In Conversation with Mike Walsh

In Conversation with Mike Walsh

In an interaction with Mike Walsh, CEO of Tomorrow, a global consultancy on designing business for the 21st century, he shares his view on the how the rapidly digitizing world will fundamentally enhance how educational institutes and corporates, large and small, deliver.

“10 years ago we thought it was a war between the physical and the virtual world without realizing that the physical world was being digitized and there was no separation.”

“The truth of a great leader is to be a great brand.”

Could you tell us something about yourself ?
I am a lawyer by profession but have been a participant in the digital revolution for the last 18 years. The real life-changing moment for me was when I started to spend more time in Asia. I was working on the internet strategy around India and China. Before 2005, I realized that the internet revolution had not really begun. The iPhone had not hit the market and I realized that what the kids were doing in China, Korea and India was going to change everything. This inspired me to write a book and I looked at emerging markets because they were the key to understanding the future of technology.

Could you give me an example of how kids in China and India can drive a lot of change?
I realized that the new culture that was created by the exposure to technology was very different. So, a young kid growing up in New Delhi had more in common with the world than the kids growing in Saudi. This is because they have grown with a common set of platform devices and they are more globally aware and interconnected.

It means that information asymmetry is getting reduced. And that is going to change the way society functions.
Definitely, not just the devices but also our perceptions are connected. I think it’s changing.

Could you tell me more on the connectedness of perceptions ?
If we were to ask a kid about its horizon of knowledge about 20 years ago it would be limited to school playground, library, parents etc. But the broadcast media changed the perception and brought the world together. Today the kid’s horizon is infinite. And there is no shortage of information. They can meet people, make friends with the kids living on the other side of the world. So, their barriers are more to do with the ability to ask relevant questions.

I believe that newspapers could be conduits of managing information/opinion which go out. Do you think that attitude of the editors would change over a period of time? Or the whole behavior of people on how the information is pushed out on Twitter or Facebook?
The newspapers underestimate business of print media. Newspapers are brands and their brands stand for the investment in content, with proper investigation, fact checking, long form analysis, and also an investment into curation. Also, the more noisy the world gets there is more information to be disseminated, but it is important to see that we have got brands that we can trust, and they do not have any vested agendas. We can have media brands like New York Times, Rediff and ET in India become global brands in addition to them being local brands.

If you have ET made for a smaller region could you have 25 different versions going out?
Yes, the global brands are there because of the algorithms of software and there is no reason why a Wall Street Journal could not do a local edition in India. We could also use paperless technology, which curates the links and broadcasts out a newspaper.

How do you think other businesses, which are brick and mortar businesses, could change because of this?
For me, the difference between digital and analogue is completely arbitrary. 10 years ago we thought it was a war between the physical and the virtual world without realizing that the physical world was being digitized and there was no separation. So, if you look at retail, as today, the really smart retailers have created an engaging process with the customer. We are collecting more information that helps you to be a better retailer and engage better. The question is that you have a seamless interaction model regardless of how customers want to deal with you.

Why did you publish a book in a print format?
If you see the actual book then you would realise why it is designed as a physical object. It’s completely visual and the book has photographs taken in India. Also, I wanted it to be separate from the digital world. I am writing for people who have to some extent also confronted the digital world. Chose something they could interact with, without it being purely digital. The next book I am going to write would be completely opposite to this book. Ultimately the format of the book does not matter. It just has to be pure ideas.

What is that dichotomy between your thinking and the thinking of the publisher?
I wrote the book in 2006 and the publisher took 3 years to publish it. And now when people read it they find it futuristic, which is very flattering. But the fact is if they had published it when I wrote it in 2006, (before the iPhone came up) where I had predicted the rise of smart phones, of cloud based entertainment and biometric senses on phones, then people would have thought I was a real genius. But now people read it like a current timed book.

How do you perceive change in technology as a huge piece of inclusive growth?
To me it’s absolutely an issue because one of the things that people don’t really appreciate in US is the larger proliferation of technology in the hands of much wider social bracket. So, if I can’t afford an iPhone I can still afford a $50 android phone that runs with a very good processor. What’s missing is a truly global adaptive education platform that allows the new young generation to improve their prospects. All the information out there is available to take it to a new level, to a new social class. Only the organizational information is missing. A curriculum that takes an ordinary kid that has a $50 smart phone and gives her a chance to compete at the world level. So, it’s not online education courses, it’s sort of a personalized one to one algorithm driven education. When that happens, there is going to be a bigger impact on inclusive social growth.

Can you just build a canvas for me as how a young kid in 10 years could actually be learning?
So, we have built the model of online education by basically digitizing the classroom. It’s very archaic, if you look at the cutting edge what they call adaptive learning. For example, if you are learning about manufacturing then it may be that the next thing that you have to learn is something abstract – to do with fluid dynamics. It’s not actually the traditional ways of learning. Today, we have the ability with software or high tech companies like IBM which just open sources of information. If we imagine a young kid 15 years old, growing in Brazil getting an iPhone and when he opens up the phone, the system asks him a very basic question to gauge its initial level.

It offers a bit of content initially maybe a video and then it opens up another module and slowly like a tree it takes him to a journey of knowledge. In the end the child would have the same level of education as compared to a young folk studying in school.

You mean that the future would be very different from the universities of the present era?
Yes, physical universities would be very rich as one has to go physically to attend the classes. It would be only 10% of the population. Attending the university physically would be a luxury.

How does a guy who is very bright, exceptionally intelligent and has done education on the internet compete with guys who are supported by huge brands like MIT, Harvard, Stanford, etc.?
But he would have taken Stanford modules.

What you are saying is that the modules could happen from anywhere?
Yes, this is what will happen. These global brands will materialize the education, though with a premium experience for the super rich which would cost USD 20,000-50,000 where you would be actually with the class, with the actual lectures. But everyone else would get the virtual versions of these, which is very powerful.

These things at the moment are disputed and the experience is not great. We would need adaptive software to organize the online content. And then there is a need to have an adaptive assessment to really work out how this one individual with his capabilities of learning compares with the people at the world level. If we are not going to go by the traditional model then one needs to have a sense of the capabilities of the person to make him globally marketable.

How do you think professors would have to change once learning is going to change?
The professors would have to be star professors, as they would have millions of students in their arc of influence. It would be hard to be an average professor. He would be making the same amount of money as a movie actor. And you know to some extent India has exported a lot of academics who are all rock stars, they have done true publishing.

What do you think the business model for the future for typical enterprise will be?
The business models should not be set, they should be constantly evolving to market opportunity and context etc. To me more interesting is business design or the organization design. The more important thing is the size of the organization, the parameters of who is inside and outside of it, the tasks done by it, the technology it focuses on to differentiate. So, the design of the organization is the most interesting question of the 21st century.

How do you look at a conglomerate like GE which has 80-100 businesses and does very well compared to young organizations which could actually create a lot of flutter in the system?
We could have a huge organization but the control mechanism has to be small. So, one can have a huge organization where technically everyone is on the payroll but one can’t have the model of one CEO who sets the global vision. The information that is coming from below takes too long to reach the top. For example, if you look at the model of Nike, the decisions cannot be made by the people sitting at its headquarters as they are not aware of the requirements or needs of the people to be hired or the mission of the company at a particular place. When we look at other companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google, that started in an innovative way but then they started to build themselves as industrial conglomerates because the number of people increased in these organizations.

So, what you are saying is very small organization maybe 2 or 3 people could actually create a tremendous impact?
Yes, because what you are really measuring is not the size of the organization but its position in the network. So, if you look at network theory you have the most valuable parts of the network in hubs that connect elsewhere. And you don’t have to be physically very big but you just need to be networked. Sometimes as a sole practitioner when I started hiring people I realized that I would be spending time on not doing what I do best, but would be managing their careers. In due process so many layers are created that it would take years to get to a point. We also need to sustain people who can do best but this model does not work well for everybody. You have to reduce your ego to really do that and focus on how you fit into the global network.

How do you think leadership is going to change?

It’s a very complicated question. Yet, it’s deceptively simple. In some ways it is more interesting to ask; what are going to be the responsibilities for leaders to amplify their ability to influence? And secondly, how do those leaders take better decisions? The truth of a great leader is to be a great brand. It’s just that you need to signal what you stand for in order to let the people know what they follow. Most of the really smart decisions are happening everyday at a much smaller level because they have created a culture to empower the people to constantly be making lots and lots of very effective small decisions. Driven by data or hypothesis or testing experimentation, scientific methods, not just about ego and power points.

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