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.

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?

People are our biggest problem

A lot is being written about robotics and the impact on the workplace, as well as the form and structure of tomorrow’s workforce.

I think we are all in agreement that technology is increasing the pace of innovation and forcing us to think differently: be more customer centric, open via multiple channels to customers, and collaborate more and differently. But what underpins this is that it is always people that companies need to drive that change – exceptional, creative people.

However placing an even greater responsibility on people means the pendulum can quickly swing from people as our greatest asset to our biggest problem. My Pearson colleague Andy Stockinger, Manager of our Product Strategy Team and I presented this at the eATP conference last week. Technology is impacting how we work and disrupting old ways of doing business, so people have to change too, but you can’t simply retrain staff – an organisation needs to think and operate differently, with an entirely new attitude.

With that comes changes to how people learn and how we assess their suitability for the job. We will need to understand how technology has changed their role day to day, and figure out how to reach them accordingly, most likely introducing learning as part of their daily work, integrating training-module updates at more regular intervals and in smaller bite-sized pieces; and then testing and assessment will follow suit, quite possibly taking place live in the workplace.

Finally, let me add: Gen Z, iGen, Next Gen or however we label them, ultimately want the same thing as other generations such as Millenials and Boomers before them, namely job satisfaction, decent pay and career development.

Final score: People 1-0 Spreadsheets

tea

I recently returned from a trip where I met with the most senior heart surgeon in the country and I was hugely impressed by his humility and leadership. Very few possess the combination of exceptional business acumen plus the people skills to lead from the very top. He certainly had those and he was also keen to innovate and lead from the front. Meeting him and his team, being encouraged by them, talking about the past and visions for the future, are what makes business tick, but also why people never fail to inspire.

Working in a technology-led business it reminded me of the importance of fundamentals in doing business and why people can never lose out to tech in the development of relationships. We have a philosophy which is when you are seeking long-term business relationships (contracts, agreements, partnerships), you have to earn the trust of the economic buyer (read: Miller Heiman selling skills) in some cases a year or two before they have even decided they want to make a purchase.

Technology can certainly go some way to impressing a prospect buyer that you have the tools and the solution to their needs, but in a world where we will see more contractors around the table, more crowdsourced services and just about most things moving to mobile, it will be the people telling the stories, shaking hands, drinking tea and building rapport that ultimately win the day.

This has been going on since time immemorial. Tech can’t match that.

Everyone is worried about skills

The ShardI have traversed three continents these last few weeks, from Europe to the west coast of America, then back and across to the Middle East.

The trips all centred around assessment and skills events – culminating in apprentices week in the UK. “Everyone is worried about skills” said the BBC’s Steph McGovern at the CITB Building Futures conference. The challenges are different but the concerns are the same – whether you sit in the US or UK with their growing economies or the Middle East with their large numbers of young people, a shortage of the right skills to meet the needs of employers and their evolving industries will impact progress.

I believe technology doesn’t always help – young people make choices based on cultural changes and technological influences, and yet industries, jobs and the needs of employers are not the same. They must be aligned.

We do have a solution – young people learn from other young people, so let’s showcase our stars and use technology to promote them as case studies of success. In other words, a career in IT can mean working at Sky TV or motor racing, a career in construction might give somebody the opportunity to be in the team that builds the next Shard or Premier League football stadium. Let’s create success stories of young people who love their work and promote them as role models – then use technology to spread the word.

I close with real hope – I was very impressed by the enthusiasm and desire to succeed shown by the apprentices at the JustIT learner awards night where I shared my thoughts on the fusion of technology and education – I will continue to shout from the rooftops, that if you wake up with the attitude, desire and motivation to do a great job, invariably you will do well.

March of the Machines

robot-takeover-130412-office-worker-200x200There is a Future of Work event taking place this week, so I will add my remarks to this field of discussion. It is important to keep perspective and recognise that in this race between computers and people – people need to win. It is key that we find the things that humans are really good at, to make our pitch for the long term.

The work environment is changing. More than 1 billion people will work virtually this year; mobile will extend its dominant position; artificial intelligence and robots could automate 40% of jobs within 20 years. Those most at risk include security guards and financial advisers, but just about every clerical and administrative role is at risk.

Technology is pervading every work environment and so people have to take charge of their careers and re-skill and up-skill themselves for the next role or project in hand. Everyone has to be responsible for their own development.

For the lower skilled or those starting out, I am concerned. There will be fewer job opportunities and weakened job security for them, plus how do they take their first step on the work-progress-skills cycle?

With the need for lower-skilled roles drying up, the most worrying paradox is that we are struggling to fill jobs at a time when we have a record number of people available to fill them. The mismatch shows no signs of abating and parts of Europe have very high unemployment rates for young people. We need to do something about it and give everybody a chance.

Workplace in the classroom

future learning

I was delighted to be asked to present at the 2014 National Apprenticeships conference at the Film Museum last week. I talked about technology and education coming together and the inextricable link between learning and working.

I shared a story from 100+ years ago and the World Fair in St Louis. The man that was selling ice cream ran out of paper cups, and the exhibitor next to him who was selling waffles decided to roll them flat and curl them into the shape of a handheld cone. Thus the ice cream cone was born. Two distinct ‘ingredients’, no connection between the two, coming together to create something completely new.

Now I applied that connection to work and education (thanks Noel Tagoe, Executive Director at CIMA, for the inspiration). Companies have to be part of the education process and give young people a chance to get a taste of what the world of work is all about. We should all be giving apprenticeships an opportunity to sample the workplace and make working a part of the overall learning experience. Similarly, employers have to be involved in influencing education, so that what is taught in the classroom has relevance in the workplace. Then, when students start on their career path, they can make a contribution from day one. Let’s stop teaching irrelevancies, no wonder kids switch off and turn to their phones every 6 minutes.

Classroom in the workplace, workplace in the classroom – that is the future.

Customers First or Second?

I created some new slides this week for a series of presentations coming up at industry events and partner/dealer conferences. One slide that is firmly in my deck asks whether we should be putting customers first. Sharp intake of breath I sense!

My view is that we should be putting customers second, still a silver medal position. My reasoning is simple. If we take care of our people first, they will do a fantastic job of looking after our customers.

Furthermore, if we allow our staff a little time of their own to be creative and encourage them to do a few crazy things from time to time, our organisations will benefit. We will retain our best talent and word will spread that we are a great place to work. The best talent will start to gravitate towards us.

We have all seen the pictures of the Google offices in Switzerland. How many people do you think walk out of Google’s employ on a regular basis and how long is the queue around the block of people wanting to work for Google?

If we take care of our people first, and provide them the tools, the technology and the environment to be imaginative in the fast-changing world we operate in, they will take care of our business, generate new ideas for our future and do a great job exceeding expectations with our customers.

The daily treadmill – getting back our time

Many people are commenting on the future of email this week, predicting it’s slowdown and demise. Mark Zuckerberg, of Facebook fame, declared that “we don’t think a modern messaging system is going to be email.”

Technology has increased the pace of everything. We are never offline and once we get on that treadmill, we cannot stand still. If we stop for a moment, we invariably go backwards. But whilst it needs to slow down and we need time to think and reflect, I do agree with him. Email is growing largely due to the sheer volume of new users in Asia, but for the younger demographic, email doesn’t cut it. Our kids want something faster and easier than e-mail and amongst teenagers email usage is down 59%. How often do you see kids wandering with heads down clicking away on Blackberry Messenger?

As most people know, I am a big supporter of giving youngsters a chance. At a recent event in Brussels at the EU, a minister said if every small business employed one person we would have no unemployment problem. Easier said than done of course, but I took on a few apprentices/interns at CompTIA and it made a difference. What’s more, I unearthed a couple of real diamonds with great futures ahead of them, just buy committing to giving somebody a chance. We should all do it – it is very rewarding.

A bigger issue I have, however, is these kids and their career choices. We are too easily led by the glitz and the glory of TV fame, and it is unrealistic. 25 years ago, the three primary career choices were Teacher, Banker and Doctor; today, they are Sports Star, Pop Star and Actor. This is the X-Factor generation and there will be a lot of disappointed young people out there.

Now I love technology and continue to take an interest in its evolution. More notably, since I resigned from my current role at CompTIA (my favourite place of work to date), I have had a couple of weeks to do things for myself and email has reduced to a trickle. What a joy! How I have used my time has opened my eyes to how we should work, think and be creative ordinarily. We should not have to stop work to get access to this quality time but factor it into our daily routines – I for one will be doing this at Pearson when I join.