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.

IT is the place to be

Pupils across the UK have received their A-level results and are wondering what to do next. Like every year, we can expect that nowhere near enough of these talented individuals will pursue a career in IT.

The reason for this is surely not that IT has little to offer, or that it is too specialist, or even that it is boring, for it is none of these things. But this is how a lot of young people see it. Until we start doing something to change this perception, we will struggle to attract the required talent.

IT flies our planes, broadcasts our football matches, and records and edits our music. IT systems monitor the effects of global warming, fight terrorism, and ensure hospitals function. New innovations like the iPad and Facebook have made billions and changed the world.

None of these are dull professions and they are all areas which interest young people. They are more interesting than most office jobs, and a heck of a lot more interesting than bar work, which seems to be the fate of all too many talented young people.

But as an industry, we are seen by many 16-18 year olds as sitting in a basement with a computer. We need to change this perception and get these people, who are currently making big career decisions, excited about IT. We need to start focusing on all the exciting and varied opportunities that IT offers, and to communicate this to young people through education, careers talks and the media.

It’s down to the people again

I was closely watching the exchange in the US over the debt issues and President Obama supported the Gang of Six plan to reduce trillions of debt over 10 years. In a news debate on TV, the panelists claimed it was led by somebody with whom the President had a close relationship over the years. No surprise.

Now apply this to technology and to every walk of life. Despite the new platforms and tools now at our disposal, doesn’t business still get done when people make a connection with each other and find a situation that benefits both parties? Hasn’t it always been the case, and will it not always be that way? I think so.

I do enjoy the US – such good service and huge choice of everything you care to buy. Little wonder that so much innovation stems from there. It seems to have this knack of combining ideas and people to create some of the most innovative and forward thinking applications of technology.

Look at the image above. In a Brookstone store, I found this cushion; it was a remote control embedded within the softest material. Tacky in some respects, ingenious in others, but it sells! The US has such a willingness to try things, to embrace failure as a step in the right direction; as one leading author claimed, “By failing in a project or task, that is one less mistake that can’t happen next time.”

I enjoyed being a part of the Service 800 event where the theme was excelling in customer service. I had a chance to present to the group and engaged in some interesting conversations with individuals from 3M, GE Healthcare, Lexmark, Siemens and others, as well as some quite brilliant personalities from CompuCom. Some of these great people were kind enough to share a testimonial for me (see the tab above). Europe can benefit so much by watching and learning from these service experts.

Keeping IT cool

Gadgets are the new cool – everyone wants the latest mobile phone, iPad 2, Motorola Xoom, Samsung Galaxy and a myriad of others. In fact, at the recent CRN PartnerConnect conference at the Ricoh Arena, where we talked about cloud business opportunities and mobility, our CEO Todd Thibodeaux brought all of these devices with him in his hand luggage and showed them to the audience, which generated a combination of laughter and interest. Todd also talked about making IT cool (http://blog.comptia.org/2011/05/09/making-it-cool/) and I would like to pick up on this.

When I present to audiences about some of the trends in technology, eyebrows are always raised when I ask about engaging our young employees and utilizing social media for business. Why? The younger generation are digital natives and they live and breath the technology that so fascinates my generation. For them, it is their oxygen, a gateway to the outside world. They also understand how it works, how it connects, and how to maximize it, so why do we push back and in some cases not allow social media sites in the office during work time. My view is that we should encourage its use, and also invite the younger generation to tell us how we can build sites to target the new generation on the platforms they are so comfortable with. That is how we can tie “cool” and “IT” together, and create a new harmony in the workplace. More importantly, by doing this we make our companies a more exciting place to work and we will attract the new generation to want to work for us. Today they have a choice, and those with the skills and talent will decide whether they want to add us to their CV. They are vitally important to our success, regardless of how cool we think our company is – we must engage them on their terms, because they are both our workforce and our customer of tomorrow.

Above was the view at the Ricoh Arena from my room when I drew the curtains in the morning. What a great idea to combine corporate hospitality suites with hotel bedrooms to maximize use of the space. Another cool.

Teachers

The students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year’s worth of material in 1 school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a one-and-a-half year’s worth of material. That difference amounts to a year’s worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a bad school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. If you rank the countries of the world in terms of the academic performance of their schoolchildren, many countries could climb the ladder simply by replacing the bottom 6-10% of public-school teachers with teachers of average quality (Jack Welch tells us to do this in our companies every year). After years of worrying about issues like school funding levels, class size, and curriculum design, many reformers have come to the conclusion that nothing matters more than finding people with potential to be great teachers. Summarised from Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent new book ‘What the Dog Saw.’