My calendar has just flashed up to remind me it is just 14 weeks until the year 2020. Twenty years since we fretted about the impact of Y2K and the risk that our computers may somehow turn rogue and unresponsive as the clock struck midnight in 1999.
Back then, I had a nearly two-year-old son and another baby on the way. I could only imagine the world my sons would grow up in. I certainly had no comprehension of the rapid advances that technology I would see before 2020 rolled around.
As an educator and technologist, I am programmed to be curious and adaptive to change. But in 1999, my outlook on the future was still very analogue. I could only imagine linear advances based on the structures and systems of the day.
The idea that digitalisation would grab hold of the world at warp speed, or that zeros and ones would be the building blocks of the future was beyond all comprehension. After all, in 1999 we were still seven years from experiencing the first iPhone, it would be twelve years before Elon Musk would launch the Tesla Model S electric car and sixteen years before the launch of Pokemon Go – the world’s first AR game that hundreds of millions of Gen Z would download within days of launch.
I’m writing this article from my home with my 19-year-old son at the dining table. He is contemplating new economic paradigms shaped by the rapid shift in society (globalisation, urbanisation, longevity, global warming and inequality). He is questioning the consumption models and the pursuit of assets over experiences. The commerce degree he is studying is out of sync with his values, his expectations and his future.
He questions things that I never thought about at his age. He is shaped by his past and trying hard to unbundle his future. He knows that most of his early education and analogue life has little, if anything, to do with his future.
Technology is his life and now mine. I am blessed or perhaps cursed with a fascination of the future. The future of education, the future of work, the future of health, logistics, manufacturing… the list goes on.
I have a new car. It can drive itself. Technically I am required to keep my hands on the steering wheel, in the same way, that technically it still needs a foot brake and accelerator. The reality is, neither is required. You could take away the steering wheel too, but then I would feel redundant, so I am weirdly satisfied that I still have somewhere to rest my hands. I know it is only a matter of time when the steering wheel will be gone too.
Amazon’s Alexa is in my kitchen, I call out to her to ask the time. The last time I wore a watch was about a month after my first iPhone. Speaking to a voice-activated device is second nature now. Alexa has been in my life for four years. She and I have history. Her jokes are better, and she knows my Spotify playlists better than I know them myself.
My app store on my iPhone is burgeoning. There truly is an app for everything. My day is shared with digital tools created by developers in Google-Esque working spaces around the world. Technology tells me when to wake, who to contact and what happens next. Each day, apps tell me how many steps have I walked, which route did I take to work, who deactivated the office alarm, and where I should have lunch. It also tells me where is my Uber is located as well as reminders to book my flights, transfer money, send flowers and order my groceries.
I like technology, but I like people significantly more. But as we enter the shadow of the year 2020, it is hard to commit to one without the other. Life and living, work and earning require high levels of technical confidence and expertise, while love and friendship is and will always be the most critical thing in my life.
Love. Compassion. Trust. Why are these words used so infrequently in business? Like most people, I spend most of my week connected to ‘work’ in some form or another. My colleagues are the most influential and valuable people in my working life. But the line between working and living is hazy. Work conversations spill over into my evenings and family activities, and life commitments move into my week. Life and work are no longer neatly contained in segments and the people we share our daily lives with are more important than ever.
From the time I start my day in the office, I have already had multiple interactions with staff. The first physical contact in the office is almost certainly a hug. Sometimes multiple hugs from staff as they arrive in the office. I don’t recall this from earlier in my life. Work was work, home was home. I scarcely socialised with my colleagues.
But the world now operates at a different speed. We have less defined rules. Remote working, distributed workforces, the gig economy, four-generations in leadership roles, and a multi-disciplinary workforce who straddle roles, and functions as part of agile teams.
I have led teams for 30 years. It feels weird putting that number down on paper as it feels so BIG.
However, the first 25 years of my leadership career looks nothing like it does today. No longer do I rule from the top. Truth is, I hardly rule at all. My key role is to invest in people. Not necessarily in a monetary sense, but in support and identifying strengths and capabilities, as well as nurturing and developing talent.
I have the utmost respect for the people who turn up every day (even those who operate entirely in the virtual world) to help me on my education mission. To say ‘my mission’ is not even factually accurate as the purpose we have committed to is somewhat of a joint effort. A mass-collaboration so to speak.
At last count, I have 101 staff. I think that includes me. Let’s make that a tidy round number of 100. Forty-eight are fulltime employees. A further twenty-five are permanent, but they have negotiated flexibility, that might include school hours, one day off per week, flexible remote working to accommodate other projects. The balance of staff is more flexible by choice. They work with us, but many work with multiple different organisations. They are often specialists who work on projects with specialist knowledge. They generally charge by the hour but have a long term commitment to us and what we are seeking to achieve.
Payroll doesn’t look like it once did. The most senior decision-makers are often young, or at least younger than I once would have expected. ‘Earning-your-stripes is no longer about tenure and expertise. Decision-making is often about who has the most up-to-date knowledge, rather than who has been around the longest.
Work is not a place where people come just to earn money. Our offices are not places where people arrive at 9am and leave at 5pm. There is a real sense of community and purpose.
I sit on several boards and advisory roles. I cannot help but note that conversations about the benefits of flexibility, bringing youth to the decision table, diversity of background and neurological processes, investment in the development of skills and compassion over everything else are hard conversations to have.
I look back, and I sometimes wonder how I achieved what I did. I’m no longer convinced the dictatorial leadership model I mimicked in my early career ever had a place.
Today, I look on with pride at the sense of community, love and respect that is shared. We have weekly celebrations – sometimes many different celebrations in the same week. We have regularly shared breakfasts where a staff member can share their area of interest (often their Master’s thesis or PhD), we have soup Wednesday’s, a greenhouse growing veggies, fortnightly Waiata practice, secret Santa birthday gifts, free fruit and flu vaccinations. The many various religious holidays are recognised, and we all support each other’s goals, whether it be sporting, academic or personal.
There is a real sense of belonging, honesty and trust. We believe in ‘leaving loudly’ so that no one needs to feel judged for heading off early to get a haircut, a child to the doctor or to beat the traffic home.
We are all facing massive, unprecedented change and disruption. There are no rules for the road ahead, so creating a culture of trust, experimentation and collaboration is paramount.
I have been fighting for education progress for most of my career. I genuinely believe that adaptation and the ability to remain confident and knowledgeable at times of significant change is our responsibility. I know first hand that driving change against the stronghold of tradition finds many antagonists. No one likes change, but progress is necessary and needs constant encouragement.
Trial and error, unlearning, relearning, failing and fixing are all part of the world we now live. We are no longer analogue. We are no longer able to rest on what worked in the past. We are no longer able to wait for people to ‘earn their stripes’ before they share their knowledge. We can no longer ignore the headline news on inequality, inequity, skill gaps and talent shortages.
Love and compassion have a place in the work environment. Creativity, tolerance, trust and innovation do too. This is not a carrot or stick world, but a world where we must work together to solve the challenges of our time.
Within the next 20 years to 2040, we will have nearly 10 billion people on our planet. We will have highly advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning capability. We will be entering the era of quantum computing with ubiquitous connectivity, computer-human interfaces. We will see and experience technology in ways we can’t begin to imagine.
There is no longer a place for hierarchy, silos of knowledge, power by proxy, or systems designed to keep the traditions of power and wealth.
We are all in this together. Bring your team close. Listen, learn and act. The road ahead needs everyone on board. Every contribution to be heard and every person to be supported.
With less than 100 days to the year 2020, you have everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose.