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What you learn and who you learn from: the Internet shakes up the workplace

· July 8, 2015

This column comes from Australia, which I’m visiting for the first time. Let’s do the obvious Aussie tech clichés first: here’s an angry kangaroo swatting a drone out of the air, the realtime tracking app for Melbourne’s fleet of trams, and a selfie competition at Sydney Opera House — where they use the screens for the surtitles to tell audiences to Tweet their thoughts! Love it. Another thing which will strike visitors used to Brussels is how easy to is to pay for everything with cards (as opposed to cash) and that (judging by a week’s holiday) 99% of those cards are contactless — time for Europe to catch up!

One thing I’m really enjoying is the Aussies’ famously laid-back attitude. This shows up in everything from wine tasting — the “cellar doors” in the Hunter Valley are very chilled compared to tasting France, and even come with app recommendations — to business culture. Reading Peter Carey’s Australian epic “Oscar and Lucinda” it’s striking how important the letter of introduction was to those undertaking the perilous journey from London to Sydney and vice-versa. The modern equivalent is as simple as pinging someone on LinkedIn, Academia.edu, Indeed or StackOverflow. Likewise, the journey’s much easier by Airbus A380 than steamship.

One Australian who has made a career in the Brussels bubble has made impressive connections both online and off. Ryan Heath was previously spokesman for EU Tech Queen (sorry, EU Commissioner for the Digital Agenda) Neelie Kroes. Now he writes Politico’s daily Playbook — where connections are everything.*

“The truth is that I was able to have a ready-made group of friends when I first moved to London thanks to email, and later when Facebook started it was much easier to juggle a new life and old friends still back in Australia,” Mr. Heath says. “That simply wasn’t an option when my parents travelled.”

Antonia Mochan made the journey in the other direction. Having been a spokesperson for the European Commission in Brussels and London, she went to Melbourne for an Executive Master of Arts. There, she studied how workplace relationships — both on and offline — can be made more efficient and useful than just exchanging information and name dropping like an old-school Brussels power broker. She now mentors, consults and generally evangelizes about the power of connections in the workplace. That doesn’t just mean meeting the right people — it’s about learning from them as well.

“Workplace learning is much more than turning up to a training course and taking away a manual,” she says. “It’s about how what you have learned is applied and thought about… this is where social media can be extremely helpful, both in terms of finding people that can support your learning or doing what is known as Working Out Loud.”

This is a process where you blog or tweet about how you are implementing what you’ve learned, and generally share the process of working — taking the offline process of chatting with colleagues over coffee and putting it online. This is especially tempting in Australia, where the coffee more than lives up to the hype, so you can sit in a cafe, order a flat white, and discuss what you’re doing with a giant virtual office. Learn more about the one last month — and sign up for the November edition — here.

As we saw with the accountants last time, the combination of smartphones, the web, the cloud and smart software means more and more aspects of work are done for us by machines. “Increasingly intelligent automation means that the jobs of the future will focus on what makes us human – creativity, emotional intelligence, empathy,” Ms Mochan says. “These soft skills can’t be learnt from a manual, and not very easily in a training room — but technology, perhaps counter-intuitively, can help here too.”

Firstly, within organisations enterprise social networks can help people connect, she says. “Such networks can help identify people who are strong in the skills that are becoming important in the new workplace and create a following for them.” And for global companies, that means people in Sydney can give top tips to their colleagues in Frankfurt without flying halfway round the world.

It also means people can flip things round and see them from a new perspective — as Mr. Heath has found while writing Playbook. “Whether out of habit or affection, I still read Australian news websites everyday and I think that’s helped me do a better job in Brussels – because I can see things from several points of view, not just the one that prevails in the EU bubble.”

Distance learning is an especially appropriate subject in Australia, where the School of the Air made remote learning a reality before the web even existed. How do you teach children who live 800 km from the nearest school? Pedal-powered radios and lessons sent in the mail. So the principle of a remote principal is nothing new: it’s just the internet means lessons are now conducted over webcam.

Sometimes, when I think about the internet (we all do this, right?) it looks like a gigantic fractal of disruption. Take MOOCs — a few years ago, it blew everyone’s mind that you could join lectures at the world’s top universities remotely. Now we take that for granted, and people increasingly understand where specific gaps in their knowledge are — and who can fill them. Spiralling off this, there are ever more tailored courses available on Udemy, Coursera, and universities’ own MOOC platforms.

Technology brings this full circle, allowing people to find others who can inspire them offline as well. Melbourne startup Peer Academy does exactly that, hosting classes with people that want to share their skills, at a low-cost price point that appeals to people from freelancers to not-for-profits and government employees, and Collective Campus has a similar set up in the U.S. The flipside of all this flexibility and upheaval is brilliantly described in this blog by Dangerous Meredith on the perils of the “Educated Precariat.”

If starting a new life in Oz and retraining as a tattoo illustrator on a course in a converted warehouse you found online sounds a little bit too “blue sky thinking,” you can still enjoy a dose of Aussie humour about it all: check out the Australian series Utopia, which does a brilliant job of sending up visionary workplace environments — imagine the BBC satire 2012 set down under.

I’m writing this column in Sydney airport — thanks for the free wi-fi guys — and will be sad to leave for the next leg of my summer holiday: I’m looking forward to applying what I’ve learnt when I get back to work, but for now I’m going to go and do some #chillingoutloud.

*Disclosure, he’s also a very a good friend of mine who in a previous life wrote for this blog.

 

European Union

DisCo is dedicated to examining technology and policy at a global scale.  Developments in the European Union play a considerable role in shaping both European and global technology markets.  EU regulations related to copyright, competition, privacy, innovation, and trade all affect the international development of technology and tech markets.