The future of learning

Africa places huge value on formal education. Knowledge has created power and stimulated economic growth. We put a great deal of effort – and money – behind pushing the young population of this continent through as much education as they can take. In Kenya and Uganda we’re now the 4th generation of parents funding tertiary education. 

The current pandemic has exposed us to the realities of education in ways we never would have imagined. Through the Internet we are now embroiled in everything from preschool playgroups to university tutorials. We’ve all become teaching assistants. We see inspirational online classes and we see stuff that makes us wonder what we are paying for. Plus we get real-time feedback from the participants, without waiting for dinner time to exchange opinions. Zoom is creating an awakening about just how substandard and overpriced education can be at every level. So, what will the future hold for education and how will customers and consumers influence that?

Scott Galloway, who teaches marketing at NYU Stern School of Business, believes the pandemic has opened the door for the technological transformation of higher education. The future, he says,  will entail partnerships between the largest tech companies in the world and elite universities: MIT@Google, iStanford and HarvardxFacebook, for example.

 These will allow universities to dramatically expand enrollment by offering hybrid online-offline degrees, value perceptions of which will dramatically alter the higher education landscape. Galloway predicts hundreds of brick-and-mortar universities will go bust and those that remain will only educate the children of the richest families.

Coronavirus is forcing American parents to take a hard look at the $51,000 college tuition fees they’re spending. Galloway says, half-jokingly: “Even wealthy people just can’t swallow the jagged pill of tuition if it doesn’t involve sending their kids away for four years. Wait, my kid’s going to be home most of the year? Staring at a computer screen?” 

At the same time, the future holds the prospect of more people than ever gaining access to higher education, albeit one that is delivered mostly over the internet. Big tech partnerships could extend opportunities to millions of people. But they will undermine the humanity of the face-to face system of learning that has evolved since the European Renaissance.

There’s educational certification and then there’s the life experience of going to university. If the experience part disappears, the degrees awarded may reduce in value as we all realise it’s not the same to be a graduate if you never went to campus. 

This might be a great time for school-leavers to take a gap year. If only they could travel.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside.

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Talented Teams

Goodness, what lessons we’re all learning about teamwork these days. We may have heard some of them before, at Company teambuilding days. And then promptly forgotten them, -the moment we returned to work. Others – such as taking a personal interest in the wellbeing of colleagues – we’ve been encouraged to put aside as Africans emulate hard-nosed western management styles.

Many leaders are rightly asking themselves whether they have the right teams in place. For some, this is a cold analysis of productivity divided by cost of employment. For others, it’s more important to work out why certain team members aren’t a good fit. In spite of established HR policies and administrative requirements … or perhaps because of them!

Last week I was leading a discussion at, specifically focused on the need for leaders to make a more inspirational contribution to their company’s recruitment process. Many of our class members (drawn from over a dozen business sectors) talked animatedly about how Human Resource practices often prevent them from finding and hiring the right candidates. Examples as simple and silly as candidates with 4 years’ relevant experience instead of the specified 5 being excluded from shortlists. And as complex as having to argue the case for creative people for the entertainment industry in the face of stone-walling over the lack of formal qualifications.

Perhaps the greatest contribution any leader can make to getting the right people on the team is to set the tone for the search. I coach leaders to pen a short paragraph on the purpose and culture of their company – to serve as the initial inspiration for the recruitment brief. The more personal they make it, the more likely they are to attract like-minded people.

The explorer, Ernest Shackleton, is reputed to have stimulated recruitment for his 1907 Nimrod Antarctic Expedition with a newspaper advertisement which read:

‘Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.’

There was nothing in there about qualifications or previous experience. Shackleton was hiring for attitude. In a way, he had written a simple psychometric test. For people who were attracted to risk, and for whom recognition was the ultimate reward.

The expedition never reached the South Pole, although they did record the southernmost latitude ever reached. But they were trapped on the ice for 22 months and had to perform extraordinary feats of teamwork and physical endurance to escape. As the motivational speaker Simon Sinek observes, ‘the fact that nobody died confirms that Shackleton had built the right team’.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside.

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Role Play

Many of us are using the current crisis to find ways to work better. Pinpointing the habitual actions we should drop. Learning to seize the day instead of procrastinating. Being more selective about the talent we hire, and more considered in how we nurture it. In this spirit of self-improvement, the way we assign titles and values to certain roles might be worth re-examining. 

Veteran workplace guru Charles Handy last week penned a fundamental challenge to Managers. Writing  in the UK magazine Management Today magazine, he claimed: “we’ve been seduced by the curse of efficiency”. Then went on to explain that good managers can be hopeless leaders, and predict the “disintegration of everything we’re used to”.

Handy is controversial. But if ever there was a time to reconsider the accepted role of Managers, it’s now. Management has always been respectable. Managers have people who work for them. They create goals and control risks; build systems and prescribe processes. In doing so, they define the status quo. Very often they go on to champion it and frustrate attempts at change.

Being a leader is riskier:  putting your money where your mouth is. Creating a vision, and gathering followers. Stimulating change and inspiring other people. Managers tend to be copies but leaders are unique. 

Today we need more leadership and less management. Even before the crisis, digital transformation was unravelling the traditional fabric of work. Moving us from groups of people working closely together and under direct supervision to more remote, often outsourced and (hopefully) collaborative models. Handy says we now face the prospect of a working world ‘beyond Management’.

One level below the Manager debate, I‘m beginning to question the role of Supervisor. This position –  above Employee and below Manager -provides the first opportunity to show leadership. Once a Manager has given instruction, good Supervisors make decisions about how best to carry it out… through the combined efforts of self and colleagues. 

But that opportunity is not always seized. Instead, many Supervisors like to enjoy the benefits of being one step above former colleagues. The small increase in pay and the chance to boss others about. Especially the ones they don’t like. 

But they don’t try very hard to better themselves.

Recently I saw two completely contrasting interpretations of the role of Supervisor. It occurred during an investigation into a nearly catastrophic failure in customer experience delivery. Two supervisors were culpable. One admitted his error and took responsibility. The other claimed it was not his fault as he was supervising others and they had made the mistake. Can you guess which Supervisor kept his job?

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside.

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Embrace Change

While we’re all being as prudent as we can in our private lives (wearing masks, queuing responsibly, avoiding groups) many of us are also learning that we can take more risks in business.

I don’t mean indulging silly enthusiasms or leaping onto the newest post-Covid future trend. What I’m noticing is an increasing acceptance that we no longer need to do business the way we used to. All those tiresome habits we and our companies practised for years are getting a thorough shakedown. We’re all asking ourselves: “Do we really need to keep doing things that way?”

Elon Musk may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but some of the changes he is making in his three businesses are actually sensible and pragmatic. In a recent letter to all employees, he urged them to ‘pick common sense as your guide’ to making work easier. Then he gave a number of specific behavioural expectations. Here are the best four:

“Nix big meetings. Get out of all large meetings, unless you’re certain they are providing value to the whole audience, in which case keep them very short.”

“Ditch frequent meetings too. Also get rid of frequent meetings, unless you are dealing with an extremely urgent matter.”

“Leave a meeting if you’re not contributing. Drop off a call as soon as it is obvious you aren’t adding value. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make someone stay and waste their time.”

“Drop the jargon. Don’t use acronyms or nonsense words for objects, software or processes at Tesla. Anything that requires an explanation, inhibits communication.”

Musk’s simple adjustments are evolutionary. By contrast, NYU Stern’s Professor of Marketing, Scott Galloway, preaches revolution to his Brand Strategy students. His three pillars of crisis management are:

  1. The top guy/gal takes responsibility.
  2. Acknowledge the issue.
  3. Overcorrect.

The word overcorrect would normally ring alarms bells, but today we are seeing Governments doing exactly that – and often being criticised for it.

But Galloway cites a World Health Organisation expert: “If you need to be right before you move, you’ll never win. Perfection is the enemy of the good when it comes to emergency management. Speed trumps perfection. The problem right now is everyone is afraid of making a mistake.” In a commercial example from 1982, Gallow recalls how Johnson & Johnson deliberately overreacted to a crisis: “They didn’t say the poisoning of the Tylenol bottles in Midwest America was an isolated incident. They cleared all the shelves of Tylenol across North America. Was it an overreaction? Yes. Did it assure the health of the public and restore the credibility of the company? Yes and yes.”

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Remain productive

Most of us are now beginning the sixth week of disrupted working. In Kenya, the Government has prudently extended existing restrictions on social distancing for another three weeks. Most businesses are planning for until July. So, by any measure, this new reality is going to be with us for some time to come.

Reviewing the progress of companies I support, it’s easy to see that the best-led enterprises have made the changes required for business continuity and prioritised the wellbeing of employees. The reason (correctly) that without employee alignment a speedy return to normal operations will not be possible.

I have been hugely impressed by the compassion shown by forward-thinking executive teams. Not simply doing their utmost to preserve employee incomes, but going out of their way to communicate in a way we haven’t seen before.

However, I am beginning to see some unhelpful employee behaviours creeping in at this stage. Some staff members are using the situation to give less effort to their work. To blame poor communications and home distractions. To drop out of group conversations and team projects.

This is not what we need at a time when, as one of our client CEOs says: ‘We need to fight for every shilling of revenue.’ There are customers to be re-engaged, technology-enabled processes to be introduced and costs to be managed. And the best-led businesses are already giving employees the opportunity to work in future-focused projects.

So, on behalf of the leaders of well-run businesses, I’d like to suggest that it’s every employee’s duty to demonstrate his or her worth. To be professional and step up to the challenge. To support bosses and colleagues.

Former US President John F Kennedy was famous for the challenge he gave his fellow Americans during his inaugural address (reminding them of the value of civic action): “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask instead what you can do for your country.” 

If you are an employee of a well-led company, you should be asking yourself the same question about your contribution to the common good.

One way of deciding what to contribute involves a pen and a piece of paper (using a pen improves cognitive ability).  Divide the paper in half down the middle. On the left side (typically the side of logic) list the actions you must do to sustain your position, department, and company. The daily, weekly, and monthly duties required of you. It will do you no harm to remember the basics. 

The right side of the paper gives you the opportunity to be creative. List here the new contributions you want to make, Think about the ‘old’ ways of doing things that surround your normal work. Decide what you want to change. Be bold, you may not get another opportunity like this. Then engage your managers and colleagues. The process will do you, and them, the world of good!

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Remain Upbeat

As we soldier on through the current situation, it’s interesting to contrast the attitudes I see in the different businesses I engage in. You may be surprised to hear that overall they are positive, as good people and well-run companies seek dividends from COVID-19.

I do see, in some traditional companies, a tendency to report the downside without looking for the upside. I sat in an executive video meeting last week and felt I was on the deck of the Titanic, with the ship’s officers only reporting the inexorable rate of sinking. That did nobody any good, so I’m now coaching them to look for and share positive news as well.

And there is plenty of it, coming from so many sectors that I have to conclude we should take heart. Our leadership programme (now meeting on video bi-monthly) makes a point of beginning with a good news round up. Here are the themes that emerged last week.

Family & fitness. Everyone is enjoying more home time. Families are tighter. Parents are supporting online schooling efforts. More importantly, they are enjoying playing and talking with their kids. Most are sleeping better, and taking time to exercise and eat sensibly.

Essentialism. We are making do with less. Realising what is important, and where costs can be cut. Identifying gaps in products and services; staff behaviours and procedures. Many reported that remote working seems more efficient, with more project close-offs than usual.

Business activity.  To contrast my Titanic experience, a number of sectors report business continuing at normal or slightly reduced levels. That came from manufacturing and, surprising, floriculture. The latter report that though demand is lower, prices are higher.

Future focus. Businesses that have acted to protect staff, liquidity and capacity are now moving into the ‘Plan Ahead’ phase. Much involving fast-tracking automation and digitisation – supported by customers who are now prepared to take up new initiatives. But I’m encouraged to see that the human dimension is firmly on the agenda. Tackling failings in customer experience that have been allowed to remain ‘the way we do things around here’. Adjusting to a future of remote and shift working that will improve work-life balance and (I hope) reduce future rush hour jams. Engaging staff in a more genuine way (noting how well staff have reacted to current changes, and benefits coming from open collaboration with labour unions).

Companies who discuss the ‘glass half-full, rather than half-empty’ are more likely to prosper after COVID-19. Because business is a collaborative human activity. And human beings are way more emotional than they are rational.

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Virtual meetings

While the current crisis restricts our movements, we can learn new business behaviours to help us now and in the future. First on my list is mastery of the video call: something many of us do poorly. Remember video calls when you couldn’t see or hear colleagues properly, when no one knew when to talk or shut up; when no one was clear on what was agreed? Let’s now decide to win at video calls. 

Begin with the right environment. Take a video call in a place where you can draw boundaries-  the simplest being a shut door. Point your web camera at a blank wall, away from common areas like kitchen or hallway. Ensure you are well lit or you’ll look like a criminal informant trying to preserve anonymity. Side lighting is best, and make sure there’s no window behind you. Look directly at the camera you are using, not a monitor off to the side. Bandwidth may slow down in many neighbourhoods. 

Test video and audio by calling a friend at the start of the day -that also reduces social disconnection!  We all now realise how sensitive microphones are, so do what you can to stop dogs barking and kids chattering. Make sure you are connected to the call, and have set up your earphones and camera correctly at least 5 minutes before the start. Mute your mic and camera as a default. 

Wear appropriate clothing. It’s tempting to wear a smart top and sloppy bottoms, but what if you have to get up suddenly? Dress as you would for work.

The most empowering thing about the present situation is anyone can become an effective meeting Chairperson, if they wish. Colleagues are crying out for someone to bring order to video calls. ‘Carpe diem’ and go back to the basics of good meetings.

First have an agenda and a record. Set both up on one shared document before the call. Then appoint a ‘secretary’ to type the record as the meeting progresses. 

Chair should run the meeting at a brisk pace. When there is a gap, people start wandering off.  Check comprehension and consensus frequently. Use phrases like ‘So, we’ve all agreed a daily CRM update is vital, and Yvonne will action that. Correct?”

Encourage participants to signal when they wish to talk. Verbally, by saying something like “Hi it’s Jim, with a question.”  Or hold up a hand, so Chair can cue them in. 

Coach colleagues to ‘be bright, be brief, and be gone’. People must think about making their point in the fewest possible words. Chair can politely stop people repeating themselves: “Thanks Sam, that point is well made.”

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Time to be kind

So, we are in the midst of a global pandemic. A health crisis that needs to be understood and requires new and disciplined behaviours from all. An economic crisis on an unprecedented scale. Most of all, a threat to the way society is organised and human beings engage.

All evidence suggests the crisis will pass. The questions are ‘what damage will it do?’ and ‘what shape will families, businesses and institutions be in on the other side?’

In the coming weeks, I’ll provide thoughts on how employers and brand owners can best face the current challenges. But let’s begin with the importance of humanity; because we are fortunate to live on the African continent, where social cohesion remains strong (at this time). In a modern Western city, individuals may pass away unnoticed. Here in Africa, despite the restrictions we will have to endure, the desire to remain connected to family, friends, and colleagues will remain strong. But we will need to constantly remind ourselves to be kind.

Employers should be kind and patient to staff who are adjusting to the strange and distracting environment of home working. And even kinder to staff who are being sent on compulsory leave, sometimes unpaid, or being released from employment. These fellow human beings and their families will be very anxious, and rightly so. All their previous certainties, however fragile, are being swept away. 

Brands, and the people responsible for them, should be as kind and generous to customers as possible. The market remembers how brands behave in crises: customers will quickly abandon their loyalty to unkind brands. Carrefour supermarkets have displayed in their stores a written commitment not to increase prices during the crisis. Lufthansa has promised that, when flights resume, any air ticket can be rebooked without charge and the value can even be applied to a flight to a different destination. They even pledge a 50 Euro rebooking incentive for when the time comes … as it surely will. 

Some banks are dropping charges and thinking about advantageous rates – but we’re still waiting for one admirable bank to make a grand gesture to customers that helps to change perceptions of the whole category for the better. Real Estate firms will shortly face refusal to pay rent for empty premises. Which will be the first brand kind (and smart)  enough to offer a rent amnesty? 

And small businesses will need to hold loyal customers close. Take a personal interest in their wellbeing; deliver when they cannot collect and not be greedy on pricing. 

Unlike some Nairobi Matatu touts yesterday, who were charging fellow Kenyans a 500% premium on fares.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Tech transformation

Every month, when I meet our Amalgam Leadership Class, the hottest curriculum area is Digital Transformation. We learn how to revolutionise supply chain, reduce leakage and suck data from customer interactions. But the biggest lesson is that success in digital transformation is impossible without culture transformation.

Give your CTO free rein to buy hardware and software. But, if you don’t decide in advance the new staff behaviours you wish to develop,  that investment will be wasted. Behaviors like anticipatory customer service, faster collaboration, and smarter decision-making.

Last week, as a customer, I have had one great experience of digital transformation, and two bad ones. 

Looking online for a supplier of bathroom lighting, I browsed a number of ‘brochureware’ websites without discovering anything helpful. Then I hit a site that deployed a ‘bot’ to talk to me. Within 90 seconds I discovered they had a range of solutions within my budget. I logged off and, 60 seconds later, I received a personal email from a human being, welcoming my custom and giving me directions to the shop. He even told me they were shutting for 4 hours the next day for a funeral. A super blend of  technology and humanity. Next week, I shall go to that shop and buy.

Here’s one of the bad ones. I had occasion to revisit a leading building supplies outlet to return a defective product. I did so with a sense of dread because it’s one of those businesses that was set up for trade customers and their attitude is ‘the customer is trying to get one over on us.’ So, when you collect your purchases, they open every box and show you them, so you can confirm the pieces are there. Trouble is, after looking at your fourth towel rail, your attention can wander. Mine did, and I didn’t notice that an essential piece was missing from the back of the product. Mea Culpa. 

In fairness, the customer-facing staff did not say ‘no, we won’t replace it’. But they were not empowered to make a decision, so they escalated the problem to ‘the Manager.’ So I sat there for 90 minutes, initially in good heart. At my fifth progress enquiry I was told that the Manager was reviewing the CCTV footage of my collection experience to determine how this deficiency could have happened. 

Deciding that this was not a good use of my time, or his, I sought him out. Face to face he remembered that I was a customer, and immediately replaced the item. His words were ‘Better we sort you out, before we sort ourselves out.’  

How very true, Sir.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside

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Rethinking workspace

Diligent Executives in Africa take an interest in the kind of workspaces they provide for employees. They wrangle about the pros and cons of open-plan offices. They challenge IT to make virtual meetings easier. They engage employee committees on areas for rest and food. They compete with each other on who gets which private office.

This marks a positive evolution. The previous ‘Lions of Business’ generation focused only on how the look and feel of the workspace projected their own self-image. Real or imagined.

More entrepreneurial businesses in Africa are opting for shared working spaces. Many are incubated in such environments, which tend to be cheaper and are certainly more sociable than formal offices. 

 Employee attitudes towards workplaces are also changing as people express the need for more flexible ways of working. Two hours in Nairobi’s chaotic traffic is stimulus enough for most staff to ask why they need to be tied to the 8-5 routine of yesteryear. 

Work-life integration is now becoming something people look for from employers, so offering a workspace that enables this is important to attracting and retaining talent. Millennials, in particular, expect more from their work environment. According to a recent UK study by KPMG, 69% of Millennials would trade other benefits for a better workspace. 

WeWork is an American commercial property company that began life providing shared workspaces for technology startups. Now they say: ‘WeWork is no longer only for co-working and startups. As people increasingly demand flexibility and enterprises crave more simplicity and agility on a global scale, large companies are embracing shared-space solutions that enable them to grow faster.”

In its first ten years, WeWork developed the insight that “employees perform best when they’re engaged and have the opportunity to connect on a human level”. So the company designs workspaces that encourage collaboration and interaction through innovation. Technology powers its network. Members are able to turn everyday frustrations like booking conference rooms and checking in guests into easy and painless experiences. WeWork’s members now range from large enterprises like banks to sole traders like designers, writers, and app developers. They benefit from being part of the WeWork community, and their employees enjoy access to discounted health insurance and gym memberships, special events and an internal social network for professional development.

30% of the Fortune 500 are now members and many say it has helped them enter new markets. But WeWork’s journey hasn’t been smooth – they lost US$2bn in 2018. In January 2020 co-founder McKelvey said the strategy to save WeWork is to slow down expansion and focus on the product.

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