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Learning: The #1 Skill That Everyone Needs in the 21st Century

In an age of stories of ‘digital disruption’ we are increasingly seeing and hearing stories of the need to up-skill or risk seeing our jobs or even entire professions get automated.

The only key that any of us have to succeeding must the relentless pursuit of improvement. This sounds exhausting but it is accurate. Here’s why.

Technology is changing exponentially

“Technology has advanced more in the last thirty years than in the previous two thousand. The exponential increase in advancement will only continue”.

Niels Bohr, Nobel Prize Winning Physicist

Okay, so I’m not sure in what year Niels Bohr said this but in case you somehow have not heard of him, he died in 1962. It’s fair to say that the word exponential makes sense in his description of technological advancement. Could anyone have foreseen just how technologically advanced we’d be in 2018 all the way back in 1962? Or, for context, think of the impact that the smartphone has had on our lives and all of the other businesses that it has enabled. Think Facebook, Instagram, Uber, online banking…..

Routine based work will be automated

It’s not difficult to see how any kind of logical, analytical or routine based work can either be outsourced or at worst, automated.

I remember one of my first jobs out of university was in hedge fund administration. In my first two years in the position, an entirely new management information system was introduced which made my job a lot easier.

Sounds great? I certainly thought it was, at first. But it also removed some of the human value that I could bring to the job in terms of client specific routines and procedures that I was able to create and manage. These are things that I had codified in my brain and they enabled me to add value to my client’s interactions with the company.

From a business perspective, this also meant that there was a risk that when a fund administrator left the organisation, clients could be upset as the specific routines and procedures that had been developed for them could be forgotten.

For this reason, I can see how it made sense commercially to codify procedures. For one thing, it standardised procedures from fund to fund. It also made it easier for staff to take over responsibility for administering new or different funds. But if you think about the bottom line, it meant that the work people did was less valuable. This had the knock-on effect of making it more difficult to ask for a promotion or a pay rise.

If this example doesn’t mean anything to you, maybe it makes sense to draw a line with the supermarket cashier, the bank teller, the switchboard operator, the movie projectionist, assembly line projectionists. We are going to see automation of at least part of many white-collar jobs in the coming years.

Are you in the management stream? (Do you want to be?)

I remember discussing this with a friend who asked me if I was in the ‘management stream’. As I examined the work that I was doing, I had to admit that I needed to be involved in more value adding activities to make progress in my career. I wasn’t in the stream and found it difficult to envision a pathway to get into that stream. And so, I moved on.

Side note: It was my first full time professional position. Was I also immature and self-entitled to want to progress quickly? Admittedly, yes! But in terms of my intuition about technology taking away the value I could add to the job, and just as importantly, the satisfaction that I could get out of doing a good job, I continue to think that my logic was sound.

Fast forward to 10 years later. I work in marketing. The impact of digital has meant that marketing is a discipline that is in constant flux. If you work in marketing, it’s either a very exciting time to be a marketer, or it’s stressful! Why? Because things are changing so quickly.

Marketers are either excited about topics like marketing automation, AI and machine learning and what industry will be next to get ‘disrupted’ — (ahem, banking), or they are apprehensive. One thing that marketers can certainly agree on is that anything that can be digitised or automated will be. Incidentally, if you work in marketing and are interested in this topic, we wrote a report at Econsultancy called How Marketers Learn. Check it out.

Focus on what can’t be automated and learn everything you can about that topic

In the words of one of my idol’s David Bowie, “Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”. And so, we need to identify those things that can’t be automated or digitised, and learn everything we can about them. The best way to equip ourselves to do this, is to always be learning. If there is one key skills that anyone should consider improving this year, it’s the ability to learn.

Three reasons to always be learning

  1. Getting better at something provides a great source of energy. It’s true. Our brains release dopamine when we learn new and interesting things. What’s not to like about that?
  2. Everybody wants to achieve their potential. Don’t sabotage your potential by not learning new things and exposing yourself to new ideas. Learning is at the heart achieving one’s potential. To learn is to live.
  3. Change is inevitable. Here is something to ponder over — the pace of change today is the slowest it will ever be. Our best response is to suck it up and deal with it!

So, it’s important to always be learning, or at the very least, always be curious (ABC)! In the words of Socrates: “The truly free individual is free only to the extent of his own self-mastery”.

If you are interested in learning about learning, there are tonnes of great books on the topic. One of my favourites is called A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) by Barbara Oakley. Don’t let the word “math” scare you off. It’s a fun and very accessible read that focuses more on the science of learning than mathematics.

If I’ve convinced you of the value of learning, my next post will be about turning dead time, like commuting into learning time. Feedback, comments, critique and of course learning tips welcome 🙂

Note: This post was first published on LinkedIn on 25th January.

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Portfolio: LinkedIn Certificate: Marketing Foundations: Influencer Marketing

Influencer Marketing, Certificate, Sean Donnelly

Portfolio: Course Certificate: Understanding Research Methods

Understanding Research Methods

Portfolio: Course Certificate: Leaders of Learning, HarvardX

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Portfolio: Course Certificate: Learning How to Learn

Coursera Learning

The only way to stay ahead is to learn how to learn

My wife sent this quote to me today. I think I’ll save it here as a reminder of the importance of learning as THE key skill that we all need to posses these days.

Idea of the Day: “In an uncertain and changing world, there is still a competitive advantage to being human,” writes Kellogg School of Management CIO Betsy Ziegler. One key way to stay ahead? Learn how to learn.

“Often students believe that once they cross the graduation stage, they are done – they have reached the finish line. In today’s world this is an impossible end point – they can not stand still, they must have the confidence and persistence to assess their skills, understand their gaps and seek help in closing them.”

Career advice: remember the compound learning curve

Number 6 – delay gratification. Every day, invest in something where the pay off won’t come for several more years but aggregates. What aggregates? Learning.

Always be learning. 

Why marketers need to consider the difference between training and education

My latest blog post on Econsultancy:
https://econsultancy.com/blog/69369-why-marketers-need-to-consider-the-difference-between-training-and-education/

Reflections on what you need to be successful

I would highly recommend anyone watch this video.

This is Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com giving a lecture to students at his old University, London School of Economics.

This is of course useful for people starting out on their career journeys but I think it’s also worth a watch for those people already well into their career. Why? Because it’s worth reflecting on what (career) success is and what is required to achieve it.

Lewis suggests that there are 4 things you need to be successful:

  1. Talent
  2. Hard work
  3. Focus
  4. Luck

I think that intuitively we all know this but sometimes we don’t give luck the attention it deserves. Whether I think of myself as being successful in my career or not, if I examine it, I can certainly attribute a certain amount of luck to all of the professional roles I’ve ever had. In fact, more often than not it was luck and not talent that got me in the door.

Of course once inside, there was never any getting around the fact that hard work and focus really are the key attributes of success. We all know talented people who’ve never quite lived up to their potential. And we also know people who have exceeded all of the expectations of those around them. Why? Because they were willing to work hard.


On the subject of working 90 hours a week I think it’s important to point out that the speaker in this video is referring to a business that he was growing. He very much had a personal interest in the business and I suspect was engergised when he could see the correlation between his effort and the success of his business.

I’m less convinced about long hours for those treading well work career paths – lawyers, bankers, doctors etc. Why? Because unless this path is a vocation, I question how effective you can be when working over a certain number of hours.

There may very well be times when you just need to put your shoulder to the wheel in the short term but this kind of lifestyle isn’t sustainable long term. It also doesn’t afford you with time to recuperate, recharge and stay effective in the long term. Steven Covey called this ‘sharpening the saw’, the idea of balancing your resources, energy and health to create a sustainable lifestyle. Such an approach will leave room for reading, reflection and creative thinking which can be useful in accelerating ones’ career rather than getting busy being busy.

In fact, in an era of exponential technological change, our ability to think creatively, that most human of abilities may be the only thing that empowers us to maintain a sustainable career. To think creatively requires time and space.

By the way, there is research that suggets that productivity – output per working hour – improves with shorter working hours. Across the world’s richest countries, higher productivity correlates with lower working hours (see also OECD data).

Some of this is of course subjective and can depend on the individual. I for one can vouch that the amount of time it takes me to complete a task correlates directly with the amount of time I have available. In other words, even for minor projects, if I have lots of time available, the project will expand to fill the time rather leaving me with spare time to sip pina coladas. But that’s just me.

Final note, Ford’s original workers were found less productive working more than 40 hours a week, a situation likely to be even more the case for people who work with knowledge rather manually – who ever had their best ideas when they were exhausted?

Enjoy the video.

Career advice and strategic life long learning

It’s that time of year when students at Dublin City University are wrapping up dissertations and practicum projects. Many of them have already secured positions while others are looking forward to a few weeks off before getting stuck into the job hunt.

Despite reaching the end of their current university experience, there’s no doubt that they will return to learning in some form in the future. They’ll have to. The pace of technological and industrial change is so great that they can’t rely on their Masters Degrees to keep them employed for the next 40 years.

To say that we live in a changing world understates the pace and the scope of this change. Huge amounts of what students learned this year may be obsolete a decade from now when they will be working in jobs that haven’t been created yet. In fact, some of the most in-demand and jobs today didn’t exist 20 years ago. Think about the number of roles that fall within the realm of digital marketing for a start.

In the face of change, today’s graduates will need to be able to continue learning, unlearning and relearning new knowledge and skills to remain adaptable and employable. To reject such a proposition will leave you in a tough spot and some forced learning, like how to live on a minimum wage.

I’m being facetious but the point stands. When it comes to responding to change, graduates will need to continue their learning journey, at the very least by acknowledging that what it means to be competent today, may not be the same as what it means to be competent tomorrow. Unfortunately, we live in a time where what it means to be competent is changing all of the time.

Great career advice

Being open to life long learning shouldn’t conjure up images of all nighters poring over books in the library. Learning doesn’t have to be in the classroom. We can acquire learning at work, from friends and colleagues, listening to podcasts and choosing some strategically useful books to read in between Jack Reacher novels!

A friend and mentor Alan Gleeson recently shared with me a photocopy of a page from the Tim Ferris book Tools of Titans which had some of the best career advice I’ve ever read. On the subject of how to direct our learning intent, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, had the following to say:

‘If you want an average, successful life, it doesn’t take much planning. Just stay out of trouble, go to school, and apply for jobs you might like. But if you want something extraordinary, you have two paths: 1) Become the best at one specific thing 2) Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

The first strategy is difficult to the point of near impossibility. Few people will ever play in the NBA or make a platinum album. I don’t recommend anyone even try.

The second strategy is fairly easy. Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better then most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

I always advise people to become good public speakers (top 25%). Anyone can do it with practice. If you add that talent to any other, suddenly you’re the boss of the people who only have one skill. Or get a degree in business on top of your engineering degree, law degree, medical degree, science degree, or whatever. Suddenly you’re in charge, or maybe you’re starting your own company using your combined knowledge.

Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more ‘pretty goods’ until no-one else has your mix. At least one of the skills in your mixture should involve communication, either written or verbal. And it could be as simple as learning how to sell more effectively than 75% of the world. That’s one. Now add that to whatever your passion is, and you have two.’

This is sound advice indeed.

For my own part, while I’m not a recent graduate, I value learning and regularly take the opportunity to remind friends and colleagues of the value of life long learning. If we don’t I jest, we may find ourselves in the same position as the telephone exchange operator!

Telephone exchange operator

Another very worthy piece of advice was given to me by my old mentor Professor Theo Lynn at Dublin City University – “always be the hardest working person in the room”. This is something that I’m still working on.

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