How A Bunch Of Macedonian Teenagers Trumped Jay Z


My last book was about the ways in which knowledge, and learning, has become ‘open’. My next book is going to be about the power of us: how ordinary people can punch above the weight of corporations and the so-called ‘elite’ (you know the elite, those very rich people who complain about a handful of people having all the power). And there’s probably never been a better – or more confounding – time to be looking at this. I freely admit that I’m struggling to get a handle on 2016, but I’m in good company, as the events of last week demonstrated.

Paul Mason, author of Post-Capitalism and Channel Four news journalist, did his best to make sense of the world turned upside-down as he curated the Meaning Conference in Brighton, but even he is still processing where we might be headed. 

The year’s two seismic events – Brexit and The US election – are flag-bearers for something far more widespread, and it’s not clear how any of this will pan out. 2016 may well go down as the year when the power of social networks was wrested from the hands of the liberals, by the conservatives.

Consider the man who, until now, made the most of collaborative networks: President Obama. His 2008 campaign marked him as a man who galvanised millions of young, well-educated liberals to organise themselves. They got the youth vote out, raised unprecedented amounts of money and countered media smears – all while the republicans were wondering what this Facebook thing was. The digital gap was even bigger by the time of the 2012 campaign, with Obama’s social media views outnumbering Romney’s by 2 to 1.

Up to this point, the establishment of social networks was, in the main, the prerogative of the good guys – one of the reasons why OPEN had such an optimistic.demeanour. Peers all over the world were self organising for the common good. They were tracking and reporting the disappearance of political activists; they collectively paid for medical procedures for those who couldn’t afford them; they harnessed the incredible power of open source platforms to build everything from continuous glucose monitors to low-consumption cars, to malaria cures. Most of these movements embodied the Indian principle of ‘jugaad’ (good enough) and some, like Occupy, were without leaders (and – to all intents and purposes – a plan). It was all intentionally amateurish but well-meaning and highly infectious – and it was a giant leap forward from piano-playing cats.

Then along came ISIS. We seemed shocked that the same platforms that had been used to help our neighbours, could be commandeered by the bad guys – and with brutal efficiency. Twitter, once the great social connector, started to feel like a much more polarised, shouty, space, and middle-class liberals began to abandon it to the cynics and the intransigents.

But the events of November 8th have pressed the panic button among liberal media sources – and it isn’t just because they didn’t get the president they wanted. The bedrock of any traditional journalism is fact-checking: insisting that if you speak truth to power, you at least need to have your facts right.  It was their USP. Now, with the arrival of ‘post-truth’, even that seems to have gone up in flames. And Zuckerberg, Bryn and Page were found asleep at the wheel as the alt-right juggernaut ploughed into the electorate.

In the same calculated way that two well-educated British journalist-politicians – Michael Gove and Boris Johnson – knowingly told lies in order to frighten enough people to vote ‘leave’ in the Brexit referendum, so Donald Trump has used social media to devastating effect in quoting ‘authoritative’ sources for his views, knowing all the while that his ‘facts’ were sourced from fake news sites. Hell, we didn’t even know that ‘alt-right’ was even a thing until earlier this year.

Meanwhile Hillary Clinton was relying upon neoliberal cliches and the support of Beyonce and Jay Z. Trump’s celebrity endorsements were restricted to Mike Tyson and Tila Tequila, but it didn’t matter because he had a bunch of teenagers in Macedonia on his side.

Yes, hip-hop’s royalty were out-influenced by a group of young men living in Veles, a tiny town in Macedonia. From here they launched over 100 US political websites publishing, well let’s not call it ‘fake’ news, it’s just lies. Headlines like Hillary Clinton In 2013: ‘I Would Like To See People Like Donald Trump Run For Office; They’re Honest And Can’t Be Bought. or claims that the Pope, Harrison Ford and Taylor Swift had all endorsed Trump – all made up. But they provided some significant pocket-money for our young entrepreneurs. That fake Clinton story? 480,000 likes on Facebook. And these stories were plagiarised and spread around social media like a bad smell.

Of course, it wasn’t just the alt-right that was peddling lies masquerading as facts. There are left-leaning fake news sites too, but in significantly smaller numbers. Why? Because they didn’t have Clinton or Bernie Sanders driving people toward them, as Trump did, on a daily basis.

Shortly before the election, President Obama saw the danger in these sites, saying “if they just repeat attacks enough, and outright lies over and over again, as long as it’s on Facebook and people can see it, as long as it’s on social media, people start believing it,” he said. “And it creates this dust cloud of nonsense.”  Well, it turned out to be a poisonous, toxic cloud of nonsense. No-one can say that Clinton lost the election because of lies, but in the hands of Steve Bannon, Breitbart chairman, Trump’s campaign manager and soon to be chief strategist in the White House, it was clearly a well-organised, well-executed part of an overall strategy, inherited from Brexit.

One of the great democratising aspects of social networks is that no individual’s views count for more than another’s. The depressing part is that ‘the bubble’ has also led to a disdain for accurate and informed opinion. As Gove said during the Brexit campaign ‘I think this country has had enough of experts’. When such stirrings of emotions over evidence were voiced by Trump’s beloved ‘poorly educated’ they were condescendingly, catastrophically, dismissed by the left. When this stuff comes out of the mouths of those who may well be part of the next administration, then it’s far more sinister, as witnessed by last week’s interview with Breitbart’s Senior Editor, Milo Yianopoulis:

So, how should the left respond to this shift towards polarisation, nationalism and populism? Leftist UK journalists like Paul Mason, John Harris and Owen share a widely held view that the party political left is in crisis. But they are less clear on the way forward, not least because, as Owen Jones says “we know that stating the facts and hoping for the best will not blunt the right”. Some have said that you have to fight fire with fire – the left needs a form of emotional populism that Trump tapped into, and to hell with the facts.

My own view is that Clinton’s defeat has given the last rites to top-down party political dominance, and good riddance. But progressive politics is far from dead. We’re witnessing a surge in grass-roots progressive activism, and that offers not just hope, but also a way forward. And it has a powerful figurehead – a man who is re-discovering the importance of community activism, and the power of self-organising networks: Barack Obama.

“we’re going to have to redesign the social compact in some fairly fundamental ways over the next twenty years. And I know how to build a bridge to that new social compact. It begins with all the things we’ve talked about in the past—early-childhood education, continuous learning, job training, a basic social safety net, expanding the earned-income tax credit, investments in infrastructure—which, by definition, aren’t shipped overseas”

Personally, I can’t wait to see how he will support the next phase of self-organising networks to rebuild that social compact.

The left has been consoling itself since Nov 8th with a phrase, often – though incorrectly – attributed to Martin Luther King (it was originally coined by Theodore Parker): ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’  But there’s no immutable law that says that it will. We will need to bend that arc to our collective will – away from the new cynicism, and back towards social justice. We won’t be able to achieve that through the broken hierarchical political party system – instead it will have to be in challenging abuse wherever it appears, through the power of networked, distributed, self organisation.

I said in my book that the fight for OPEN was ‘ politically and commercially contentious. In reality, it marks a battle for for the control of knowledge’. Trump’s hyperventilated response to the cast of Hamilton shows just how politically contentious  that control is, and  that the fight  for civilised and truthful debate will be long and bitterly fought for. But it can be done.

Open Closed

Brexit, Trump and The Battle For Open

When The Economist runs two articles on the same theme within a week there’s a need to take note. Both pieces argued that the big split in western politics is no longer between left and right, but between open and closed. 

Open and closed, in this context, refers to borders, trade, culture – pretty much how we live. As the author of a book called OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live And Learn In The Future, you can guess where my sympathies lie. Although my book dealt specifically with knowledge, I looked at geo-politics: the book was written during the exhilaration of the Arab Spring. Although I contend that the opening of knowledge didn’t trigger the fall of dictatorships in that region, it made it easier for the revolutionaries to collaborate and make their campaigns more effective. Critics of my book cite the subsequent tragedies in the region in the intervening years as proof that Open isn’t always the victor. Events in Europe (with the rise of the ‘drawbridge-up’ brigade, most notably seen in Brexit) and in the US, through the realisation that Trump – global champion of ‘closed’ – could actually win, would seem to underline their claims.

Two quick clarifications: first, I argued in the book that the battle for open was in play, not a done deal – admittedly, we’re seeing a swing of the pendulum, but it hasn’t stopped moving yet; second, would defenders of Closed preferred to have seen Gadaffi, Mubarak et al, still in power? The emergence of Daesh is, I’d argue, what happens when Closed becomes criminal.

 Before explaining why I still think Open will win, let’s look at Brexit as an illustration of why the Economist has it right, and that Open/Closed is where the real political schism lies. Analysts have sought to explain the ‘Leave’ victory along all kinds of lines: class, regionalism (North vs South), age, race. The only analysis that hasn’t been applied is the old Left/Right. It’s as if we accept that the world is more complex than that, it’s just that our political systems haven’t adjusted.

One school of thought was that those who voted Leave were the ‘economically left behind’ – but that doesn’t explain why swathes of the prosperous South-East of England also voted to Leave, or why large economically deprived parts of Scotland voted to Remain. The only correlation that seems to hold up is that of social attitudes, seen most graphically in Lord Ashcroft Polls:

Social Attitudes and Brexit

In other words, those who wanted to pull the drawbridge up, were – by and large – the culturally  left behind. The world has changed, through globalisation, through more liberal attitudes,  – in becoming more open – and they don’t like it. ‘Taking back control’ – of borders, of migration, of law making – is the closed credo.

Closed narrowly won the battle of Brexit, and the world will hold its breath over the Trump/Clinton choice, not least because it’s the biggest play so far in the Open/Closed war. But here are five reasons why I’d argue that, regardless of the outcome of the November vote, Open will eventually prevail.

  1. Innovation – the key to our future prosperity – happens faster when businesses are open.  BrewDog, the fastest growing beer company in the world, is committed to making all its recipes open source. It wants people to become home brewers – it will even scale and distribute the best recipes received from its customers. Despite giving away its intellectual property, BrewDog’s profits rose 69% last year. Similarly, Elon Musk has made all of Tesla’s patents open-source, because he believes our reliance upon fossil fuels will end sooner that way. Sure, Apple are still an example of a closed strategy, but the chickens appear to be coming home to roost, as its well of innovation seems to have run dry.
  2. Open leads to personal freedom and control of our own lives. The Brexiters argued that pulling up the drawbridge would give us more control of our destiny as a nation state. But a nation is a collection of individuals, and keeping the drawbridge down means that we have far more control over our personal lives. The phenomenal growth of the sharing economy (and I’d argue that we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg) has allowed us to be more in charge of our lives – who’d want to give that away?
  3. Globalisation isn’t going to go away. However many walls you build to keep out the foreigners, globalisation is a thing: the whole world is on the move, and coming out of the EU will have a negligible effect on immigration. But the economic argument for diversity in the workforce was not well made during the Brexit debates. Recent OECD evidence suggests that migrants spur innovation and economic growth, contribute more in taxes than they take in benefits and fill important gaps in the workforce. This is not to say that there aren’t significant problems with mass migration, and discussing these doesn’t make you a racist. But the Closed ideology seeks to make the problems of globalisation go away by ignoring them – while snapping up cheap phones from China.
  4. Open, by making trade, knowledge and innovation accessible to anyone, anywhere, contributes to making the world a more level playing field. Being closed perpetuates inequality – the entire neoliberal philosophy rests on there being winners and losers. Trump is avowedly committed to keeping less prosperous countries in their place, thus giving future terrorists still more ideological fuel for their fires. 
  5. Open reveals our better selves. The aforementioned sharing economy is just one example of an open system that relies upon trust to be successful. Being closed fosters fear, distrust, and anger. One of the great ironies of social media – the epitome of open communications – is that it has been largely discredited by the closed brigade being allowed to vent their spleen to all and sundry. But to blame Twitter for the existence of Trolls is akin to blaming the combustion engine for drunk drivers. And for every bilious tweet there are ten expressions of empathy, or  donations to good causes.

A recent opinion piece in the Guardian warned of the futility of countering Closed misinformation (citing the £350m for the NHS lie) with logic alone. The Closed brigade appear to be gaining ground because they’re ignoring troublesome things like facts, and instead honing in on stoking up emotions.  Open advocates need to learn from Michelle Obama’s barnstorming speech at the Democrat’s convention

Open will win but it needs to appeal to head and heart. But it will win because, in the words of Google’s Jonathan Rosenberg people “gravitate towards it, then they will expect and demand it, and be furious when they don’t get it….the future of government is transparency. The future of commerce is information symmetry. The future of culture is freedom. The future of science and medicine is collaboration. The future of entertainment is participation.

The battle for Open is far from won. These futures have to be fought for, because the people who want to pull up the drawbridge on every aspect of our lives aren’t about to roll over.

£350m lie

Wilful Ignorance And The Contempt Of Expertise

£350m lie

It’s been a troubling week in post-Brexit Britain. Racially-motivated hate crimes have risen 500%, with many incidents involving people who couldn’t be mistaken for Europeans, but, still, they were foreign, so it’s OK to pick on them. It’s as though those who have been keeping a lid on their xenophobia have been given approval to tell people (many of whom were born in the UK) to ‘go back where you came from’. Actually, if they’d used those words it might have seemed relatively polite. I can’t repeat many of the insults, they were obscene, and hopefully the law will deal with them.

The extent to which politicians are to blame for the sharp rise in hate crimes is debatable, but it certainly didn’t help when Nigel Farage of UKIP declared in an interview that if immigration isn’t curbed ‘then violence is the next step’.

Alongside the  rising anger on the streets is the emergence of an even more worrying trend. In truth, this one’s been around for a long while, but went into overdrive during the referendum campaign. The complete disregard for the ‘truth’ in presenting arguments for and against Brexit, coupled with a lack of contrition when found out, seems to be a tactic used by both The Donald and The Leavers equally. As anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship can attest, truth is the first casualty when passions run high. But, most couples will say “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it’, when trying to find a way forward. Politicians like Trump, Farage, Johnson and MEP Daniel Hannan have either shrugged their shoulders or have appeared utterly unrepentant when presented with their lies.

But perhaps the most worrying trend in recent months has been the outright revulsion for expertise.  In a referendum debate, Michael Gove (former Secretary of State for Education who therefore ought to know better) opined that ‘the people of Britain have had enough of experts’. It has to be said that Gove has previous on this: shortly after taking the job at the Department of Education, when told that business leaders wanted applicants with the so-called ‘C-skills’ (collaboration, creativity, critical thinking) was reported to have said ‘business leaders are talking out of their arses’. Whether that’s apocryphal or real, he subsequently dismissed a whole cadre of academic experts, who presented evidence to suggest his educational reforms might not work, as ‘the Blob’ and ‘enemies of promise’.

How can blatant lie-telling and a contempt for facts appear to not only go unpunished, but in Trump’s case actually improve ratings? Trump has revealed an uncomfortable, even depressing, reality in contemporary politics: a large portion of the electorate simply don’t care about the veracity of facts anymore. It was the economic experts who didn’t see the global financial crash coming, and if global warming was actually a thing, why is it so cold this summer? Don’t listen to experts, pander to your prejudices and your Facebook friends instead….

Above all, public figures are now required to be angry and absolute, above truthful, these days. A while ago playwright Tom Stoppard recorded a documentary called ‘Tom Stoppard Doesn’t Know’ where he emphasised the importance of an internal dialectic, and self-doubt. Such balance of viewpoint seems almost quaint in comparison to the disregard for balance we are living with now.

For people who work in education, or with knowledge, it’s hard to know how to counter the anti-expertise virus that is being intentionally spread by Trump, Gove, and the others. President Obama and John Oliver have recently placed their faith in satire. In a recent speech he said: “It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about”

Lambasting the wilful distortion of the now infamous claim that the UK sends the EU £350m per week, John Oliver took no prisoners, claiming that the red bus making this spurious claim should have read, “We actually send the EU £190 million a week, which as a proportion of our GDP makes sound fiscal sense. In fact considering some of the benefits we reap in return…oh, shit we’re running out of bus”.

One might hope, with Trump’s ratings plummeting, and both Gove and Johnson facing the end of their political ambitions, that such ridicule is working, and that, eventually, the truth will out. I hope that a popular desire to respect objective expertise might return too. As George Bush (another lover of experts) once famously said: “Fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can’t get fooled again.”

But without wishing to overdramatise the current malaise, if you put these things together, we should not just laugh at ignorance, but also recognise that when it’s wilful (as in the case of Gove, who is an intellectual himself) then something more sinister might be afoot. Racial hatred on the streets, politicians warning of violence if their views aren’t listened to, and open contempt for expertise….when did we last see that? Oh yes, in 1930’s fascism. Let’s keep ridiculing ignorance, but watch out if they start burning books.


Why Building A Learning Culture Is Your #1 Priority

For the past few weeks I’ve been working, alongside the other guys from We Do Things Differently, with a wide range of people who work at a significant manufacturing company in the UK. We’ve been asked to work with some highly skilled shop floor workers and managers, stretching their innovation muscles, and sharing our techniques for creative collaboration.

They’ve been great, but inevitably some familiar challenges emerged: knowledge trapped in silos; lack of empowerment (whether real or perceived), and anxiety about thlearning-at-worke future competition. It’s not a wild guess to say that the majority of employees around the world would cite similar concerns about the way their company operates – after all, only 13% of employees describe themselves as engaged in their work.

Employee engagement levels have never been particularly heartening, but the importance of having engaged and motivated employees has never been greater. Why? Because of the global competitiveness we’re experiencing, the ever-increasing speed of change, leading to the shortest life-span of companies ever seen. As President Obama said, in this year’s State of the Union Address, the only people likely to stay in the same job, with the same benefits were sitting in the chamber listening to him – for everyone else, getting comfortable with the anxiety of change is the long-term reality.

We only have to look at some of the world’s most profitable companies  (Apple, Berkshire Hathaway, Google, Toyota) to see that they also have high levels of engagement and innovation. Typically, however, most companies think that engagement and innovation require inducements – financial and lifestyle perks. But the research tells a different story. Teresa Amabile, from Harvard Business School argues that “when people are intrinsically motivated, they engage in the work for the challenge and enjoyment of it… Managers in successful, creative organisations rarely (need to) offer specific extrinsic rewards for particular outcomes… The work itself is motivating… the most common extrinsic motivator managers use is money, which doesn’t necessarily stop people from being creative. But, in many cases, it doesn’t help either.”

And the missing, invariably overlooked, key to intrinsic motivation is the creation of a dynamic learning culture. People are born naturally curious, but too often formal learning – and the workplace – become devoid of curiosity. When people aren’t learning, they’re not motivated. And if they’re not learning, the business isn’t innovating. And if they’re not innovating, they’re on death row. It’s actually as simple as that.

Many companies get this, but they don’t know how to create a great learning culture. So they lay on a ton of training. Job done – we’re a ‘learning organisation’. But as Matt Moore, Knowledge Manager at PWC, Australia said when I interviewed him: “What gets badged as ‘organisational learning’ is really just the mass training of individuals. Corporations have to balance three levels of learning: the individual, the group and the corporate. When they get it wrong, it’s usually the group that gets neglected.”

At We Do Things Differently, we passionately believe that a culture of open learning enables collaboration, increases motivation and stimulates innovation. We believe that the answer is in the room, or in the network. But a true learning culture is driven by the group. It dismantles silos, empowers individuals and eradicates anxiety.

Prioritise your learning culture and everything else will follow: collaboration, innovation, engagement and, of course, performance. If you don’t believe me, just ask Apple, Google, Berkshire Hathaway and Toyota.


Open Education Needs Collaboration, Not Copyright


“This song is Copyrighted in the U.S., under Seal of Copyright #154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin’ it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don’t give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that’s all we wanted to do.” 

Woody Guthrie

Open will win. It will win on the internet and will then cascade across many walks of life: The future of government is transparency. .. The future of culture is freedom. The future of science and medicine is collaboration. “

Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior VP, Google


We’ve all googled for a particular article or paper, only to find that we’d have to pay $30 to read it and thought ‘stuff that – someone will have made it available for nothing’. Paywalls are the bane of researcher’s lives. So, when I heard about the  #icanhazpdf hashtag, it seemed, not only unnecessary, but also verging on the paranoid. 

Allow me to explain: Some academics, frustrated at the lack of Open Access to their work, are promoting ‘circumvention’. Andrea Kuszewski set up the hashtag #icanhazpdf, (a tribute to the infamous #icanhascheezburger meme) to encourage authors of paywalled articles to share pdf copies of their work. I’ve shared pdfs of my own articles, dozens of times. But by doing so, authors, having handed over the rights to the publisher, are technically in breach of copyright law. So, once the requested #icanhazpdf paper has been delivered, Andrea strongly recommends that the tweet is swiftly deleted. She describes it as ‘an act of civil disobedience – it’s just a way of saying things need to change.’ 


Like I said, ingenious, playful, but a tad paranoid? That was until I heard about Dan Pazskowski . Dan is the CEO of the Canadian Vintners Association. An article concerning the CVA appeared in Blacklock’s Reporter, a subscription-only journal. Dan didn’t have a subscription, but a colleague did, so Dan asked for a copy of the article. When Dan contacted Blacklock’s Reporter about some inaccuracies in the article, he was asked how he’d read the article, as he wasn’t a subscriber. He was then sent an invoice for $314, which he refused to pay. Dan was then taken to the Ontario Small Claims Court, where he was ordered to pay $11,470, plus taxes, in damages.

So, it’s perfectly legal to lend a friend a copy of a book you’ve bought, but not, apparently, a journal article? Dan is appealing the decision and all advocates of open access will be hoping he wins. Jonathan Rosenberg is right: OPEN will win. But vested interests will fight tooth-and-claw to hang on to outdated, and restrictive, copyright shackles.

The battle for OPEN is in constant play. This week saw some significant gains for Open Access advocates: US Secretary of State for Education Arne Duncan introduced the ‘#GoOpen’ initiative. This government campaign ‘encourage’ states, districts and schools to use open licensed education materials. In order to provide further encouragement, legislation is being proposed ‘that would require all copyrightable intellectual property created with Department grant funds to have an open license.’ A growing number of districts are supporting the initiative, which could eventually see the end of the textbook in US schools. I haven’t yet seen the response from the major education publishers, but I can’t imagine they’re thrilled at the prospect.

In the UK, the Open Access movement has largely been confined to higher education institutions. The logic in both the UK and the US is the same: when academic papers have been publicly funded by taxpayers, why should we have to pay again to read them? Most colleges around the world have to pay tens of thousands of dollars a year in subscriptions to academic journals, yet the authors of these papers rarely receive payment for their publication.

Academics want their work to be shared with the widest possible audience. As an Oxford academic recently said: ‘Most academics want to communicate things; most conventional publishing fails to do that substantially.’ Do the maths: even popular academic over-priced books sell in the low thousands – Ken Robinson’s Creativity Ted talk has been viewed thirty-five million times.

We’re witnessing ideas spreading like bush fires, through personal and social networks, tweets, Facebook, blogs and google searches. The future of innovation, and the future of research, lies in collaboration, and that can’t happen whilst knowledge is locked away and people face prosecution for attempting to unlock it.


Generation Screwed


When I wrote the final chapter of OPEN, I wanted to draw attention to what I saw as the increasingly desperate plight of young people and the bleak prospects they were facing.

Here’s how I summarised the inequality we in the West had created, and it’s effect upon young people:

“Despite the best efforts of successive UK governments,…the number of Britons in relative poverty has consistently risen since 1980. In 1970, CEOs in America earned 39 times the average salary of their company’s employees. By 2000, that multiplier had risen to 1039 times the average worker’s salary. By 2011, the 1% of wealthiest Americans, who so angered the Occupy movement, controlled 40% of the nation’s wealth. Even in the post-Global Financial Crisis era of belt-tightening, the top 1% have seen their incomes rise 18%, while middle-class incomes have fallen – so much for the power of trickle-down economics….Everywhere you look, the people who are being disproportionately punished are the under-25s. Globally, young people (aged 15-24) constitute a quarter of the world’s working age population, yet they make up almost half of all those unemployed. Here’s a depressing stat: 1 in 5 of the entire world’s young live on less than $1 a day.”

At the time, I feared I was perhaps being overly alarmist. It turns out I didn’t go far enough.

A report just published in the UK by the Equality and Human Rights Commission ‘Is Britain Fairer?’ concludes with a resounding ‘no’ – especially if you’re young. As the Independent reported:

“Young people are suffering the “worst economic prospects for several generations” as a worrying age inequality gap is opening up in Britain…Younger people have been hit by the greatest drop in income and employment in recent years compared with older age groups. They also face even greater barriers to achieving economic independence and success than they did five years ago. ..During the recession and up to 2013, people under 34 experienced the steepest fall in incomes and employment, less access to decent housing and better-paid jobs, and deepening poverty. Between 2008 and 2013, those aged 16-24 lost 60 pence an hour on average, dragging average pay down to £6.70. For the 25-34 age bracket, wages fell by an average of £1.40 to £10.60.” 

Spanish Youth Protestors
“No work, No house, No Pension” Youth Without Fear

England is not alone in its shameful treatment of young people – other European countries, and the US have been similarly neglectful. But we seem to have a government that is, at best, indifferent to the very people it should be cherishing, if for no other motive than pure self-interest. Consider what we’re asking the millennials to take on:

  1. Support the baby boomers, who will live longer than any previous generation having racked up eye-watering amounts of public debt, and starved the National Health Service they will increasingly come to rely upon (I speak as one of their clan);
  2. Address, as a matter of urgency, the need for drastic action on climate changes as the clock runs down, and we approach the point of no return of global warming;
  3. Fix a broken political system that – Jeremy Corbyn excepted – they have been excluded from, and therefore have no interest in;
  4. Reverse the growing inequality gap that the report highlights, while facing multiple vested interests and an inexplicable mood of apathy.

…and there’s more, but it’ll only depress you. I know it depresses me.

And their reward for all this? What Philip Brown described as a ‘high skills/low income’ future, increasing unemployment prospect thanks to the inexorable rise of automation and artificial intelligence, and little prospect of owning their own home and building a pension pot to sustain them in old age.

The mystery, in all of this, is the apparent absence of resistance. Where’s the UK equivalent of the excellent ‘Generation Screwed’ in Canada?  Aside from the English riots of 2011, and anti-austerity demonstration in Spain and Greece, there are few signs of widespread revulsion and refusal to accept the status quo. Some have put this down to a sense of weary acceptance, but I prefer to believe that, contrary to media portrayals of millennials as selfish and feckless, they have retained a sense of optimism.

Though it never made it to the final draft, here’s how I rationalised it in OPEN:

“I have the privilege of working with young people in a number of countries, and the miracle is that, despite all of the above, they seem remarkably free of resentment towards us. Maybe they haven’t realised yet what a bloody awful mess we’ve left them with – when they do, I’d hide the knives if I were you.”

life support machines

We’re All Stage Four

While never claiming to be a prolific blogger, I’ve been unusually quiet of late – even by my standards. This post goes some way towards explaining why. I should preface it by saying that I’m somewhat hesitant about sharing another health-related experience with you. I began ‘OPEN’ by describing my discovery of an hereditary heart condition, in fairly dramatic circumstances. Everyone said it made for a gripping opening to the book, but no-one wants to repeat themselves. I can only hope that my experiences over the past month might have wider resonance with readers.

Over the course of the summer I’d had a number of bowel-related problems which needed to be checked out via a colonoscopy. For someone as fastidious about my health – some would say obsessive -I should have done this years ago. The scope revealed a 3 cm tumour in the descending colon. The good news was that it had not spread and the prognosis was very good: the bad news was that I’d have to lose quite a big chunk of my large bowel. On Sept 8th I went under the knife. All seemed to go well, and the bowel was reconnected. I began to look forward to going home.

(Spoiler alert: If you’re squeamish stop reading now….)

A few days later, however, I began to be in a lot of pain, with a hugely distended stomach. A scan showed that the join was leaking. It’s never a good thing to have the contents of your bowel roaming free, and this poisoning (sepsis) can be life-threatening. I was whisked back into theatre for an emergency fix, lost a bit more bowel – at which point things started to unravel quite quickly. My heart began fibrillating, my blood pressure plummeted, so that I had to be pumped full of noradrenaline. Oh, and my kidneys started failing and I had to be put on a ventilator. I, of course, was blissfully unaware of what was going on (they sedated me for 48 hours, while they flushed the toxins out of my body) but my wife was told to ‘gather the family’. That’s never a good sign.

Clearly, I survived – thanks to the amazing intensive care team and Bradford hospital – but it was touch and go. I’m now back home, trying to regain some of the 30lbs I lost through surgeries and a month on a ward, and adjusting to my new life with a stoma (which may be temporary or permanent).

It’s at this point in the narrative that I’d share some flashes of wisdom, some deep existential insights. I’m afraid I don’t have any. If I’d checked out in that intensive care unit there’d have been no white lights at the end of a tunnel; no out-of-body experience. I’d have passed from one state of being, to a state of unbeing, without any knowledge of the transition. Why I survived, when others being treated didn’t, is a mystery to me – I suspect luck played a big part.

But, in talking through the enormity of what happened with my wife, one conviction kept coming back. It’s one that we often tell ourselves and others, but I wonder how many of us truly believe it, and it’s this: we often judge our lives by the things we achieve, the prizes we win, the respect of our peers. None of that matters, in the end. The only thing that matters is how we were loved. Many people never get a chance to witness the outpouring of love and compassion I experienced: from the amazing doctors and nurses who worked 24/7 to keep me alive; to the messages from friends all over the world, and the deep – but often unvoiced – love of close family. In that respect, at least, I’ve been blessed.

When you get a cancer diagnosis – and this has been my second, so you’d think I’d know better by now – your biggest concern is your staging. Stage one is good, stage four isn’t. But, in reality, we’re all stage four – we all face the inevitable end one day, even if we in the West pretend we’re immortal. I’ve been fortunate enough to have been reminded of what truly matters. I just hope I remember it next time I’m fretting about a presentation I’m about to make.

I love my work, so I’m eager to get back into it in the coming weeks. But over the past month I’ve also been reminded how fragile we all are, and I want to see and do things with the people I love, while I still can.

Be well.

Skills gap

Closing the skills (and expectations) gaps

I recently facilitated a lunchtime discussion, in London, on behalf of the Manpower Group. The event was part of a series called ‘The Human Age’, built upon their excellent report, ‘Entering The Human Age’. The major focus of our session was upon Generation Y (and Z – essentially those aged 16-25) and what is increasingly described as a ‘talent crisis’.

Hardest jobs to fillManpower’s Talent Shortage Survey 2015 estimates that, globally, 38% of employers are having difficulty filling jobs. The key factors behind this shortfall include a lack of applicants, a lack of technical competencies, a lack of experience, and a lack of ‘soft’ skills. 

Although only 14% of UK employers are having difficulties filling jobs, those attending the event (HR people from a wide spread of major employers) seemed to confirm those contributory factors. So, how have we got to this position? I would offer two explanations: firstly, we’ve divorced formal learning from the world of work; second, our brightest young minds no longer look to follow a traditional career path.

As someone who regularly works with schools and colleges – in the UK and in Australia – I’m frequently reminded of Seymour Sarason’s assertion that ‘the best way to prepare young people for the world beyond school, is to put them in that world, as often as possible’. The advent of the PISA international comparisons of literacy, numeracy and science skills has led to a relentless focus, by successive governments, upon the core skills of English and Maths, in the UK and elsewhere. Tony Blair’s target of 50% of young people going to university triggered the ‘academisation’ of learning. Filling in worksheets replaced opportunities to learn through projects, outside the classroom. Vocational training has progressively been starved of either investment or respect (despite the continuing shortage of skilled trade workers). Is it any surprise, therefore, that the biggest shortage of talent (according to manpower) lies in the skilled trades sector?

There’s a telling quote from Laszlo Bock, Senior VP at Google  on the growing mismatch between preparation for employment and the actual needs of employers:

““Beware. Your degree is not a proxy for your ability to do any job. The world only cares about — and pays off on — what you can do with what you know (and it doesn’t care how you learned it).
And in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it also cares about a lot of soft skills —
leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn.

This will be true no matter where you go to work.”

These highlighted so-called ‘soft’ skills are the ones that get sacrificed when the sole focus of education becomes preparation for the written test, rather than the acquisition of practical, real-life skills. It’s one of the reasons that both Google and Ernst & Young now say that they ignore qualifications when choosing new employees.

But if there are problems on the supply side, there are even bigger challenges on the demand side (remember the biggest cited difficulty in filling jobs was lack of applicants). Increasingly, enterprising school and college leavers are choosing not to seek employment, but to create their own jobs. My presentation identified at least five reasons why, from their perspective, smart Gen Y/Zers aren’t applying to your company:

1. It’s never been easier to work for yourself – knowledge process outsourcing sites like UpWork and make it easy to become a micro start-up. You can even start the process while you’re in school or college. And we’ve finally reached the point where the place you work from doesn’t matter. 

2. Your network matters too much for you to give it up – think about it: when most over-40s were 18 our social network could be counted on a few hands. For Gen Y, their network is global, large, and the basis of collaborative work.

3. Every business has to be a social business – in last year’s Randstad survey of Gen Y/Z, doing meaningful work matters almost as much as the salary they’re paid. This generation are looking for much more than a set of values and a CSR programme. If they can’t find a sense of fulfilment in an employer, they’ll create their own.

4. Why join the 87%? – Gallup’s last global survey on employee engagement found that only 13% of workers would describe themselves as engaged. Today’s young people have higher expectations of being engaged by their work, and are more likely to find that running their own projects.

5. You’ve more chance of being replaced by a robot – the human age is also blending into the automation age. By 2030, 47% of the world’s current jobs could be replaced by a robot, or artificial intelligence, or automated software. Ironically, some of the jobs that can’t currently be filled (think drivers of all descriptions) could be fixed by automation (for example, driverless cars, trucks and trains)

So, how can companies respond to both supply and demand-side challenges? As we discussed at the event, if organisations are unhappy about the way young people are being prepared for the world of work, they have essentially two options: 1) work with education providers – and government – to make sure the right skills, experiences and dispositions are being developed, or 2) hire based on attitude, not qualifications, and provide your own learning programmes.

But that’s only half the battle – retaining young talent requires a fundamental re-alignment of values, structures and culture with the expectations of young people. In a recent blog, Dom Jackman, co-founder of Escape The City – a consultancy which helps reorientate disaffected corporate employees – provided a neat graphic illustrating the current gap

.Five elements of fulfilling work

Closing the skills gap is a challenge that occupies the minds of many human resources directors. Closing the expectations gap has had rather less attention paid to it. We need to change that.