Month: May 2015

Critical thinking in the information age, by Tom Lock

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Screen Shot 2015-05-20 at 15.58.26What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

~William Henry Davies

During the Talent Innovation Masterclass, Lynda paused her keynote talk for two minutes of silence. It felt like an hour. This would usually be a nightmare scenario for a speaker; the creeping self-consciousness evoked in the audience painfully stretching out the seconds. But this was a period of controlled reflection, as attendees were asked to study a painting during the period of silence. To decontextualise and condense their focus for a moment of pure visual association.

Perhaps in the context of a presentation, enforced silence is at least initially a discomforting experience for the audience. Yet having overcome the quiet by focusing on an image, the audience were able to collect their thoughts and extract greater depth from the material before them. A singular focus allows us to engage with content in a more critical, immersive way. By stopping to think in the workplace, we open up space for creative, expressive thoughts, as opposed to functional duties. Consequently, we are more likely to innovate.

But what relevance does this have for a Masterclass on Talent Innovation? Well, with automation encroaching upon jobs of all skill levels, the Masterclass was an important opportunity for us to think about the uniquely human skills we bring to work that cannot (yet) be computerised. These quintessentially human qualities include creativity, curiosity and innovation and they are the qualities that underscore the success of our organisations. However, as Lynda cautioned in her keynote, many companies are subverting these human qualities by designing jobs that place multiple demands and obligations on people, that leave very little discretionary time, and that place multiple constraints on what people can and cannot do. The result is the squeezing out of the space for creativity – that invaluable human quality.

There is no doubt that we in live in an information-saturated age. Our working lives, living in busy cities, and widespread connectivity offer a wealth of constant data and change. In particular, visual imagery is everywhere we look. It offers the perfect form to capture the millisecond measurement of the modern attention span. Harvard Professor of Humanities Jennifer Roberts has sought to buck this trend. Professor Roberts felt that her role as an educator was to a large extent to help her students “learn to learn.” By that she meant helping them decelerate and pay deep attention to what they are studying.

According to Professor Roberts, outside of a space of learning, students are driven towards immediacy by social and technological pressures. Professor Roberts realised that she had to give her pupils “permission and the structures to slow down”, by explicitly engineering the pace and tempo of their learning experiences.

In one particular class, she asked her students to choose a single painting for a research project. Once chosen, their first task was to study the picture for three hours: a painfully long time to consider a still object. The students were asked to note down their evolving observations and any questions or speculations that arose. The time span was explicitly designed to seem excessive. Also crucial to the exercise was the museum or archive setting, which removed the student from his or her everyday surroundings and distractions.

At first many students resisted the exercise, failing to see how the small, still frame of the painting could warrant three hours worth of study. Was it possible to hold three hours worth of stimulation and thought in a single work of art? Yet having completed the exercise, many were amazed by the recesses of explorative thought that this contemplation had unlocked.

The exercise demonstrates the difference between things looked upon and things seen, offering an interesting meditation upon the parallel rise of connectivity and mindfulness in modern society. The Internet and MOOCs offer access to a wealth of material, but access does not equate to knowledge: just because we have observed something, does not necessarily mean we have truly understood and absorbed it. To turn access into learning requires time, discipline and patience.

So, how can apply this within our organisations? And, what potential does this have in helping us bring those uniquely human skills to work?

Organisations seeking creativity and innovation from their people must consider how they may be eroding their employees’ ability to focus and decelerate through too many demands and obligations. This ultimately requires a brave call from managers, who must seek to cut menial tasks and process in order to reduce the burden on talent. It requires them to free up their teams so that they can bring those uniquely human qualities to their work, and can focus and think critically in an otherwise accelerated world.

For more information on the topics covered in this blog, contact Tom:


Photograph ©2013 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

From Australia, by guest blogger Rosemary Kirkby

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bUdSQrPjAustralia has been the lucky country in the years following the 2008 global financial slowdown. However, as individuals, we’ve never quite believed that our economy was strong and recent warnings of slowing growth in China, (our largest trading partner) falling iron ore and coal prices, youth unemployment, as well as talk of a housing bubble following surging prices in our principal cities, have served to fuel national anxiety. The reality is, however, that Australia is actually well placed to transition to a new, broader-based economy, less reliant on commodities.

There is emerging consensus that growth needs to be innovation-led. The change envisaged is not incremental but potentially transformational. It will need a combination of discipline and courage, not least from our major companies who must lead the pursuit of new sources of revenue and growth. For HR this is not business-as-usual. Many of the policies, systems, processes and behaviours (our working cultures) which have served us so well at the end of the 20th Century need to be re-designed to fit the more dynamic market conditions of the 21st Century. This is an opportunity to engage all employees in designing their own futures.

One important enabling condition is the need for greater “flexibility” and there is evidence that Australian employers and their people are embracing it with alacrity. Last year Aecom, a global provider of management and technical services, analysed workplace surveys conducted by its clients to understand their employees desire to work away from the office. They found that between 31% and 54% of employees across the Resources, Finance, Retail and Media sectors would appreciate doing so for 1 to 2 days a week. This has important implications for the leasing of space in commercial buildings, for employee health and wellbeing, for workforce participation, for productivity and other areas such as transport infrastructure and the life of our cities.

Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications company with more than 35,000 employees, has demonstrated how Government legislation and leadership can work with employers and their people to accelerate the process of change. At the end of 2013 CEO, David Thodey, introduced an initiative known as “All Roles Flex”, becoming the first large corporation in Australia to ensure that everyone had access to flexible ways of working. This followed the introduction of the Federal Government’s Fair Work Act 2009, enshrining in law the right to request flexible working arrangements. It also followed two years of working with around twenty other corporate and Government leaders as Male Champions of Change, a group established by Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, to help accelerate development of women as leaders. “What I really like about this approach is that it disrupts the status quo and encourages open conversations right from the start.” David Thodey wrote in November 2013.

Telstra, along with many Australian companies (for example ANZ, NAB, Westpac, CBA, Suncorp, Lend Lease, Macquarie Bank) has over the last decade embraced the inclusive design of the workplace as yet another opportunity to have that conversation with their people about the future. It has given employees and other stakeholders, most notably customers, a voice in the design of the company’s future. It has reduced the cost of accommodation, created spaces which support collaboration, resulted in healthier, more flexible and environmentally more responsive buildings. This has put power in the hands of the organisation’s people to connect freely with others and to better manage their work and careers. This moment in history, and not just Australia’s, is an opportunity for the HR team to lead from the front, as thought leaders about the future of work, setting the need for change in the wider national and global context.

It must necessarily start with HR undergoing its own transformation, reimagining its role in developing and executing business strategy and reconfiguring its skill base so that its traditional strengths in supporting the management of people is balanced by strengths in leading business and culture transformation. Be prepared for conversations which are disruptive of the status quo but which facilitate innovative solutions to increasingly complex problems.