people.

What if I live to 100?

UBS adThe back page of the current Fortune magazine carried this advert (right) for UBS and it is worth underlining the impact of living for longer.

If we live to 100 in future, it is more than just savings plans and investments we will need to worry about. Very few will be able to retire and live off their savings for half a century, so how will we cope? We will most likely have a career that spans 60-years and have to learn new skills as generations change; furthermore cycles and trends of work mean where we start will in no way resemble how we finish working.

So as our knowledge and skills become redundant, we will have to update just to keep up. Education needs to start thinking today how to prepare future generations for such evolution – will a once in a lifetime education be the correct solution, surely not? The traditional college/university model was invented when our education would get you your first and last job, but our kids will hop from project to project as they see fit – choosing who they work for.

Because we live in a very dynamic society where people have lots of careers, where technology moves faster than we can keep up and whatever we learn expires very quickly, we need to ask if we are no longer faithful to one company or even one profession, why should we be faithful to one type of education at one institution, and at only one point in our lives?

Is the future big or small?

FreelancersWe have just returned from a couple of weeks driving along the Californian coastline, one of my favourite holiday spots, where I noticed a change.

When I first started visiting America I remember marvelling at some of the larger department stores such as Bloomingdales, Macy’s and Nordstrom. Today, these stores look like they are stuck in time, and that is if they are there at all. I sensed more boutique businesses, smaller operators and niche products which are of course supported by mammoth online platforms like Amazon that encourage them to thrive.

How much is technology responsible for this and have the large retailers missed the trend change, or have they been hamstrung by huge properties in malls and cannot move fast enough? Online shopping and service has certainly dented any rosy future for them in their current form.

As consumers we are happy to pay for convenience as ordering online has become slicker and quicker and where product choice is unparalleled. Equally no consumer can tell how large or small an online player really is; plus, who cares as long as the product is genuine and delivered on time to our doorstep.

Combine this with the fact that 20% of people have sold something online in the past year (Pew Research), the reduction in free time most people complain of, and the increase in freelance and contract work, and it all points to a new way of living and shopping which we have taken in our stride. It is likely to gather pace, never to return.

Part of me was saddened to see the old stalwarts fading or missing, but it reminded me that we are on a treadmill of tech-led change, and if we stand still we invariably go backwards.