Margaret Heffernan on Learning

By Future Talent Learning

Um, I'll step back a little bit. I've been working with a company recently that is undergoing the dreaded digital transformation, right? Everybody here has probably been through it or has still, you know, like the song kind of, you know, waiting weighted down. Um, and it's really been a fascinating thing to watch.


I mean, I've always run tech start-ups, so we didn't have to transform, you know, we were, we started digital and, and stayed that way, and it's been very striking because in this particular organization, Uh, you know, mostly what they've done is what lots of companies do, which is they hired consultants to imagine the digital transformation, and then they hired consultants to do the digital transformation.


And the consequence of all of that is we're now totally dependent on these people who are not dependent on us. This is not a great relationship, right? What's happened is we have lots of people coming in at a very high price, re-designing how to do work that will put everybody in the company who are working at very low prices out of work, and they need their help to understand the business.


But surprise, surprise, they're not getting a lot of enthusiasm. And it's gruesome and it's long, and it's complicated and it's very political and it's very emotional. It's really painful. And it isn't nearly as fast as it's supposed to be, but the company bought into this idea, we need to move fast. So we need the skills right away.


We can't afford to develop them and we need to be where the gig economies are a thing. So we're just gonna hire people on a zero-hours contract and this is gonna be super efficient, isn't it? And it isn't, it isn't efficient in a meaningful sense of the word, and neither is it very. because of course what we are not doing is taking people who understand the business and saying, let us teach you these skills.


Let us develop your career so that you are part of the future of this business. But the company isn't doing is saying, I know you don't know how to do this, but I have confidence that you can. What we're not doing is building resilience into the future. We're building dependency and fragility into a future that we don't know.


So in following all the fads of the last decade or two, my own belief is we're making the company very much less resilient and creating problems that we didn't need to. At all. But we do that only in the interest of speed. Now, there's another problem also, which is that the people at the bottom of the ladder who are suffering the sharp end of this transformation aren't asking.


They aren't saying, we could do this. Please retrain us. And I think for me, watching this at some distance, I'm really interested as to. Yeah, and I've thought about this for a long time, for years in fact, and the conclusion I've come to is that nobody has a very positive view of learning. Learning is something you do at school.


You have to do it. Maybe you go to university, but then when you graduate, thank God that's over. I've slogged through the exams. I've kept my parents happy. I've done my homework, I've done my coursework, I've done all this crap, and now thank God I'm done. This is the only country I have ever worked in, and I've worked in a lot of countries where I hear employers complaining that their people are overeducated.


It's mind-blowing. You know, we don't want people who you know, who have ideas above their station. If you wanna get above your station, you better have those people. If you want your company to get ahead of that, their station, that's what it's going to depend on. So we have this terrible story around education and training.


And of course, training is for the lower downs, and education is for the higher-ups, which is just learn what you've got to. To get by. It's a kind of just-in-time pedagogical strategy. And you hear this in government all the time. Of course, we just need to do STEM or we just need to do this. We, just want to educate people in the skills they need today.


Well, what about the skills tomorrow? You know, those of you who've read 'Uncharted' will. Researchers into forecasting argue if you're incredibly scrupulous and you do forecast looking at a very broad array of sources, you assign probabilities to your forecast and you tweak your forecast every day according to new information.


And when your forecast comes, do you, you go back and you look at what you got right and what you got wrong. If you do all of that, which most of us don't do, then maybe the furthest out you can see is 400. If you're not as rigorous as that, it's 150 days. So there's nobody in this room who knows what skills we are going to need five years from now, 10 years from now, 15 years from now.


So the notion that we can do this just-in-time education gig and give people what they need and chuck 'em out is nonsense. What we need to be. is imbuing people with a love of learning and a tremendous aptitude for learning so that when someone comes along and says, we need to do a digital transformation, how do you feel about transitioning from, I don't know, finance clock to data analyst?


They say, cool. You gotta teach me fantastic in work. Brilliant. And I'm reminded as I was saying this, I wasn't planning to talk about this, but I will anyway. Um, when I wrote my second book, which was about the rise of female entrepreneurship in the US, uh, one of the fantastic people I, um, interviewed was an entrepreneur who invented a material that kept computers.


Cool. Um, because we are at a stage where actually the faster the processing speed, the hotter laptop, And she was a brilliant chemist and she found a solution for this, and she bootstrapped her business. Um, so she didn't have gazillions from Silicon Valley. And so what she did is when suddenly she, her business took off, um, she brought in lots of people.


Mostly she was in Cleveland, mostly Hispanics who'd never graduated high school. She got the Cleveland, uh, board of Education to send her teachers, and she ran the classroom. Studies in company time for everybody in that company. And she was very blunt with me in saying, actually they built the company. I didn't build the company.


And a single mom, you know, a 17-year-old single mom who joined the company at the very beginning. I remember interviewing, who is now Head of Production for a company whose technology changed the lives of everybody in. , that's the potential people have. It's the potential we throw away when we think this person who looks just like this is only capable of this.


And as long as they can do that, it's a waste of time giving them aspirations above their station, please, let's not educate them more than we absolutely do. There's one other thing I want to say. This has been a long theme through the glorious collaboration that I've had with Jim, and this is a kind of a sad, negative cultural tendency, um, to disparage the arts.


Now, of course, I'm going to say is totally self-serving, right? Because I'm an English graduate, so is my new best friend. Because I discovered she lives more or less around the corner from me, which obviously is a state secret, which is Eliza Manning Buller who ran MI5, we're both English graduates.


So obviously we're socially and economically useless people, right? the arts are so fundamental to great work. I've. Spend been spending all of today, most of this week, and most of last week, writing five essays for Radio three, which is fundamentally about artists and uncertainty. I mean, it's a very radio three thing, right?


But why am I doing it? Um, I'm doing it because I think I, everywhere I go in business, everybody's talking about uncertainty. Oh my God, everything's so uncertain. We don't know what's gonna happen. Do you know? Shit keeps coming at us. We don't know how to cope. Artists know how to cope. This is absolutely at the core of their being.


What are the characteristics of artists? First of all, incredible curiosity. They go off and find stuff and look for stuff, even when they aren't quite sure why. They're fantastic at reflecting on what they see and what they learn and what they notice. All sorts of random stuff. You know you read about Dickens walking the streets of London at night.


Read Virginia Wolf, read Henrik Ibsen's, love of gossip, right? These people are street sweepers. who go through the world picking up bits of information and looking at it and thinking, what does this mean? Curiosity, reflection initiative. I think I know what it means. It means enough so I can start working before anybody asks them to.


And they are so comfortable with uncertainty. They stopped very often without a PLA plan. Fans of Lee Child, anybody in the room, he writes all his books without the faintest idea when he starts, what the story's going to be. Exactly the same with Murakami. Talk about uncertainty. I kind of have a vague idea of the first scene and then we're just gonna have to see what happens.


This is as far from a business plan as you could hope to get, right, but they can do. . And then they refine it and they refine it and they refine it. And what that takes is stamina. Huge mental toughness. I don't know if it's any good. Nobody knows if it's any good. I don't know if people are gonna like it.


I don't know if it's gonna work. I remember talking to Sebastian Barry about writing Days Without End. He spent nine months writing the opening chapter and woke up one morning, threw away all but a page and. Wrote a completely different opening sentence and discovered he had a new writing style. Talk about facing uncertainty, and every single artist when they get to the end of a work thinks could have been better.


Better start again. That's resilience, curiosity, reflect. Right. Initiative, stamina, and the ability to keep going. I cannot think of characteristics. We need more in an age that is characterised by crisis. We need people who are picking up all sorts of weak signals that we can't see. We need people who are trying to make sense of what they're seeing.


We need people who are willing to get it before they really get any instruction because they think there's something out there we need to do. And why do artists do all of this? Because they have a deep desire to know what they're made of. Am I up for this? Am I good enough to do to execute this idea? That's quite vague in my head, which as it turns out, is exactly the number one motivator for.


The whole popular rhetoric around entrepreneurs is it's all people who want to be unicorns and billionaires and all sorts of fantasy nonsense people, right? What the data shows is the number one reason people start off on an entrepreneur's journey. I just want to see if I can do it. And lots of people discover that they can't and then they go back to their job and it's okay.


But they've had the a. They understand that uncertainty is where you discover stuff. You know, the whole point of a detective novel or a horror film is its fantastic uncertainty. It wouldn't be interesting otherwise. And artists have this characteristic, and so I think we have to start reconceptualising what good work looks like.


Who good workers look like and start pricing something more imaginative and capacious, then can they just do this task at this rate, at as lower price as we can afford while we've got these consultants in re-engineering a business that we know will longer.


So I'm thrilled with what Jim's doing.


I'm thrilled with all the support that I know he gets from all of you. And I think we're, you know, you don't need me to tell you we're in an age of crisis.


I think, and this is my optimism coming through. I think we have the people, I think it's up to us to cherish and develop them so that they can see in the. What, once upon a time somebody saw in every single one of us. Thank you very much.

Note: If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio of this video. Transcripts and closed captions are generated using speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.


In an age of uncertainty, transformation at an organisational and business level is vital. Listen to Margaret Heffernan's talk about learning, leaning into uncertainty and why acting like an artist will awaken curiosity and lead to innovation. 


Key points 

  • Resilient companies develop their people. 

  • We need to change the perception of learning so that employees volunteer to re-skill. 

  • ‘Just in time’ education doesn’t work. We need to instil within people a love of, and aptitude for, learning 

  • We want to educate people in the skills they need today, but what about the skills of tomorrow? Nobody can predict the future.

  • Cope with uncertainty by leaning into curiosity. Uncertainty is where you discover stuff. 

  • In an age of crisis many organisations have the people they need. It’s up to them to cherish and develop their people in a meaningful way. 

More about Margaret Heffernan 

Dr Margaret Heffernan's sixth and most recent book, Uncharted: How to map the future was published in 2020. It quickly became a bestseller and was nominated for the Financial Times Best Business Book award, was one of Bloomberg’s Best Books of 2021 and was chosen as the “Medium Best of the Best” business book.


Margaret’s third book, Willful Blindness : Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril was  named one of the most important business books of the decade by the Financial Times. In 2015, she was awarded the Transmission Prize for A Bigger Prize: Why Competition isn’t Everything and How We Do Better,described as “meticulously researched…engagingly written…universally relevant and hard to fault.”


Her TED talks have been seen by over 27 million people and in 2015 TED published Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes.


The future of work: learning, uncertainty and transformation

Unpredictability within society, and in workplaces, means that it's important to have a workforce that can respond to uncertainty. 

Forward-thinking organisations recognise that change in their businesses must be at least as fast as the change happening in the outside world. Radical transformation means that both individuals and organisations must continuously reinvent themselves, developing new abilities and investing in new skills. 

Imbuing people with a love of learning will ensure they can respond to change, enabling businesses to be more agile and resilient. For 20 years, firstly as Changeboard and now as Future Talent Learning, we’ve explored the skills, mindsets and behaviours people need for the changing world of work. 

Find out how you can upskill your employees with the most in-demand human-centred skills, which can be applied and practised in the flow of work.




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