Future-Proofing Our Students

An advisor to some of the world’s leading companies talks edtech, students, learning.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

CREDIT Steve Cadigan img.jpgThis Silicon Valley-based global talent expert and HR (Tech) guru advises some of Silicon Valley’s most reputed companies on issues of talent, recruitment, culture as competitive advantage and leadership. He is former VP of Talent at LinkedIn and founder of Cadigan Talent Ventures. And just recently, Steve Cadigan (pictured, above) announced that he has co-founded Silicon Valley’s New ISDI Digital University™ and will be working hard to promote the first-ever Master’s of Internet (MIB) degree in Silicon Valley. In this exclusive, he talks about lessons from LinkedIn, edtech, advice for edtech startups, his perspective on the state of education—and what lies ahead. 

Any anecdote from your LinkedIn days that informs your current approach in advising companies?  

Steve: For me, it always comes down to culture. Our fortunes changed at LinkedIn the day we became crystal clear on who we were as a company and answered the critical question: “Why does anyone want to work here?” Once we all were on the same page, we then collectively made a firm commitment as a leadership team to be the best company anyone had ever worked for- then things really changed and we started to hire much more effectively and feel more confident as a company. I am surprised at how few organizations ask themselves the simple question, “Why would someone want to work here” in a very honest fashion that extends beyond – cool people, product roadmap or the perks and compensation.

While kids learn in a classroom – life does not continue after school in a classroom- life happens for most outside of class, so what are we doing to help kids in that regard?

What are your thoughts about edtech as a segment? 

Steve: Whenever you look at the viability of a segment, the first question you should ask is “What is the unmet need this segment addresses – and how large is it?” In looking at education today, particularly in the U.S., there is universal frustration on so many levels. Further, there are many different positions around both content and delivery and there is great passion and energy on education in general. Hence, I see a huge opportunity for edtech to address – many unhappy and frustrated customers looking for new approaches and solutions; however, I also see a big challenge because this is an emotional topic and there are wide-ranging opinions on how to solve the many challenges.

Any advice for edtech companies, especially fledgling companies, making their way forward into 2017 and beyond?

Steve: Be very clear on what you are going after. Vet that idea with as many people as possible. Find as big of a hole as you can that needs to be filled so you have the largest possible opportunity. Don’t be naive enough to think that you can do something without people who are already involved in “traditional” education models. I think sometimes people make the false assumption that people who are working in a broken system won’t be helpful in fixing that system. You desperately need people in the broken system to help you understand it and learn what ideas might or might not work. For an edtech firm to have no advisors or staff from the education space is a very risky and faulty approach, in my view. I recall in the early days of LinkedIn, our sales organization was selling a recruiting product to recruiters but had zero people selling who actually had recruited before. While the company did okay with these outsiders, once we put people with the knowledge of what it’s like to recruit (i.e., former recruiters) and how to relate to recruiters, then we really started to connect with customers better, build better products, and get closer to the industry. I think the same applies here to education.

What are your thoughts on the state of education these days? 

Steve: There is universal frustration and disappointment with the state of education today and I fear that people are ready to throw out programs and systems when perhaps just some minor adjustments or tuning is required. I think impatience and frustration is obscuring our ability to see the big picture. I am disappointed that the salary a teacher makes is way below the value we expect teachers to deliver to our precious kids – our future. While we do see a great deal of frustration about the state of education in the U.S., we don’t see much movement on how we compensate teachers.

At the same time, I think parents and communities are putting too much pressure on “schools” to educate and forgetting that an enormous amount of education should take place in the home and in families. We need to help families learn how to help their kids learn at home too – education should be 24×7, not just something that happens in the classroom. It extends well beyond the core subjects of math, English and social studies, for example. While kids learn in a classroom – life does not continue after school in a classroom- life happens for most outside of class, so what are we doing to help kids in that regard? That is a parental responsibility in large measure, and this is a big area of opportunity for edtech to help address: helping families outside the classroom.

With your understanding of company cultures, talent, HR, etc. – in light of that, what is your perspective on the purpose of education? 

Steve: The most important thing we can do for our kids is to help them grow the joy of learning and working with other people. Intellectual curiosity is a gift that will propel people far in life. Learning to think critically, ask questions, seek other perspectives is so important for teams and organizations, both profit and nonprofit. As someone who has recruited thousands and sadly fired many as well – the people who win in organizations are the people others want to be around, the people who are trusted, the people who do what they say they are going to do – it’s not always the smartest person who excels, so much as the person who others want to follow and work around. Sometimes I think we lose the plot with education when we put too much emphasis on grades for individual achievement with academics. Some of my best employees were ones who played a lot of team sports or who were part of group activities and have learned the art of working with others vs. solving a problem on their own. We need to really emphasize collaboration in classrooms and beyond, and value and reward teamwork more than we do today with our kids.

In your opinion, what is technology’s role in enhancing, improving, even transforming education?  

Steve: I see tech as a facilitator in moving education forward but it is not a panacea. We need to find the right balance of tech and human interaction. We need tech to help us link students, teachers and families together and to provide novel and dynamic was of learning. We all learn differently and the more diversity we have in delivery, the more likely we will reach a broader audience.

That said, I really do fear we will put too much expectation on technology to change things for us when we should look to tech to help us learn more about each other and our common humanity. Today, people put their hands and eyes on a device more than they do another human being. Think about the implications around that relative to building trust and teams. How do you trust someone who you communicate more with on a device than you do face to face? So, I see tech helping us in the right way, but it is not the panacea some may hope for and we should not bet on tech to be the solution to all of our problems.

I really do fear we will put too much expectation on technology to change things for us when we should look to tech to help us learn more about each other and our common humanity.

Let’s talk more about the ‘skills gap’, the meaning of ’21st century learning’, and what’s coming down the road very soon. Thoughts on all this? 

Steve: One of the harsh realities we face today is that technology is outpacing our ability to absorb and apply it, and organizations are faced with the huge challenge of finding ways to forecast and develop the skills necessary for the future of their organization. We have yet to find a way to help our workforce adjust as fast as new tech is replacing jobs, so we have some big challenges ahead. As I look at this reality, I think the most important skill we can build today in our workforce is the ability to adapt, to not only live with ambiguity but to be change leaders and to become constant learners. People need to recognize that a deep skillset in a particular area may have a short shelf life, but the ability to learn new skills quickly, and adapt to a changing environment is enormous, and this is what I refer to as future-proofing your career. We will never erase the skills gap as tech will continue to drive innovation and create new requirements and skills. We have to recognize that the more we have a learning workforce and the more we educate in a way that mirrors this changing reality, the more our leaders of tomorrow will be prepared to face whatever comes their way. It’s scary and daunting, yet also exciting.

Who is involved in the MIB – not ‘Men in Black’ of course – but Masters’ of Internet Business? Tell me more about it, who can do it, who is the perfect candidate, tech changes so fast – how do you accommodate for rapid change – how won’t this degree get old or stale fast? 

Steve: The MIB was born out of a fundamental reality: every organization is going through digital transformation today and this is only going to accelerate so we want to help professionals build the skills they need to succeed in the new digital economy and we want to help companies have the talent they need to help them transform.  Nobody is teaching Internet Business skills as comprehensively as we are anywhere in the U.S. I am so excited about our MIB – its the first of its kind in the U.S. – a Masters’ of Internet Business taught exclusively by accomplished business professionals in a highly practical and immersive way with a focus on helping students really build and leverage a knowledge network. We believe the future will continue to involve a great deal of change and so we prepare our students with the skills they need today, but also the ability to learn and adapt as new skills become required in the future. We want to future-proof the careers of our students and to achieve this, we are building a very robust community that lives with our students well beyond graduation to help them with their careers in the long term and that helps them adapt to an exciting and ever changing digital economy. And this lasting network we provide our students is how we ensure that our graduates stay current and fresh with their competitive skills well beyond the duration of the Masters classes.

What is the link between early learning, elementary, middle, high school, postsecondary – and even continuing education and workforce on the job training? Are there certain values or core elements from your vantage point at the corporate level, that educators and technology companies working in education, and edtech companies – people passionate about tech’s role in enhancing education – should bear in mind?

Steve: As I mentioned earlier, given the world is changing at a faster clip today than ever before and the skills required by organizations are also changing at an accelerated clip, the best investment we can make is to prepare our students from the very start of their formal education experience to be agile, to be capable of changing course and pivoting when circumstances require it. We need to help build platforms so that the learning is done in environments similar to the workplace. We need to reconcile working in a reality where we have more information and stimuli than ever before – how can we find the signal in the noise? Helping students build listening and collaborative strategies is paramount.

We just published a long list of honorees—finalists and winners—for the 2017 EdTech Awards. There’s a lot of talent and innovation there. Any advice to these companies and their leaders? 

The best advice I can give any edtech firm is no different than advice to any startup leader – don’t fall so in love with your product that you stop listening to your employees and customers about ways you can improve it. You can and must always improve today, and most of the time breakthrough ideas will come from people outside your company – so you must continue to listen and encourage input from as many sources as possible. The second bit of advice is to leverage the award PR to help you validate your roadmap and use it to hire more great staff and secure better and larger customers. Don’t consider an award the end game, but rather a nice pat on the back to help give you the encouragement you need to continue to work extremely hard to improve your company and your product.

What are your thoughts about the future of edtech? 

Steve: It’s bright but its going to be challenging as there are a myriad of players and flashy shiny objects, all facing a customer base that is complex, frustrated and impatient.

Anything else you care to add or emphasize? 

Steve: Great questions – thank you for allowing me the opportunity to share my ideas.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.blog

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