Here’s a few thoughts from me on the future of education, taken from the fantastic Future of Technology in Education conference on October 3rd, 2014:
And here are the slides I used:
To predict the future, understand the past
A few weeks ago, researchers at Harvard University, announced the results of an incredible project that enables computers to understand human thought, albeit at a very rudimentary level (the computer was able to understand a single word when the human thought of it). Minutes after the announcement, the world of social was filled with the dystopian visions of digital mind-control and telepathy and before you knew it we were locked back into a conversation that is essentially about the battle for power between humans and machines and how should be wary of our new digital overlords.
Of course, I don’t think the future will play out in anything like the sorts of scenarios that we see in the movies but I am continually bemused as to why we, as a society, so often see this as a conflict. Why is it always about humans vs machines when surely the whole point of what we have been doing for the last decade (although I would argue we’ve been doing it for much longer) is about the incredible opportunity that lies in front of us when instead we think about the potential of humans plus machines? A place where the technology does not replace us, but instead lifts us, it augments our capabilities to help us achieve more or deliver more engaging experiences that amaze and enchant our audiences.
This conversation is becoming more and more relevant in our industry, a world that is increasingly based on the cold, unemotional light of insights from data being harnessed by the growing power of algorithms. This is a world where, when fed with enough data, the algorithms will know what content will go “viral”, when and where it should be placed and for how long. Humans will therefore no longer be required and we can sit back on our ample backsides and bask in the glory of all that we have created. It’s usually at this point, someone hits the big red button labelled “panic” and we all start worrying about our jobs because after all, the computers can do all this stuff better than us can’t they?
At a high level at least, we can help to ease some of the anxiety for our future employment prospects by taking a little time to understand the limitations of algorithms:
I know that’s a lot to take in, but if you think of it like this – the algorithms are only as good as the data they get fed (garbage in…) and they are constrained by the rules that they’ve been provided with, they cannot yet improve the models, or connect multiple models together independently. Doesn’t this sound a lot like the age old conversation about “tools” and how they’re only as good as the people that use them? It should, because it’s no different.
So, before the digital industry rises up and forms their own Luddite rebellion (how ironic would that be?) we’ve just got to remember that by getting the machines to do more work, more of the heavy lifting, we should be pushing ourselves to make better use of that platform to extend ourselves further.
It’s no different to the debate we had when I was a kid at school, at a time when pocket calculators were first becoming affordable. I did the majority of my maths exams armed with no more than a slide rule and a log book (and I did OK thanks very much) but let me tell you, I am a better mathematician with a calculator than I am with a book of tabulated paper and slidy bit of plastic. Yes, I need to know the basic principles of arithmetic but I can get the machine to take care of the heavy lifting. We no longer have that debate and our culture and curriculums have adapted to integrate the power of the calculator to lift human beings to be able to do more and more complex calculations. Our relationship with technology, data and algorithms and their potential in our industry should be no different.
We need to remember that computers, algorithms and the data that feeds them are here to help. The success of our industry’s future (not to mention the future of awe inspiring campaigns and engagement) will depend entirely on our ability to grasp the potential they offer us. As a result, our aspiration should be to do things differently, not the same things slightly better.
If we get this right, we humans won’t have to be in awe of the machines; instead, we will stand high and proud on the shoulders of these mechanical giants and accomplish truly amazing things. The time for us to make this happen is now. The rise of the humans has already started – and the world will never be the same again.
An edited version of this article was published by The Drum.
Traditionally, in order to improve customer experience many organisations choose to concentrate on individual elements, sometimes focusing purely on the technology e.g. “if only we had a better customer relationship management tool/website/social media plan” (delete as appropriate). Sometimes they focus purely on the experience e.g. how do we make our customers happy? Sometimes they focus on their own people e.g. how do we make our customer facing people more efficient? And sometimes they focus on the data e.g. how can we measure the satisfaction of our customers?
But in today’s world of connected customers and increasing competition, what becomes vital is the ability to look to their cumulative not individual effect. But even the combination of these pillars is not enough. Crucially, all of this boils down, not to which technology, not to which process or even which people, but instead it is entirely down to the culture of the organisation that will make or break our ability to be successful in the eyes of our customers.
I recently met with the CMO of a large global retail organisation and he summarised it perfectly, he had made the connection and firmly believed that if they were going to be successful in delivering “transformational customer experiences”, every single member of the organisation needed to be empowered to be transformational – to them that meant that every employee needed not just a toolset (technology) that would power the transformation, but most importantly they needed to be supported by an organisational culture that would make it both acceptable and possible for them to drive change from their individual roles and teams.
Unfortunately, it is often the culture that becomes the stumbling block, because while many will talk of transformation, the way in which we operate is too often steeped in the past, a world of process based productivity where success is more often measured on “processes completed” rather than a broader (admittedly slightly more vague) notion of measurement of the actual outcome.
Customer call centres present an easy target for an example of this, we’ve all experienced the difference between a call centre which operates by measuring process (number of calls taken, standard call dialogues/scripts) versus those which operate based on the outcome where there are less guidelines as to call volume and (thankfully) no “script on rails” which prevents the customer from feeling valued as an individual.
But it would be easy to think that all this talk of humanity and culture means that the technology is useless or irrelevant – the reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Our increasingly connected world, and the seemingly endless ocean of data that we swim within provide the opportunity for true transformation, but we have to recognise that our ability to reach this lofty goal is constrained entirely not by the technology but by the humans that use it. And unless those people and the technology are supported by an organisational culture that empowers the individual and focuses on outcomes then consistent success in the eyes of our customers will continue to get further and further beyond our reach.
An edited version of this article appears in the Transform Digital Maturity Index for 2014
A few people have been asking for an overview of the Rise of the Humans story and I thought it would be better just to share a recent presentation where I told the story to a captive audience.
Warning: Contains mild profanity… (Well, it was an audience of digital media professionals after all and like always, I just wanted to fit in.)
Thanks go to the lovely folks at Jellyfish for having me along and for capturing the session!
When I started my career in IT, some 20 odd years ago, it was a simpler time. Personal computers were rare and ludicrously expensive and you certainly wouldn’t find any at home (never mind better ones there than those you have to endure at work). There was no public network easily available to businesses or homes and the thought of “mobile connectivity” usually required a small plastic box, a length of copper wire and a lot of patience. It was the point at which computers were just breaking free of the era of “data processing” where mainframes the size of small houses batch processed tiny amounts of isolated data much to the glee of the white coated computer scientists that fed them endless reams of punched paper. Over in a handful of garages on the American West Coast, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had done amazing things that would soon transform the world around us. There was a smell of solder, sweat and revolution in the air.
Back then, I can still remember spending a large portion of my time trying to get anyone to listen about the value this personal computer revolution could offer both their organisations and themselves as individuals. It seems ludicrous to think about it now, but it was incredibly hard work and not many people were interested. We had to spend years, first showing them what was possible, and then proving it was profitable.
Then, the penny finally dropped and we, as an industry, enjoyed the pinnacle of our success. Businesses wanted to harness the potential of technology to transform themselves but had no idea about how to go about it. They needed us, the IT Pros, to embed ourselves in their business and help them transform. We were heroes, and everybody loved us because we made new things happen. We were the alchemists, special people who could make something out of nothing, transmuting the base metals of an organisation’s information assets into something precious that could be harnessed and turned into strategic advantage.
But then, rather brilliantly, the Consumerisation of IT happened and with it came a very different attitude towards the role of technology in the workplace and beyond. With the advent of consumer technology, people started to both instinctively “get” what technology could do and paradoxically at the same time, cared less about how complicated it was (or even how it worked). By then, we had 30 or so years of lessons, experiences and scars. Technology may no longer be anything special to them (our users), but it was still special to us. We knew how complicated it was, how powerful it was (especially in the wrong hands) and we knew how much of our own blood, sweat and tears still lay on the server room floor following those endless all-nighters when we were migrating their systems, restoring their corrupt data or implementing some new solution that would revolutionise their business. And as a result the rift started, we forgot our most important lesson and started to respect the technology more than we did the people that were destined to use it.
Now look, I know I tend to make generalisations and not all of us are locked up in our server rooms, locking down desktops to prevent “stupid users” from getting themselves in to trouble, but I am worried about our future. I worry that we are working our way towards oblivion or more specifically irrelevance. Unlike the technology that swirls around us, we haven’t yet changed enough to reaffirm our true potential and time is running out.
Here’s a quick test for you to try at home. Find someone who doesn’t know what you do for a job, and ask them about the IT department where they work (better still, find a way of anonymously asking some of your own customers in the “business”). I guarantee you’ll see more eyes roll, or hear more things like “what, you mean the department of ‘no’?” than you will hear gushing praise for the genius technology wizards that help people do great things. If you don’t then I am envious of you, but if you do, then you should take it as a big signal that something needs to change, and quick.
The role of the IT Pro is fundamentally to serve the business and to find new ways for technology to help the business evolve and become more successful. We are needed now more than ever but we have to respect that our customers are different, their expectations and aspirations of technology have changed – rather brilliantly, they’re much, much higher (in some cases higher even than our own). Instead of fighting this or even simply being complacent about it we should instead be celebrating it. Trust me, having customers that actually want more from what you have to offer is a far, far better place than having customers that are oblivious or uninterested.
I know what we’ve learnt is important – things like resilience, disaster recovery, data regulation, and security are crucial elements of our past but they cannot be used as they so often are, as the excuses that ultimately will only succeed in sealing our demise.
I’m not arguing for a minute that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater and forget all of our hard learned lessons. But we have to remember that our job now is simply to find the right balance. We need to figure out just how much of the policy, structure and process we can strip away to help keep our people and organisations safe, productive and efficient whilst at the same time getting back to our original day job of helping our customers transform their business.
We must realise that the future success of the IT Pro is in our own hands, we have to rise up and stand high on the shoulders of the digital giants we have helped to create. We need to leave behind the comfort of the flashing lights and the reassuring hum of the fans in the server rooms and instead implant ourselves back at the heart of every aspect of the business we serve.
The time for IT Pros to rise is now, our future and the success of our businesses depend on it.
An edited version of this article was originally published on Computing.
“Work smarter not harder!” has become a mantra for anyone looking to survive in the 21st Century workforce, and yet, the concept of working “smarter” has presented a massive problem for both individuals and organisations alike.
The key challenge in unpicking what “smarter” might actually mean is that to be smarter you need to be able to think differently about what you need to do.
Unfortunately, over the years, our definition of productivity has morphed to become much more focused on the “process” of work rather than the “outcome” and this is at the heart of the problem we face in trying to understand how we can work more effectively.
Microsoft recently did a study of working habits in the UK, and what we found was mildly disturbing. Of key concern for me, was that from those surveyed, 77% of UK workers felt that a productive day in the office was spent “clearing email”. This is but one example of the problem of failing to identify smarter working – since when did the process of work become email itself? By disconnecting ourselves from the outcome of our work in this way (either as individuals or organisations), we are forcing ourselves down an increasingly narrow path where the only option left is to tweak the process rather than to think about achieving the outcome via a different (smarter) route.
Another classic example is provided by “multitasking” – another myth about effective working in modern times. The truth is of course is that multitasking is an entirely computer based concept, it is not a human trait and quite simply the brain is simply not designed to do more than one thing a once (well, not do them well anyway). Recent studies continue to show the cognitive (and productive) inefficiencies of this workplace strategy – human beings are basically a third less effective when they multi-task. This is as true for women as it is for men so there’s another myth usefully debunked.
What makes multitasking worse is that our brains take time to switch between contexts and return to the cognitively efficient place you were at before you switched task – on average that time is 23 minutes (again from our own studies). So not only are you a third less efficient, you introduce a massive time lag every time you switch tasks before you can harness the full power of your own cognitive capability.
Thankfully the answers are all relatively straight forward, and even better, do not rely on more technology in order to solve them. The key to all of this lies within our own gift, as it is us the humans that control our own efficiency, not the machines.
First and foremost, you need to get really focused on the outcome of the work you need to do – if you understand what the outcome is and not the process you think you need to follow in order to complete it, you open yourself up to a world of smarter working possibilities.
With the outcome firmly in mind, there are other small changes that can be a big help. Simple things, like ensuring you are in the most appropriate environment for the work you have to do, are key to your success – don’t sit in your busy, chaotic open plan office if you need to do some heavy thinking. Equally, don’t be sat working at home or in a quiet space when you need to be collaborating with others.
Focus on a daily task list and carve up your day accordingly, if you want to be more productive – which in my definition means producing more quality output, make sure that when you need to do the hard thinking work, turn off your phone, turn off your email and social media notifications and work in short 30 minute bursts of focused effort. At the end of each 30 minute period, you can check your phone and email but in a managed window of time. Repeat throughout the day as necessary until you’ve completed all your tasks.
Smarter working is within everyone’s reach and the technology we all have available to us can make it happen, but ultimately it’s up to us to change our own behaviour in order for us to finally make a lasting difference in our effectiveness at work.
As we enter the summer months of warmer weather, brighter evenings and summer holidays, how many of us will be checking in on the office until the very last moment before we step on the plane? Technology had made it easier for us to stay connected but it’s these moments when the digital deluge seems to sweep us away and rather than using our holiday time as an opportunity to focus on other activities, we become distracted by the information we might be missing in the office.
As recent research for Microsoft shows, the digital deluge is affecting everybody, and not in a good way. Our survey, Defying Digital Distraction, suggests that nearly half of the UK’s office workers are suffering from ‘Infobesity’, the over-consumption of information. It’s making us unhappy, is bad for our health, and hurts our productivity. A summer holiday is an opportunity to re-evaluate the way we engage with information, and ultimately become more productive.
We could blame technology for our problems. From the moment we wake up to the second we tuck in for the night, we want to be connected. But do we really need to check our mobile devices constantly "just in case work sends us something important" (40% of us do), and does the last act before going to bed really have to be a final glance at the news and email feed (52% of us think it’s necessary). There must be something wrong with the office culture in many companies when 45% of workers feel that they should reply to work email instantly – no matter where they are or what they’re doing.
The problem goes much deeper than we realise – and is much easier to fix than we think. We are but the first generation of our digital society. We have allowed ourselves to be overwhelmed by too much information. We spend our workdays chasing the holy grail of "inbox zero". We believe in multi-tasking, but end up doing less as we allow ourselves to be sucked into irrelevancy. We’re prone to digital distractions, but studies show that it takes us up to 23 minutes to focus again on the original task. And when we consume information, we either snack, or we binge – in either case consuming the data equivalent of empty calories.
In other words: we use technology simply to speed up old ways of working. Wouldn’t it be much better if we would fundamentally reimagine how we use information? We need to learn how data can help us connect the dots, provide context and highlight correlations. In this big data world we have to frame and ask the right questions, and turn them into algorithms that help us sift through the digital deluge.
This vision will come to nought if we don’t build the tools to capture and analyse this deluge of unstructured information. Decisions won’t be based on insights from small samples anymore; instead we will interrogate huge data sets with the help of algorithms and machine learning. Of course, this conjures up visions of Skynet and its Terminators ruling over us humans. But remember: all that machines can do is answer questions they’ve been given. In other words: setting the framework, asking the questions, interrogating the data, these are the jobs that only humans can do.
Yes, there will a redistribution of workload – from humans to machines. At the same time we will see the new jobs, and the rise of new technology rockstars – data scientists that are both analysts and story tellers to help make sense of our world.
Most importantly, we have to learn when to be immersed and connected, and when to look up and disengage. Just switching off won’t be the answer. The smart workers of tomorrow will know when technology can help – and when it can’t.
This post was originally published on Huffington Post UK
I can’t believe it’s been a year since the launch of Business Re-imagined. Helped by the incredible conversations about our future world of work that the book has led to, the last 12 months have flown by. I know that some of you have been wondering about me, this blog and the dearth of content within it, but I hope by now, you’re beginning to see the pattern – a year of very little new posts can only mean one thing – a new book (all that content has to go somewhere!).
And on that note, I’m really pleased to announce my new book “The Rise of the Humans: How to outsmart the digital deluge” which launches today. As with Business Reimagined, electronic versions of the new book will be available for free (you can download one here) and for a small fee for the paper version (available from Amazon and all good book stores). But until I can get the download links for you, I thought you might be interested in the story behind it:
A few years ago, I was with some colleagues and we were lamenting about how, as an industry, increasingly we seemed to have been missing the point of technology. It wasn’t through anybody’s fault but I now realise that what we had discovered was simply the fact that technology was no longer anything special. It was neither new to the world of work, nor to our personal lives and as such, telling people more stories about the technology itself just seemed to be wrong. Not to mention a bit dull.
In my first book (Business Reimagined), I set out to get organisations and individuals to look up not down to the potential of technology and to recognise the constraints our past experiences place upon how we perceive our ability to do things differently. We called for businesses and individuals to reimagine their own businesses and the way that they work to become much more reflective of the opportunity that our digital society offers.
However, the more we got into that conversation, the more I realised that whichever way you look at it, it is what my Dad calls the “interface between the keyboard and the chair”, the human being, that holds the keys to our success or our failure. We cannot solve the problems we face through technology alone and given we are now supplied with more technology and data than ever before (the digital deluge) our future lies in our ability to harness, not hate it.
Hate is maybe a bit strong, but I don’t know anybody that doesn’t increasingly despair at the volume of information coming at them, nor at the inescapable nature of our digital world. Don’t get me wrong, this is not about bad technology, but is instead about bad usage.
The incredible transformative devices and services that now populate our world have changed many things for the better, but our ability to really see and reach out for the full potential these things offer (or even sometimes just use them appropriately) is often overwhelmed by the pace of our lives and the rate of change that surrounds us.
So, I felt like I had some unfinished business in this space and so the idea for “The Rise of the Humans” was born. Essentially, this book continues the conversation we started in Business Reimagined and is my call to action, for both individuals and organisations to become more familiar with the opportunity that the digital deluge places at their feet every single day. As we begin to understand it more, this opportunity will change what it means to be a customer, to be an employee or an employer and, as you will find out, will even change what it means to be human. We can no longer afford the luxury of either ignorance or fear of this potential. We must understand that the digital deluge is not a threat but a gift to our society, but it will be up to us to rise up to the challenge to make it work.
The revolution starts now…
Over the past couple of years, I’ve been a huge fan of the RSA Animate series, which entails them bringing together really insightful ideas and combining them with compelling visual storytelling.
While we were working on the Business Reimagined book, we were incredibly lucky to be able to take our story to the RSA and subsequently to work with the incredibly talented folks at Cognitive Media to create an RSA Animate for our story about the future of work.
The experience was nothing short of inspirational, and there are some great lessons here, not just for compelling story telling but in how organisations (and individuals) can work together to create incredible outcomes.
While the process is pretty simple: someone gives a (hopefully interesting) talk on an important topic. The folks at Cognitive Media take a recording of the talk and sketch out a story and film it in a creative way. Simple right? Well, yes, but that simplicity belittles the incredible creative energy, focus and insight that goes into the creation of this material.
Andrew Park, (the owner of the “hairy arm”) obviously takes a lot of pride in his work, but more importantly, invests a lot of effort in order to get the right outcome. What I found really incredible is how much reading he did around the subject, ensuring that the view was both well informed, but equally inclusive of other discussions in this space.
My favourite though was just how much he tried to understand the character behind the story – I know I fulfil many stereotypes, but he managed to take both a complex story and a bunch of cultural cues from listening to me, and turned them into something wonderful, humorous and insightful. As a result, the experience was just phenomenal, it reminded me of just how important it is to understand the “client” in order to deliver an outcome that both exceeds the expectations of the potential outcome and takes both the client and the audience beyond engagement into that wonderful world of “Enchantment”.
Finally, if you want further evidence of the dedication and passion that goes into one of these incredibly engaging pieces of content, then take a look at the photo below, it hit my inbox around 4am with a note from Andrew saying “nearly there now…” (Click on the image below to see the detail behind Andrew, it’s just wonderful).