Coming to grips with the ‘never normal’ in Asia: Sweden’s ‘digital Harvard’

never normal Asia
Image by 0831986335 | Bigstockphoto

Companies getting to grips with digital complexities in Asia have been chalking up the future of work at the top end of their leadership agendas.

It is one of the factors escalated by ongoing COVID-19 related recovery efforts, constituting the ‘Never Normal’ era.

‘Never normal’ is a phrase encompassing multiple complexities arising from the pandemic, rapid digitalisation and a fragile global environment, according to Melanie Cook, a member of the Digital Management faculty, a tech humanitas and managing director of Hyper Island Asia Pacific, an organisation which positions itself as Sweden’s ‘Digital Harvard’.

Melanie Cook

She started the interview by explaining that “Humanitas is a Latin word that combines hope and education. I believe with optimism, hope and education; we can build and use technology that is beneficial to mankind.”

Earlier this year, in an exclusive interview with Disruptive.Asia, Melanie outlined some strategic actions for business leaders to generate greater productivity and innovation from their digital adoption initiatives.

Continuing that theme, Melanie cited data, which confirmed the extent to which people’s lives have been disrupted – especially with the business of work.


A study carried out by MAS (the Monetary Authority of Singapore), and abs (the Association of Banks in Singapore) identified six key learnings about the workplace of the future.

Of these, three impact professionals in every sector: designing for hyper-agility, embracing new technologies as we adapt to a new way of life, and finally, that science and data should lead the way.

These three require a radically different approach to decision making, she said.

“Whereas pre-pandemic most leaders could rely on their extensive experience and expertise to make and justify decisions, as our world has been turned upside down, these do not hold the same lessons moving forward.”

Changes in decision-making speed, process, and environment are some of the most significant challenges professionals face today.

“We can no longer rely on looking someone in the eyes as we shake their hands on a deal. We need to make decisions amidst disorientating uncertainty that could cost lives and livelihoods. The stakes are high,” she continued.

“Nonetheless, from what I have seen, leaders and teams alike are stepping up to the challenge as we see the demand increase for courses such as Human-Centred Design, Business Agility and Data-Driven Decision making even over our more technical courses such as Digital Technologies and Exploring Platform Business Models.”

She moved on to examples closer to home: “A high for Hyper Island is the work we do with the help of the IBF (Institute of Banking & Finance), which allows us to be part of the transformation of our Smart Nation. The Singapore Government’s strong support of education and upskilling has already impacted lives and livelihoods, tripling the number of learners that have come through our door.”

“I juxtapose that with our low point when we first went into code Orange [Singapore’s Disease Outbreak Response System Condition levels]. For a few days, we asked ourselves, how on earth can we provide the same level of care and education online? Like many other educators, we were reeling as the consequences of sudden but necessary Circuit Breaker measures took hold.”

“To think, today it is our New Normal, or, our Never Normal as we now call it,” Melanie said.

“This shot in the arm, please forgive this pun, was a vaccine against inertia for us. In the pit of our stomachs, we knew that the learning was moving online, but the low engagement rates of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Learning) gave us a false sense of security.”

Within three weeks, Hyper Island’s team had pivoted all courses to online learning journeys, a move that proved to be a turning point for the organisation.

“Instead of asking how do we do what we do online, offline, we asked ourselves what a gamified, engaging, effective learning journey would look like,” said Melanie. “Despite the disruption, we managed to create magical learning experiences. These continue today, and we continue to update them every iteration.”

Shift in style

Turning to whether there had been enough recent changes in attitude and leadership styles generally, Melanie opines: “Not enough. I am not at liberty to name our clients or the learners that I am referring to. However, many have identified the need for change, but there hasn’t been a noticeable shift. One learner in leadership asked me last week, ‘how do I shift from must-change to want-change?'”

There is no silver bullet, she said. The top three things that need to be done are:

  1. Creating a purpose that is better for our planet and humanity as a whole. Change is hard. Unless people have a purpose beyond getting my job done, there is little motivation to move from must-change to want-change.
  2. Embedding the values of entrepreneurship and agility in the workplace.
  3. Breaking up the mammoth task of change into bite-sized chunks to assuage fears around ‘biting off more than we can chew’.

Forging forward

Looking ahead, Melanie cited Churchill’s counsel to ‘never waste a good crisis’.

“And we haven’t. We have taken this worldwide forced digital business transformation experiment by its horns and are channelling the energy towards our transformation.”

“This year, we are scaling as a school as we double the number of students on our Master’s program and become persistent partners in corporate academies. We are laying the groundwork to become an education platform company where teachers can meet students; workers can meet employers, and communities can learn from their peers and transform with our learning journeys.”

“As a school, one of the most difficult things to do is to decouple our ability to scale with our faculty capacity. We already have experiments in place to grow a lifelong learner community, creating a marketplace of high-touch asynchronous learning and gamifying learning journeys. It’s a brave new world, and we are innovating brave new ways to create impact in Asia Pacific.”

Democratising decision making

Among her takeaway comments, Melanie candidly admits: “No matter how hard I try as a leader, I will never make the perfect decision. I won’t always be on the right side of a trade-off. But with courage and resolve, any one of us can not only thrive but survive.”

“The greatest challenge is decision making in this disorientating uncertainty as discussed earlier,” she explained. “From public sector entities to private enterprises, our clients and learners are looking to start-ups to learn how to leverage risk in order to make progress. Speaking to learners who are in leadership positions, they have identified two barriers to making these changes: Organisational silos and incumbent mindsets.”

She said the team is working with an international conglomerate to create an Entrepreneurship Essentials course for its leadership. Another leading insurance client has asked for help to build a culture of innovation through self-directed learning at scale.

“We’re talking thousands of employees from front line juniors to c-suit leadership. The answer to how to survive and thrive in 2021 is about infusing culture with innovation, democratising decision making and bringing technology closer to the core of the business.”

Melanie emphasised that the key is “to democratise decision making, to build psychological safety to empower everyone to highlight risk and to giving teams enough autonomy to create their own paths in the knowledge that they have alignment with their leadership.”

Never Normal

Her concluding remarks centre on the ‘never normal.’ “We will continue to live in the never normal as we battle with big and small issues at once. From climate change upheavals to figuring out how to build a team and catch valuable co-workers as they fall.”

“Change is complicated. Change at the convergence of business, technology and customer expectations is hard to define, let alone deal with,” she continued. “We must use technology for the benefit of the planet, our co-workers and mankind. We have to create a new growth agenda that ensures there is sustainable growth for the many and not exponential growth for the few.”

“Today, we are going to make decisions that impact the lives of a generation of children who have lost so much because of this pandemic. Robbed of schooling because of inequalities in technology distribution, increased nationalism as nations strive to protect themselves first and a widening gap between the haves and have nots.”

“We could create strategies that try and scrabble back to pre-pandemic ways which were far, far from ideal, or we could press reset and build a world that we would be proud to leave as a legacy,” Melanie said. “It is time for a reset. Let’s not waste this crisis.”

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