French ban on phones in school – is it too late to manage the march of digital technology?

Recently the French Minister for Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced that from September 2018 secondary school children under the age of 15 will not be allowed to have smartphones with them in school at any time, not even at break or at lunch-times.  Reading responses to this ban prompted me to think about the French perspective and this post captures those thoughts.

Is this about attention spans and focus or is it something else?  The French have a fierce history of protecting their identity as a secular, intellectual republic (massive generalisations aside, I make no comment about whether they achieve this – but it is my impression of how they like to see themselves).  Perhaps they perceive their unique identity as being under threat in some way.

The huge optimism which existed about the use of digital technology to democratise our lives has given way, under a wave of populism, to fear that it is merely another way of driving consumerism.  We cannot ignore the fact that children are being exploited as online consumers any more than we can ignore the fact that digital technology provides great opportunities.

For some reason humans do tend to end up making everything about power. Where that power is shared through some medium, like art, science, sex etc. the outcomes are perceived as positive. Where power is centralised with the objective of gaining control, whether of a market, behaviour or mind-set, then the outcomes are often ugly.

Which is holding sway now?  The bewildering pace of change means that the constant lure of the internet our children experience can be seen as a massive experiment.  Are things going to turn out well for the “click bait” generation?  Whilst positive outcomes are possible, to-date the digital age has facilitated the rise of extremism and provided a mechanism for terror.  Are the French are trying to draw a line in the sand at some level?

When I talk about the impact of digital technology with clients I like to put it in historical context. The printing press arrived in the UK in the 1470s – the first book was produced in 1473. In 1870 the Education Act was passed which made primary school education mandatory for all. Such was the degree of social & political control it took four hundred years to achieve universal entitlement to literacy.  In comparison, the reach, speed and extent of the impact of technology is staggering.  It is unlike anything we have seen before.

Braudel argued that History is not the product of human endeavour.  History is shaped first by geology and geography, he argued, then by economic cycles lasting many decades or centuries, and finally by individuals who dance on pin-heads and think themselves important.  I wonder where he would put digital technology in that story.  In the second bracket, I suspect, although the pace of change drives it towards the immediate individualistic level.  Old orthodoxies, even the historical theories by which we understand our past and our progress, are falling away in the face of the rapidity of change.

Do we just let this play out and see what happens or is it too late?  Digital technology exists and it is in the hands of big corporations who intend to make it pay, even more so now that net-neutrality appears doomed.  It was ever thus.  How do we make the most of the opportunities for learning whilst preserving a space in which children are not prey to the next click or image?  I can understand the French idea that smartphones are not essential in school, but ensuring that future generations are discerning, critical thinkers is absolutely crucial.

The horizon and the here & now

In recent months I have been reading, thinking and speaking about the future of work, more specifically, the future of learning at work.  At the same time, I work with professional people on basic skills, like the ability to have a structured conversation, to listen, and to allow a colleague to explore their ideas for themselves.  In other words, how to get to grips with the messy and difficult bits of working with people.

Horizon-scanning and working with people on practical skills form two strands of my work activity which are challenging in different ways.  Some of the time I am diving in, searching out ideas, identifying what matters and trying to create some understanding, for example, what does Artificial Intelligence mean for learning?  Are jobs for “newbies” going to exist in the future?  If not, how will people gain experience and practise skills?  These issues are intriguing.  Being informed about them allows me to present a rounded view to clients.

All the time, I’m doing my day job as a Learning & Development consultant too; talking with people about learning strategy, designing learning activities (online and experiential) and delivering face-to-face learning.  I also coach individuals, so I come close to what makes a fellow human-being tick, what troubles them and what makes them laugh.

Each day and each week I move back and forth from horizon-scanning, through to thinking about the particulars of a client organisation, to group dynamics, and individual, immediate human needs.  I try to help people make sense of one aspect or another as I go.

I read, see and hear a lot of things about how people work within organisations and how organisations view people.  I have a lot of ideas about the flow between the two.  I have been educated to think that I ought to come up with something original and brilliant to say before I publish my thoughts, but here and now I am going to just offer what I’m thinking, rather than some perfectly expressed solution.

What is emerging for me at the moment is the idea that our notion of “managers” is probably unhelpful.  Among professional people, informed self-management is eminently possible.  Note please the word “informed”.  I need to write about that more on another occasion, for now let me say I think that begins with first understanding yourself and your impact on others, as well as having clarity about your purpose at work.

Another thought that I am living with just now is that everything depends on context.  Our current world context is remarkable; I am writing at the time of a General Election, just after a major terrorist attack in Manchester, and as war and famine rage in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere.  My life spans the certainties of the Cold War and the current time, when old social and political fractures have opened up, and new ones created by the digital age have emerged to generate a cocktail of expectation and possibility hither-to unknown to humanity.

In a challenging and often frightening world we look for people who make sense of things for us, and this brings me back to the two strands of my working life.

As I stand at the front of the training room, Heads of Department, architects, solicitors and sales managers look to me and seem to say, “Make this easier for me!”  I share with them my enthusiasm and knowledge and help them to learn about their own abilities by getting them doing things which are slightly outside their comfort-zone.  That’s what I do; I try and make sense of some things for them and I set them going on a task which will help them realise that they are already capable of helping others to work effectively in many ways.

I want those people to know that they often don’t have to try as hard as they think they do.  Offering guidance and support, or even holding a colleague to account, is perhaps easier than they imagine.  They do not need to learn to be “other” or different.  In fact, they probably need to be more themselves.  A manager is not someone who makes other people do things; they are the person who makes it possible for other people to do things.  By thinking of the manager’s role as being a facilitator or enabler, the idea becomes less onerous.  It requires skill and that’s ok, because we are all more capable than we think and we can all learn.

Can we become facilitators and enablers now?  I think it would be a good time to try.  Just around the corner is a world of data analytics which will enable us all to see at a glance how colleagues are performing; how much time they spent on a project, or working in a team activity or communicating with a customer or client.  Perhaps you have that information already.  If not, it won’t be too long before we are all informed by more metrics than we can shake a stick at.  But there is more to working with people than that; now would be a good time to make sure we can still all be human too.

 

 

Strategy, expectation and … action?

I keep hearing the same story from all sorts of different businesses; we’ve done the thinking, we’ve got a strategy that everyone agrees with… but nothing has changed!  Amongst those who are leading changes in business structure and profile there is bafflement:  Surely people can see the imperative?  Why do they keep doing the same things they have always done?

It reminds me of the old joke; how many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb?  One, but the light bulb has got to want to change.

And there is the conundrum; getting people to change behaviour ought to be easy.  No one is being asked to get into astrophysics overnight.  It should not be that difficult.  But it is.  Moving beyond rhetoric and into action requires individuals to choose to do something differently.

I’m special

OccasionallOld professor with a green apple on top of his head.y I hear about an individual who is driving everyone mad by simply not towing
the line.  Perhaps they refuse to use a new management system or they never turn up to events.  This person believes themselves to be special or different from everyone else.  They are convinced that in some way their situation is exceptional, i.e. change should apply to everyone except them.

Dealing with this person is hard, because fundamentally it means trespassing on the individual’s sense of who they are.  If they are rigidly adhering to a particular practice or excluding themselves from something, then it is likely that the behaviour serves some underpinning value or belief which will need to be tackled if they are to stay in the business.  Not an easy prospect.

The long grass

However challenging the maverick individual is, at least they are visible and the way to manage the situation is fairly easily identified, even if it is unappealing.

Perhaps a more difficult challenge arises when the majority of people pay lip service to the importance of change.  Quite quickly a kind of organisational paralysis sets in.  Those championing change get frustrated; those resisting change may be unaware of the impact of their intransigence, because don’t see the connection between agreeing to a strategy and implementing it through the way they think and act on a daily basis.  Soon the idea of change begins to be a drag.

Creatures of habit

I habitually Habits Trianglemake tea using a teapot.  I am aware that there are other (inferior) ways of making tea, but left to my own devices I’ll do what I always do.  I know that the tea tastes better if brewed in a pot.  I know that reduces the temperature of the liquid.  I have learned that if I warm the pot and the cup I can keep my tea hot.  Doing those things is easy and I chose to do them.  I like making tea this way, because I like hot tea.  I have the knowledge, the skills and the attitude required to make a really good cup of hot tea.  I routinely adapt when I’m out and about.  I can drink tea made in the mug.  I change my expectations and behaviour to suit the occasion.

Ok, there’s not much at stake in my example.   It is true though, that we default to our behavioural preferences most of the time whatever the activity in question is.  Being able to flex our behaviour to adapt to new demands involves being aware of our default position and consciously choosing to shift our ground.  Being self-aware and aware of impact of one’s behaviour on others is a starting point for change.

Time & investment

Creating changes in behaviour takes time and investment.  It requires a planned approach.  People need the opportunity to make changes in their daily work, and they need their efforts rewarded when they do.  Individual and collective evidence of success is crucial.

Bringing strategy alive

Our best successes in bringing strategy alive have been with organisations which are willing to address knowledge, skills and attitudes.  That openness enables us to use online learning, class-room based experiential learning and coaching to ensure that people;

  1. Know what they need to know and
  2. Have a chance to try out new skills and
  3. Are challenged and supported as individuals to make changes

Usually when we are delivering these programmes I have to make my tea in the cup, but you can’t have everything.