Shifting from workplace to workspace: Sweden’s ‘Digital Harvard’ in Asia

workplace to workspace Hyper Island
Image by New Africa | Bigstockphoto

A somewhat capricious flurry of pandemic related terms – the next normal, the new normal, the new reality – reflects current cross-sector struggles to navigate an era of both digital and pandemic uncertainties, which include the sphere of learning and professional development.

The future of work – particularly the conceptual shift from workplace to workspace – is similarly being shaped. Professional networking platform LinkedIn’s latest findings on the top jobs on the rise in Southeast Asia and Malaysia highlights the impact of these digitally-anchored forces. Frank Koo, head of Asia, Talent and Learning Solutions, LinkedIn, recently listed these as:

  • Consumers have gone increasingly digital.
  • Brands have found new ways to connect with consumers, leading to a rise in demand for digital marketers and content creators.
  • eCommerce boomed in 2020, leading to an increase in various sectors.
  • Traditional roles have evolved as a result of COVID-19.

“The list of jobs on the rise demonstrates that there are still opportunities for job seekers with a range of skills and experience,” commented Foo. “By adopting a lifelong learning mindset, and being open to picking up new skills through various courses — for example, courses on digital skills or soft skills — workers can prepare themselves to take up these emerging roles.”

According to Melanie Cook, managing director of Hyper Island Asia Pacific, professionals are navigating this new reality with various tactics, an organisation that sees itself as Sweden’s ‘Digital Harvard’.

Melanie Cook, managing director of Hyper Island Asia Pacific

In an exclusive with Disruptive.Asia, she offered some perspectives from her experience, beginning with the comment: “But we go beyond that [concept] as we play at the convergence of business, creativity and technology. It’s a tricky place to inhabit, so in truth, I spend my day breaking down barriers that stop our faculty and co-workers from doing all they can for our learners.”

“We tripled the number of learners that came through our ‘doors’ in 2020, with more and more people taking responsibility for remaining relevant as businesses accelerate their digital transformation. Many educators who pivoted quickly in the digital space saw similar growth. For example, [the American massive open learning course provider] Coursera went from eight million new registrants in 2019 to 20 million in 2020.”

Hyper Island itself is a microcosm of today’s shifting trends in learning and professional development, especially as she explained that: “Part of that barrier-busting is building the structure to support our learning journeys and the trust that encourages experimentation. We encourage our learners to colour outside the lines, as we must, especially in the pandemic era as the lines are continually greying.”

Skillsets in 4IR

The World Economic Forum describes the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) as the advent of cyber-physical systems involving entirely new capabilities for people and machines: 4IR demands deep cognitive flexibility and expansive digital dexterity.

Cognitive flexibility is a measure of the mind’s ability to move from one concept to another or to think about multiple concepts at once in a transdisciplinary manner. It is a skill that sits at the intersection of awareness, adaptability and confidence. “We need awareness to know our options, adaptability to iterate between them and confidence to experiment given our information and knowledge,” says Cook.

Digital dexterity is about building a tech-friendly culture. Helen Poitevin, a Senior Vice President analyst at Gartner, says: “Business and IT leaders need to employ the right talent with a specific set of mindsets, beliefs and behaviours — which we call digital dexterity — to launch, finish and capitalise on digital initiatives.”

Digital dexterity is about developing a growth mindset, the collaboration between business and IT leaders, and creating tech-enabled business outcomes.

“As I highlight in my TEDx talk, The Accidental Automation of Motherhood, humans and machines are coming together in unprecedented ways. We need to change our skill set so we can create human-centred technology development,” she added.

Critical pandemic shifts

During the last year, noticeable shifts in attitude and behaviour from professionals.

Cook cites Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Hsien Loong speech, who on May Day last year said: “Significant structural changes to our economy are likely. Some industries will be disrupted permanently. Companies will have to change their business models to survive.”

“As our new, never-normal comes into view, we find ourselves answering small and big challenges like how to sell bubble tea online, without the ice melting, and how to protect democracy against the untruths of fake news,” continued Cook. “We’re figuring out how to run our lives, businesses and politics.”

“We have moved from workplace to workspace, even if that space is at the corner of a kitchen counter. Team bonding is no longer limited to annual retreats but infuses every virtual conversation we have as leaders build psychological safety in unsafe times,” she said.

“Mute and unmute etiquette has democratised air time and materialised the fabled talking stick. Instead of bumper to bumper commutes, I’m bumping a ball with my little girl in the morning.”

“This year, I am glad for a slow recovery cycle,” she revealed. “At least it allows us time for our system two thinking to kick into place. Behaviours and attitudes have indeed shifted and will continue to. Small experiments to find those few things with a big impact is the only way to go.”

Looking ahead, Cook believes that Asia will move to “hybrid-work, meaning work-life integration. Microsoft’s data shows we work at least an hour more a day, but not necessarily in nine-to-five blocks.”

As an example, she said that: “At Hyper Island Asia Pacific, our billable utilisation was as high as 85% in 2020. That’s huge. It means we were innovating outside of ‘work hours’. Take a peek at my ‘work’ notebooks, and you will see bad drawings of My Little Pony that keep my three-year-old happy and strategies on how to keep our revenue stable.”

TechRepublic APAC research written in collaboration with Microsoft notes that government response to lockdowns is critical in an organisation’s response. In Singapore, for example, with the Governments’ Future Enabled Skills Programme, it is clear that Singapore is planning for long-term digital transformation in working life. However, in countries such as India, the once ‘residential’ ICT infrastructure struggles to support remote working, so the government’s response is more immediate-term.

“There is little doubt that organisations and governments that can invest in tech density will pull away from those that can’t and emerge faster with a more potent competitive edge,” she notes.

The newly-released IDC FutureScape: Worldwide Services 2021 Predictions – Asia/Pacific (excluding Japan) insight paper offers broader confirmation suggesting that the Asia Pacific region is leading recovery by leveraging technology to transition to the next normal. The predictions for the next five years (2021-2026) confirm rapid shifts by organisations moving to digital delivery channels, including multicloud, hybrid. Just one example: By 2024, more than 90% of organisations will have implemented some level of automation across multiple processes, et cetera. Digital acceleration will continue to permanently replace or adjust many working roles and practices in the next normal.

Leading productivity

On the subject of what key factors business leaders need to consider to inspire a greater level of productivity and innovation from their employees and contracted professional resources, Cook turns to Paul Cobban, co-author of ‘Eat, Sleep, Innovate‘ who speaks about leaders needing to do three things:

  1. Paint a vivid picture of the future – business transformation is discombobulating. The only way to get through it is to know where you are heading.
  2. Break the challenge down into manageable chunks – do this by getting decision-makers in the same room, creating a shared north star metric, and taking immediate action when you can.
  3. Create a climate of change that ultimately becomes the culture – break down the three barriers to innovation: lack of psychological safety, silos and looking for credit over a common purpose.

“I am proud to say that Hyper Island Asia Pacific exceeded our pre-COVID budget in 2020. Connecting the dots as I look back, we carried out these three things studiously,” she said.

Focusing on courage and technology in 2021

Speaking of the future of work, Cook commented: “In our work with the Jardines Digital, IT and Innovation Academy (JDIIA), we take this 188-year-old conglomerate with us as we all learn to collaborate and thrive in the digital space. Jardines’ businesses vary from Jardines Aviation Services to KFC – it is very diverse.”

What on earth do aviation, fried chicken, and everything in between have in common? Peachy Pacquing, Hyper Island Masters program director, says, ‘the world is getting more complex. There are many things to consider, the technology, the relationships, the competition, and now the pandemic.’

“The most important question when we set up the academy was – where do we start? Of course, the answer is with digitally-disrupted-humans,” she continued.

“Human-Centred Design is just as popular as Data-Driven Decision Making and Agile Ways of Working in the academy. It proves that people want to invest time in being more human, working together more effectively, using the digital technologies at their disposal.”

Courage coupled with technology will help chart the way forward, Cook elucidated: “You are never too old to learn! In the region, our Digital Management Masters Degree course has students spanning four decades of age,” said Cook. “Although the median age of edX learners is 26, there are some students well into their seventies. So ‘this old brain can’t change’ is no excuse not to share your experience and develop your capabilities with the best of the twenty-somethings.”

Takeaways for professionals

There is much to be sceptical about right now. Twenty-five years ago, Kevin Kelly, a tech-optimist, made a bet with a modern-day Luddite, Kirkpatrick Sale, that technology would not destroy society.

Speaking to this, Cook says, “My spontaneous reaction is that Kelly won, but it did give me pause for thought. Sale predicted his prediction on economic collapse, global environmental disaster and a war between rich and poor.”

“There is no denying that we are in a global slowdown, but we are far from a collapse with PWC predicting that some economies will grow at record-breaking speeds in specific sectors. Global warming is high on government agendas, and there continues to be a widening gap between rich and poor.”

“If you are in an economy or sector that is unlikely to grow this year, you must look beyond your norm to enjoy the growth happening and stay motivated by it,” she adds. “As we progress through 2021 and duck and dive, iterate and improve, we should make the world an equitably safe place to live – not just for the tax breaks or regulation compliance – but because we are part of the same human condition.”

“’Location, location, location’ was a measure of success of a business. The swankier, the better. Today it is ‘learn, learn, learn’. Levels of learning is a predictor of success, and success is motivating. That’s a beautiful bridge to my next answer.”

Brave, bold future

As ever, humans must take the lead in moving forward. “Although everything turned out well in the end, it took a great deal of courage and intellectual bravery to get us there,” Cook opines. “When you pivot from making robots on-campus to running data treasure hunts on Zoom in three weeks, you’re bound to get some thing(s) wrong. We call them learning points; they are only failures if we fail to learn from them.”

Cook concluded with another story: “Yesterday, I spoke to a learner who is planning to turn a traditional consultancy into a platform business. Our core courses around experimentation, human-centred design, agile collaboration, data-led decision-making, and growth hacking helped her paint a brave, bold picture of the future.”

“This year, we have started to add courses that dive deeper into those areas and others that cover future-facing topics like Platform Thinking in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and Spatial Computing…I look forward to walking boldly into the future with everyone.”

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