The Jobs Summit v The Brain Plain

April 26, 2009

“…in a knowledge-based economy characterised by uncertainty, risk and speed, binary oppositions between ‘ivory towers’ and ‘real world’ environments appear increasingly outdated. Evidence suggests that the attributes valued by research communities, with their emphasis on problem-formulation and generation of ideas, are equally valued in business and industry…”   Visiting UC Scholar, Professor Ray Land (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow) 2009

 New Zealanders, with their proud mountaineering traditions and abundance of mountain peaks, expect the view from a summit to be panoramic. The much vaunted national jobs summit and its regional counterparts don’t appear to have got beyond the foothills.

Few big companies have joined the taxpayer subsidised nine-day fortnight scheme, though more may be in the pipeline now that the scope of the scheme has been widened. The proposed public/private capital fund has been bounced by the banks. The national cycleway is either punctured or slow-tracked.  Any mention of skills development seems to have dropped out of the equation. (This had been the very positive part of the nine-day fortnight concept, though it was fraught with logistical difficulties if approached in a fragmented fashion).

 Perhaps other Summit proposals will see the light of day in this year’s budget but it is hard to detect a coherent vision-not surprising, since Job Summit participants were enjoined to take a short term view to get quick runs on the board. The process seem to have been more driven by the Ministry of Social Development  than the Ministry of Economic Development and is more about coping with the immediate effects of the downturn than facilitating the longer term causes of new growth through innovation.

 In the meantime, the economic clouds on the horizon have got darker and more threatening. Governments all around the world are busily revising downwards their worst case scenarios.  

The $10 million New Zealand’s ICT Innovation Institute (NZi3) opened at the University of Canterbury last Friday, has been launched with a longer view in mind than election cycle palliatives. 

With its state-of-the- technology workplace, including live and virtual conference facilities, it symbolises, in the words of its director Darin Graham, the level of desire UC has to connect the academic and business worlds. 

The university has had long-standing commercial connections through its Engineering School, its Antarctic initiative and its commercial development wing Canterprise.  UC was also a  major sponsor of our SmartNet initiative which started in 1997 and which helps to link the tertiary research community, innovative businesses, support professionals and national and local government in order to promote collaboration and innovation in New Zealand to enable us to compete more effectively offshore. 

 NZi3 takes the academic-business interface to a new level  by providing a working platform for the generation of new ideas and new technologies. This is no ivory tower. With the help of IBM’s super economy-sized computer and local players like Tait Electronics, Jade Software and Allied Telesis, NZi3 will combine blue skies research, cloud computing with down to earth commercial research and development.  The design of the facilities will accelerate knowledge flows and innovation  from the  rich mix of university researchers, students and business partners.

Newly appointed UC vice-chancellor Rod Carr, fresh from Jade Software, wants to create a whole ICT industry platform “… an ecosystem, where companies like Jade are the output.”  

NZi3 is a significant and exciting development for the knowledge ecology of Canterbury and a big step towards the original SmartNet concept of Canterbury as the Brain Plain. The ICT Innovation Institute is a 21st century collaborative space where the medium is indeed the message.  Watch this space!

Intellect, experience and motivation

April 22, 2009

  “At 100, I have a mind that is superior – thanks to experience – than when I was 20…”     Rita Levi-Montalcini,  b. 22 April 1909 

Italian neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986 when in her late 70s, turned 100 today. She shared the Nobel Prize with American Stanley Cohen for discovering mechanisms that regulate the growth of cells and organs.

She must have internalised the knowledge: at a ceremony held in her honor by the European Brain Research Institute last Saturday she said that her mind is sharper than it was she when she was 20.    

She also said “Above all, don’t fear difficult moments-the best comes from them.” She has had plenty of those during her long lifetime.

Turin-born Levi-Montalcini almost never made it to University. She had decided to go to medical school after seeing a close family friend die of cancer. In her 1988 autobiography In Praise of Imperfection: My Life and Work  she recounts how her father opposed tertiary studies for his daughters.He loved us dearly and had a great respect for women, but he believed that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother. He therefore decided that the three of us – Anna, Paola and I – would not engage in studies which open the way to a professional career and that we would not enroll in the University.”

She realised that she could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by her father and gained his permission to engage in a professional career. In eight months she filled her gaps in Latin, Greek and mathematics, graduated from high school, and entered medical school in Turin from which she graduated in 1936 with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery.

She enrolled in the three year specialization in neurology and psychiatry, still uncertain whether she should devote herself fully to the medical profession or pursue at the same time basic research in neurology. Her perplexity was not to last too long. The anti-Jewish laws of the 1930s under Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime forced her to quit university and do research in an improvised laboratory in her bedroom at home. She conducted experiments from a home laboratory, studying the growth of nerve fibres in chicken embryos, which laid the groundwork for much of her later research.

Starting  just after the war finished she  spent 30 years at Washington University in St. Louis where she did her most important work: isolating the nerve growth factor (NGF) from observations of certain cancerous tissues that cause extremely rapid growth of nerve cells in 1952. In 1962 she established a Neurobiology research unit in Rome, dividing the rest of her time between there and St. Louis. 

Her life’s work laid important foundations for answers to modern questions. Do we lose brain cells as we get older? Are we destined to lose our faculties as we age?  Some studies suggest that physical exercise keeps brains healthy.  There is also research that suggests that we can keep our brains working well by using them regularly. 

At 100 not out Rita Levi-Montalcini is living testimony to the power of an active brain and an active life, imperfect though it may have been in her own rigorous terms. She is currently the oldest living and the longest-lived Nobel laureate and is still adding new chapters to her life. She actively takes part in the Upper House discussions in the Italian Senate unless busy in academic activities around the world.

Ironically, in the last four years she has become the target of some young Italian bloggers because of her age and ethnicity.  However, her intellect and her experience are more than adequate defences to the offensive comments of the digerati.

Happy birthday Rita.

Talent Quest

April 20, 2009

  “To see things in the seedthat is genius.”  Lao-Tzu

 In the days before the story broke in the old media last Thursday you too may have seen on YouTube Susan Boyle wowing judges with her performance in Round 1 of the 2009 Britain’s Got Talent She sang “I dreamed a dream” from Les Miserables and by the end of it looked anything but.  

 The 47 Year old Scot probably thinks she’s still dreaming. When the story broke on TV 7 million had already viewed the video on-line, with initially skeptical judges and a cynical audience rising to their feet to applaud her enthralling debut. Two days later the on-line viewing audience was 17 million. Today it was 24 million.

 If you missed it-and it would be difficult, because television and radio had a field day over the next few days- check what the viewing number is now-and add one

 Of course, it is a great story- heart warming with great singing. Susan is unmarried, in fact, she disclosed, she had never been romantically kissed, and had given up her early singing plans to look after her parents. Her non-diva demeanour and apparently inflated pre-performance ambition to sing like Elaine Paige were forgotten from the moment she opened her mouth and sang like a bellbird. The transfixed audience acclaimed her performance from the first note in a way that couldn’t happen at Covent Garden.

The whole thing, of course, was very well stage-managed. The live audience, and possibly the judges, would have had no prior knowledge of her prowess but obviously the show’s producers knew the talent they had on their hands from the earlier auditions. The video cameras off and on stage were carefully directed to maximise the impact of comments and gestures before, during and after her rendition for what became edited into the 7 minute clip posted on YouTube. This was all a clever promotion for the show’s new season and will boost ratings wonderfully for the following rounds.

But why, despite the carefully orchestrated hoopla, does the episode still resonate with us?  Is it because we all secretly nurture or smother a talent which has not seen the light of day because of a lack of confidence or lack of commitment?

 As Barbara Kendall, New Zealand Olympic windsurfing Gold Medallist says  “Talent only takes you so far. You need planning, passion and 100% commitment to turn your dreams into reality.”            

Some people are highly talented, but not motivated. Others are highly motivated, but not talented.  Talent quest shows are littered with the slain corpses of aspiring celebrities, who had confidence by the bucket load but talent by the thimbleful.

Some children with genius potential are not identified as such at school.  They don’t fit into conformist education patterns and don’t necessarily demonstrate classroom competency at an above average level in some subjects. Their minds are literally elsewhere. They underachieve on what is being tested and have no real opportunity to prove their capabilities in their areas of talent.

Others are actively discouraged: A Munich schoolmaster told 10 years old Albert Einstein in 1889 “You will never amount to very much.”  Within 16 years he had formulated the special theory of relativity.

About the same time fellow Nobel prizewinner Ernest Rutherford, whose intellectual potential had been sparked in a sole teacher rural school in New Zealand, faced some post university challenges. In 1894 Rutherford was rejected for a teacher’s position at Christchurch Boys’ High School. It was enough to turn his mind to overseas academic research where he found his true vocation in collaborative research. The initial setback proved to be the waiting move at chess which open up new possibilities.

As Educationist Hazel Henderson has it: “Learning isn’t necessarily about curriculum in the schools. It’s about… really figuring out as early as you can in life what your passion is and what you want written on your tombstone. That leads you in a much more creative direction because you engage your entire energy.”

Facilitating this real talent quest is not just a job for teachers. We should all be on the lookout for people of all ages within our reach who have a talent to develop that we can detect in the seed and help nurture. The first step to competence is confidence: no matter what our own talents and skills, this is something we can all offer at the right time with the right perosn.

The reality show was the right time for Susan Boyle. Elaine Page has already suggested that the two join in a duet. That would really bring the  live house down and inflate YouTube’s viewing audience. 

In the meantime, perhaps Paul Potts, an earlier Britain’s Got Talent winner, could get together on stage with Susan and bring the pots to the boil.

Learning standards-no longer clueless?

April 13, 2009


 “Through the Internet, people are discovering and inventing new ways to share relevant knowledge with blinding speed. As a direct result, markets are getting smarter-and getting smarter faster than most companies.”….    Cluetrain Manifesto 1999

 In the beer queue after the Taupo Challenge cycle event a couple of years ago I spotted a bulky T-shirt coming towards me with the inscription “I just got my IQ test back…”. The other side said.  “…luckily it was negative.”  That may, of course, have been a qualification to take part in a 160 km bike event on a hot day.

 But until the recent groundbreaking work done by Dr James Flynn, University of Otago, I hadn’t heard much for years about IQ tests apart from their use in dubious business recruitment procedures.  Howard Gardner’s 1983 concept of multiple intelligences was aimed at more accurately defining the concept of intelligence. The emergence of EQ tests designed to assess a range of emotional competencies and a battery of other assessment devices seemed to have consigned IQ testing to the educational time-out room. 

 Assessment in terms of qualifications has long been a big issue in secondary schools with the changing balance of external examinations and internal assessment and a shift from a ranking system to one that is standards-based, with various degrees of the egalitarian and the meritocratic.

 Many secondary teachers would say that the paperwork involved in the various testing regimes introduced in the last two decades is too onerous and their primary colleagues share their concerns.

 New Zealand’s primary and intermediate schools have long used formative assessment tests like PAT. Formative tests, as the name suggests are aimed at informing teaching and learning-to give teachers and students feedback to improve their part in the educational process. Assessment for learning, rather assessment of learning is the catch cry, although the two are inextricably woven.

 However, an assessment of the assessors in a 2007 Education Review Office report found that almost half were not using assessment results in this way. Many schools were not using the data elicited to identify under-achievers who needed extra help.

 This finding has reinforced Education Minister Anne Tolley’s push for national standards and open information at the primary school level, so that parents know how their children are doing in terms of literacy and numeracy.

 More selective and streamlined formative assessment, plus personal observation, focussed on lifting individual student achievement and giving teachers useful professional feedback, has got more chance of success than some of the blunt techniques tried elsewhere in the name of national standards.

 But despite the fact that National’s national standards approach appears to be picking up on the best existing practice in some New Zealand schools and avoiding the devalued currency of some testing regimes in the United States, many remain suspicious of the “national education league tables” which will result from information being more readily available.

 In the information age parents and students are going to share their perceptions of teachers and schools anyway. Web sites ranking teachers are just one example.

 It is exactly a decade since the Cluetrain Manifesto highlighted the emergence of new markets outside the grip of corporate organisations: “…These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language hat is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can’t be faked.”      

The Minister of Education stresses the need for plain English in reporting. The challenge is to develop useful and sound “value added” criteria which take account of socio-economic, teaching performance and other factors to make the information more useful in the hands of all concerned.                                     

 The new standards push, handled constructively and not used as a weapon for teacher or school bashing, will help build more healthy learning communities sharing knowledge and information to the mutual benefit of all. 

Lifting teaching and learning outcomes should be the only focus of national standards. In the words of Edward de Bono   “The essence of feedback is that the effect of an action is fed back to alter that action.”

Keeping up in the downturn

April 10, 2009

“…Exciting as it is to be living through historic economic drama, you can’t just stand by and watch. You have to act–yet you have no script. So much of today’s turmoil is unprecedented that we can’t find much guidance by looking to the past. For managers across the global economy, as well as for Team Obama on its way to Washington, today’s great question is, What do we do now?”

 Geoff Colvin  “How to Manage Your Business in a Recession”        Fortune magazine January 19, 2009 

New Zealand may be initially sheltered to some extent from the global recession but 2009 will still be a year of tight budgets in the public and private sectors. Despite optimism in some official circles and the recent efforts of the G20 nations,  the recession won’t be over by Christmas. Global economic cooling could still brew the perfect storm.

 The global downturn is already taking its toll on management and workers  with lowered morale and job uncertainty.  Internationally, public trust in big business, particularly in the finance sector, is at a low ebb.  A recent survey by the UK Chartered Management Institute found one in five managers worried about job security while half its survey sample of 1100 found work had become more stressful because of tightened economic conditions. With a third reporting a freeze on new recruitments, there was a stronger focus on developing the skills of key internal staff and 80% argued that improving management and leadership skills would help them survive the recession.

 Closer to home, a March 2009 Auckland Chamber of Commerce survey, which found that businesses are preparing themselves for a medium period of little to no growth. The survey received 1450 responses, 74% of which expected their own situation to stay the same or improve. Looking at the general business environment over the next six months, the pessimists outnumber the optimists with 47% expecting the situation will stay the same or improve and 53% anticipating it will deteriorate.

Positive affirmations are important, but not enough.   We need to strike a realistic, albeit cautiously optimistic, balance between the world views of Chicken Little and Pollyanna.

Through a combination of agile strategic thinking and focused teams, some organisations have the opportunity to do well in tough times and leave their competitors trailing. 

This is the time for acting on the feeling that we are all in this together: if your end of the boat sinks so does mine.  This is  also the time for business leaders to lead by engaging the commitment and the energies of their people to make the changes which will make a difference in challenging times.

Knee jerk reactions like cutting staff, cutting marketing or cutting training are understandable, but may be literally counterproductive. 

A new business strategy for uncertain times won’t work unless organisations develop the people strategy to make it happen. The keys to surviving and thriving are what your people know and do and how well they collaborate.

If business  organisations are really going to keep up in the downturn the people who work for them need more  than corporate Viagra to see them through.