Thursday 25 February 2016

Doing Things Differently

Based in the Bay Area of California, Susan Stucky has had a long and varied career as a thinker, consultant and philosopher on how why, where and when people learn - especially at work. As the debate about the future of work rages onwards, we asked for her thoughts on what’s coming next. A “sneaky peek” around tomorrow’s next corner.

MCE: We hear a great deal these days about the need to be creative at work. From your point of view, are we more or less creative in the workplace; are we teaching students how to think creatively?

Susan Stucky  (SS): First. Are we talking about doing things differently - or doing different things; or doing the same thing in different ways; or doing it in different places? Why does it have to be new to be considered creative? Something that is creative in first grade in school isn’t necessarily in sixth grade? Some idea or thing seen as creative at an established firm isn’t at a start-up. 

Isn’t “creativity” just another phrase for "do more with less.” 

Isn’t it just another corporate mandate?  “Be Creative! 

“Here in the Bay Area we talk about innovation more than creativity, so we come down on the side of “new”.  But one important thing to realize is that all so-called new ideas and things are built on existing ideas and things, even if only in opposition to them.  

And that innovation and creativity are actually, fundamentally, social. The lone genius isn’t alone really. He, or she aren’t alone.
Or are we talking about “the creative class” as in the Super Creative Core (innovative, problem-solving) or the Creative Professionals (classic knowledge workers)? 

The Creative Professionals are mainly the ones who did school work well and had connections.  The Super Creative Core are the ones who maybe didn’t do so well in  school, aren’t socially adept necessarily and know people who aren’t afraid of marketing, including themselves. Are we teaching that?  Not really so much. 

But people, including children, are learning it. From the environment around them.  

MCE: California still seems to be the land of “start-ups”.  Is it something “in the air” by the ocean or is it just easier to try and fail.. Are you not a serious player until you’ve failed a few times?

SS: All those myths are bandied about, and it is worth remembering that just because something is a myth e doesn’t mean it isn’t true. Except for the fact that San Francisco is the happening place now and Silicon Valley is now the Bay Area, Anna Lee Saxenian’s conclusions in her 1994 book Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 still ring true.  

She called Silicon Valley a protean place — a shape- shifter changing”through patterns "of collaboration and competition”.  The whole Bay area is stuffed, literally stuffed, with people.  Those of us who remember a Palo Alto where you could drive to the city (San Francisco, of course) in under an hour now take public transit.  The freeways have those big white busses ferrying commuters from San Francisco to Silicon Valley (still a lot of jobs there). 

In 1994, the commute used to be the other way around.  More to the point, people still go to work in offices some of the time.   Having lunch is still important and there are oodles of Meet-ups that work like pop-up stores for ideas and networking.   

Most people in your network or someone else’s are really ready and willing to talk with you — I was told they would and they do.  Here, if you offer to meet in person, they will often take you up on it.   After all, they may need to talk to you sometime in the future that’s how the world goes around

MCE: You’ve spent a lot of your career thinking about how people learn. Have we got any better at that. What’s the big barrier?

SS: I’d like to think that corporate training has largely disappeared for one simple reason.  That we have finally realized that formal training does not guarantee that people have learned what is being taught is what they need to learn. 

I’d like to think that the rise of social media means that we understand that learning is fundamentally social. I’d like to think that “open office” plans mean that collaboration will be enhanced.  But the first and third are cost-saving plays primarily. Closeness does not necessarily mean collaboration. 
And the middle one — I’m afraid that social media and social media analytics means it is easier to find people like “us" and ignore people who aren’t like us . It means we find ideas and things that people like us like. 

The good thing is that people like us all over the world now have access to much of what is codified and explicit. 
If they want to know it they will.  But knowing is not the same as doing or putting what you know into practice, especially in a firm or a start-up. 
And the barrier to all that?   The way we think about learning.

MCE: The digital agenda is just “business as usual. Any thoughts on coping with the digital overload that seems to be swamping us like a tsunami? Is there a default “off” switch we need to activate at some point?

SS: Are we talking screen-based living and working?  Personally, I keep hoping that as screens become more distributed, that they will eventually fade into the background.  Kind of like wallpaper.  They can serve to remind us without being “in our faces.  The kind of digital I am worried about is the prevalence of too much information   and so little awareness of the context and implications of it. And that means us too. – All of us wherever we live or work anywhere. 


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