How we think is not enough and what we think won’t matter

Today, (October 2nd), David Milliband will address the Labour conference and project himself as “an ordinary bloke” that went to a comprehensive school in an attempt to present himself as one of the people in contrast to upper-class elitism, a tag attached to the current Cameron regime. The plebs versus the posh. In other words, traditional labels and stereotypes that we have created and entrenched into our own society over decades; centuries even.

So, rather than encouraging the next generation to perpetuate these divisive representations and to adopt our own rules, maybe we should encourage them to make their own. In business and in society. How do we break this cycle? How do we protect our own assets whilst allowing in a new World order? How do we retain the “good” without perpetuating the “bad”? How do we ensure that the next generation can create, innovate and develop a better business ethic and social conscience?

There is not enough time and space to cover all of the issues involved and I am not, as ever, preaching, but I would offer the following by way of a starter.

I remember a post-Sunday lunch dinner discussion that I had with my brother some 20 years ago. I was doing quite well climbing the corporate ladder and he was, and still is, in teaching. He has, in fact, spent the vast majority of his working life in special-needs teaching. My points were generally as follows:

– that we should stop teaching “facts”

– that we should “teach” children how to think,

– that we should “teach” children how to act

– that we should “teach” children how to communicate

Following a rather emotional debate about teaching methods, measurements, management and policy, it was clear to me that my points were seen as idealist and not pragmatic. My position, however, remains largely unchanged and I have retained the integrity of this in my management and leadership roles (to the extent that I was permitted) throughout my career as director, manager, “leader” and coach.

I will elaborate.

Facts – do we actually ever get them? “You can’t handle the truth” may be fairly easily translated into “you can’t handle the facts” in the way that we are delivered “news”. Editorial, selective presentation, bias, commercial implications, funding etc all influence the presentation of the “facts”. Examples are endless and simply by reading the same story in two different newspapers or watching two different TV news programmes will confirm this. Does anyone actually know and understand the “facts” of the investigation into Blair and the Iraq War?

So, facts are not always clearly available. Data, however, is. Data is more accessible and available than ever before. The “youth” of today have more data available to them, free and streamed directly to them, than any generation before could have dreamed of, but what to do with this data? Well, we have to create new systems and methods of turning this data into useful information. This requires the searching, filtering and prioritising of data. It requires the reducing the content of this mass data by the application of context. Information is contextualised data. From this information, they need to create knowledge. Knowledge is developed information; more context, less content and then hopefully they can develop this knowledge into their own wisdom (applied knowledge). They have the tools so we need to create learning and development environments in order that they can turn this into wisdom of their own and this approach needs to be encouraged after the education system has “finished” with them. That is, within the working environment.

How to think, act, communicate?

It seems to me that there is little point in attempting to change the economic climate by perpetuating the economic models. We no longer have an Empire, but we trade. We no longer have work houses but we manufacture. We no longer have the slave trade but we have service industries. Everything changes and we may be facing the greatest changes for decades so by encouraging and supporting new business models, new career paths, new terms of trade, new democratic business environments we can allow in the next generation of value creation. The era of the golden handshake has, to all intents and purposes, gone for most of us. Career paths are at best like crazy paving. In a recent meeting on Permaculture we discussed the fact that some of us had up to 5 “business” activities that ranged from extended hobby to volunteering, from social enterprise to “full time job”. This, I believe, is the future. Preparing the next generation for such an economic climate may be the best legacy that we can leave. Not everyone can be Alan Sugar (thankfully) but if we embrace the possibilities of multiple roles and multiple income streams, the internet business and the part-time volunteering job, the weekend hobby-job as well as traditional “career” options, then maybe we can encourage even more flexible, varied and enjoyable ways of working (and living). I would also hope that we can also see the folly of our ways in chasing the “yankee dollar” – money is NOT happiness, a whole generation of baby-boomers on Prozaic are testament to this. Well-being, social value, community integration, relationships, fulfilment and sharing are being increasingly recognised as being as valuable and meritable as simple financial assets. Maybe we should spend the remainder of our time in charge delivering this message. It is NOT all about the money.

I am sure that we all remember our first day in the office. From education into the “real World”. We wore our best suit (uniform), sharpened our pencils and waited for tasks. We also had to conform to the expected behaviour – internal politics, status and structure, seen but seldom heard. I believe that this mentality also needs to be resigned to the bin. If we were, for example, to soften our views on dress code this does not mean that we instantly bring in dis-respect and dis-order. I am no more or less “unruly” these days because I choose not to wear a tie than I was when I “blue-suited and booted” my place at the corporate table. Simply speaking, I believe that companies have a duty of care; not just the HR policies, CSR statements and measurement criteria, but a duty to invest in and develop all their employees. To value them and to create an environment whereby they can feel secure, recognised, valued and fulfilled – happy even! (A happy workforce is a productive workforce). I also believe that each and every employee, young and old, has a personal responsibility to perform. We should be creating business environments into which the next generation are aware of both sets of responsibilities irrespective of formal measurements, organisational structure, roles and rewards. Behaving responsibly and being protected and rewarded responsibly – authentic action from both parties.

Communication is, I understand, something of a catch-all. However, the increasing use of media tools – social and business – means that how and when and where we communicate our “self”, express our self if you will, is far quicker and far reaching than we could have imagined even 5 years ago. Our Facebook “tags” are as likely to appear across the interview desk as is our formal CV. We have many facets and if business does not find a way to accept and embrace all of these facets without applying the “old rules” then not only do they run the risk of becoming a dull and dead environment in which to work but they also run the risk of missing the most innovative, creative and expressive talent. So who hasn’t had a drunken photo taken? Allowing the next generation to form its own business rules and regimes that cater for the many ways in which we communicate and collaborate may be the saviour of our business systems. Encourage open communication, suspend generational judgements, create and environment of sharing knowledge and of free-exchange of ideas. THIS is the new World order; embrace it or die.

If you think that your business will fall if you allow Facebook or Twitter activity “at work” to happen, or because the next generation wear jeans to work or if they use terms and jargon that you don’t understand or if they are not interested in your rewards system or if they fail to accept the standard rules for communicating their ideas, then it will! Why? Well because this is the new order. This is the new World.

The new generation is already here. They are already using tools, creating, sharing, networking, communication and thinking in ways that we did not. Every generation feels threatened and disillusioned (to some degree) with the one that follows; we cannot allow this to happen now. Our business climate, our business models, our business systems will not work in the future and the future is pretty much here. Rather than developing the next suit we should be actively developing the next generation of entrepreneurs. Free in spirit, expansive of thought, democratic with knowledge, responsible, authentic and innovative. We need to address the system of business and let the individuals create value both within and without it. We are change-makers and change always threatens. It is US that need to be educated; it is us who need to change. The young entrepreneurs will succeed and fail on their own merits but we can create an environment that nurtures and develops them not one that tries to squeeze these eminently round pegs into our often very square business holes.

By way of closing the loop, my brother is now a Head Administrator of 2 special needs schools and spends all of his time on budgets, measurements, scorecards and policy; I spend all my time coaching and developing others to be authentic, individual, unique and creative. Mmmm, food for thought?

2 Comments on How we think is not enough and what we think won’t matter

  1. Fantastic as ever Phil. Full of hope for the future, but realistic with it.

  2. Well argued case, as ever.
    I particularly agree with the way the access to information has changed, and will continue to change, the way we think about education and learning.
    When I was at school education was all about learning facts – dates, formulae, chemical elements etc etc. I was very good at it. I passed lots of exams and learned virtually nothing as all of that random collection of information seeped out of my mind as readily as I had crammed it in. This is because most of the facts were not anchored to understanding or interest.
    Engagement is the key.
    I can still bore anyone who is mad enough to walk along the beach with me with my facts about the seashore – some 30 years after I wrote my first paper on the distribution of Patella Vulgata, limpets to you, along the intertidal zone. The facts were retained because it was coupled with interest for the subject.
    The access to information is now greater than it was then with google a click away rather than, in my day, a stroll to the library. So we must change from cramming and exams to engagement and understanding. Life long learning will be the result.

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