Critical Thinking in the Age of Disruption: Executive Education at the University of Auckland


One of my goals this year has been to try and put together a kind of DIY MBA for myself.

Not really a proper MBA, mind you… who’s got time for that? I like my marriage.

What I mean is more of a collection of training and inputs from sources outside of what I would normally have access to on my own. Things to help me think differently.

My first step was to take a course in Service Design Thinking through the Exec Education programme at Auckland Uni.

The university has changed a lot over the nearly 20 years since I studied and worked there, but it still feels very familiar to me.

I like it there and I really enjoyed engaging with the Service Design content. I had done a little bit of reading beforehand, but much of it was new to me.

Professionally, those two days have laid the groundwork for a methodology that I can implement over the next couple of big projects I’m hoping to be involved with.

Because the first course was such a buzz, I enrolled in a second one in March. This time the focus was Critical Thinking.

My relationship to critical thinking is different to service design, however. Service design was a new subject area for me personally.

Critical thinking though is something that I’ve been reading about and working on for a long time. At least since my studies at Auckland as an undergraduate.

One of the things that really resonated with me with regards to this course was what provoked it. This was two things according to the course facilitator:

  1. The requirement for you (i.e. me) to change.
  2. To enable you (i.e me) to influence, lead and coach others.

This pretty much sums up where I’m at right now.

I’m aware of the need to foster a kind of radical open-mindedness about what I need to be working on. This applies personally and professionally.

As Bob Dylan almost said: “The times they are a-changin’ and in fact accelerating more rapidly everyday…”

For me, this means I need critical thinking skills more than ever. So the course seemed a good opportunity to brush up on things I thought I knew but also expose myself to some new thinking about thinking.

If I have a criticism, it’s that the course spent a lot of time defining critical thinking. So I’m not going go over that ground here apart from to say there are some really great definitions out there and lots of frameworks that people can tap into.

What I want to get to is some of the key takeaways for me that made the two days really worthwhile.

Here’s one: The connection of critical thinking to the age of disruption in which we live right now. Here’s an illustration:

The largest taxi company has no taxis – UBER.

The largest accommodation company has no real estate – AIRBNB.

The largest telephone company has no infrastructure – SKYPE.

The largest retailer has no inventory – ALIBABA.

The largest movie theatre has no movie theatres – NETFLIX

Eric Schmidt – Executive Chairman

Alphabet Inc



If you don’t recognise where the reference is from, Alphabet Inc is the company that owns Google.

Here’s another below. This relates to the need for all of us to become better critical thinkers:

As we enter what has been termed the 4th industrial revolution (a period of rapid and fundamental change brough about by the convergence to the internet and technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics) there are a few skills that are becoming more valuable over time.

The 10 Skills You Need to Thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Future of Jobs Report

World Economic Forum 2016

I looked up this report… Here are there conclusions in summary form, by 2020:

  • Over one third (35%) of skills that are considered important in today’s workforce will have changed.
  • Advanced robotics, autonomous transport, artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced materials, biotech and genomics will transform the way we live and work.
  • Some jobs will disappear altogether, others will grow and there will be jobs that don’t exist today that will be commonplace.

Based on their compared the top 10 skills needed by global employers in 2015 when the survey was done, to their predictions. Here’s what you get:

In 2015

In 2020

1. Complex problem solving 1. Complex problem solving (no change)
2. Coordinating with others 2. Critical thinking (+2)
3. People management 3. Creativity (+7)
4. Critical thinking 4. People management (-1)
5. Negotiation 5. Coordinating with others (-3)
6. Quality control 6. Emotional intelligence (new)
7. Service orientation 7. Judgement and decision making (+1)
8. Judgement and decision making 8. Service orientation (-1)
9. Active listening 9. Negotiation (-4)
10. Creativity 10. Cognitive flexibility (new)

Keep in mind these are just predictions, but it’s interesting for lots of reasons. One is that the need for critical thinking isn’t going away. It’s just going to increase.

Another thing is that this need for critical thinkers is going to be coupled with a need for the same people to be highly creative and good a solving complex problems.

Things that disappeared off the list for 2020 include quality control, judgement and decision making and active listening.

I don’t think that these are going away anywhere. But some of this will simply be automated and overshadowed by the need for a different skillset.

Also, new to the 2020 list is emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility.

Food for thought: I’m writing this right now in 2018. This means we’re somewhere in the middle of these two lists.

  • How well prepared are you? Not for the next 20 years, but for the next two years?

If you want to brush up on your critical thinking skills there are plenty of great books and online materials.

However, if you’re after something more “hands on” that can set things in motion for you, you’ll find it hard to go past the Critical Thinking in the Age of Disruption short course at the University of Auckland.


Four Tools For Building Cool Stuff Online: Or How To Start Thinking Outside The Box


I went to the Supercharge conference the other day in Wellington. This was a business conference… nothing to do with literacy, numeracy or even education (I know… thank goodness right…?)

Lots of cool stuff. The coolest though was the 40-minute presentation by Justin Wilcox of Customer Development Labs.

At the start of his presentation, he said that in the 40 minutes that he had to speak he was going to do the following:

  1. Come up with a product idea.
  2. Get some customer feedback.
  3. Build a website
  4. Launch the product

Considering that by the time he had said all this he only had about 35 minutes left I think we were all rather skeptical.

But he pulled it off. And these were the tools that he used:

1. Customer Discovery Ninja

Just this on its own was very cool to see in action. The Customer Discovery Ninja is a tool that allows you to connect to potential customers in North America. They sign up because they have time on their hands and get a small reward for participating.

Justin had decided that he wanted to create some kind of Fitness Tracking App, so he had selected various categories and subcategories in the Customer Discovery Ninja. And ended up with something relating to fitness, weight loss, and diet as the key areas.

From there, he opened the phone line and waited for the call. 10 minutes later someone connected and we listened to him interview a guy in New York who was struggling with diet and weight loss issues.

After a few minutes, it was clear that what this guy needed was not a fitness tracking app, but some kind of product that allowed him to track what was working when it came to diet.

So based on the dialogue, Justin switched away from his initial idea to the diet tracking idea. And then he had about 10 minutes left to do everything else.

2. Instapage

And this is mostly what he used: Instapage. Within about 2 minutes, he had built two landing pages for his new product. Instapage allows you to create web pages via drag and drop.

And then he  created an alternate version of the page so that you could do A/B testing. Instapage makes this really easy. I haven’t tried any of this yet, but based on the demo I think it’s all doable.

3. Powtoon

From here, Justin wanted to jazz up the landing page a bit with a short animated video. For this he used Powtoon. Powtoon advertises itself as an alternative to Powerpoint. It;s drag and drop like Powerpoint or Keynote, but you end up with a animation at the end.

So another 2 minutes to create a short animation. And then he imported this into the Instapage landing pages.

4. Celery

Finally, he wanted a button on the landing page to take pre-orders for the product. So he used Celery for this. Celery is very simple. It’s just a button for taking credit card information for pre-orders. Buyers don’t get charged until your product launches.

And then he launched it.

So Justin didn’t actually create the product, but he did something that was in line with the lean startup method: Come up with a minimal viable product idea and then see if anyone would buy it.

From here, he would be able to take pre-orders to fund the development of the actual product.

It was fast and dirty. But it was impressive.

Justin practises what he preaches as well. And you can have a look at his series of books on how to implement this kind of thinking at his website here: The Focus Framework.

This stuff is cool. I wish I knew this when I started in business. Talking to Justin afterwards, he said that everyone wishes the same thing. And that we all come to these conclusions late.

In my field, we tend to be good at what we do. But this is only in terms of our technical skills. We get professional development and training in these areas.

But we are often rubbish at the skills we need to use our technical skills to build and run a sustainable business. We don’t know how to make a buck… to put it in crude terms.

Most of all, I think we need this kind of thinking in education: Customer validation, lean startup methodology, designing a minimum viable product, product testing.

And then quickly pivoting when it’s obvious that something isn’t working. Unfortunately, the regulatory environment (both TEC and NZQA) act in ways that run counter to this kind of thinking.

This is not their fault. But it’s time to start thinking outside the box.

Really thinking outside the box.

7 More Trends In Education That Will Disrupt Our Work as Teachers


A while ago I wrote about 7 trends in education that will disrupt our work as teachers. Here are 7 more. There is some crossover between them. But 18 months is a long time in internet years and the situation in education is changing.

1. Consolidation

In New Zealand, there is a good trade in private training establishments (PTEs). Well, recently anyway. There is also a trend for public training providers to merge (at least the smaller ones). One of the organisations buying up PTEs is now a publicly traded company listed on the NZX.

It’s economics that motivates these sales, acquisitions and mergers. And hey, if you’re reading this and you’ve got the budget, then feel free to make me an offer…

Times are tough for some education providers. We are all expected to do more and more with less and less. The hidden side to consolidation is closure. Education providers will close if they can’t make a profit, sell, merge, or otherwise pivot. This includes non profit organisations.

2. Offshoring and outsourcing

Here’s how to do it. Develop and or buy a mix of face-to-face, blended, and online education products. Decentralise your training. Centralise your back office. Shift this back office (or most of it) to a cheaper offshore location. Others could handle customer service, compliance, accounts, administration, etc. In a completely different location. Like Manilla, for example.

Teachers and trainers could also be offshored and outsourced. This is harder though, especially if you’re funded to deliver training locally. But, there are ways of meeting this halfway. One way is to use a flipped classroom method or similar, with classroom based coaches and tutors.

3. Complexity

The education bureaucracy runs on rules related to compliance and funding. These rules become increasing more complex. This is just the nature of things. Compliance is a kind of taxation and inflation. Despite a few fluctuations, it always increases over time. This means that if you can navigate the complexity you can survive and thrive.

If you need someone to navigate this for you then you will always find yourself lower down the food chain. This complexity exists in all domains. So, it’s possible to learn the rules in one domain, but not understand them in another.

These rule systems are algorithms. And we should expect their administration to become computer driven and automated. This is why administrators and middle managers are being fired out of all bureaucracies.

4. Opacity

This is related to complexity. Humans are complex. So are bureaucracies as they comprise of humans (mostly anyway). Technology increases the interdependence of the parts in a system. And this increases complexity inside a system.

The 21st century education-compliance-funding-technology bureaucracy is a complex and bewildering beast. The increased complexity in the system makes it harder and harder to see the causes for the problems that we’re funded or paid to mitigate. This is opacity.

For example, in the field of adult literacy and numeracy education, the causes for low levels of adult literacy and numeracy are opaque. It’s hard to see what’s behind poor student performance. It’s a whole ecology of issues and it now seems impossible to separate these out with any coherence.

This is not a problem in practical terms as we can still see the effects and stage various interventions. But, discussion around causes (however interesting) starts to lose it’s meaning and value.

5. Automation

I’ve already written about the self driving car as a metaphor for 21st century educationMOOCs are another part of this experiment. I’ve written about our own experiments with this  including unbundling our training, how to improve MOOCs by embedding foundation learning. I’ve also done a podcast about it here.

But, automating education is fraught with difficulties. As it should be. Embarking on a course, doing a qualification, or even just learning a new skill is not the same as doing an online banking transaction.  Or watching cat videos on YouTube.

There are two barriers to automating education. One is that most of the automation models fail to have any real business model attached to them. In other words, they open source all the knowledge for free. This means that the perceived value goes down.

Participants often fail to complete since they have no skin in the game (e.g. money or other form of accountability).

Our solution to this problem is to lock up most of the assessments and the credentialing process, while keeping the content side open. So MOOC for us = “Mostly” Open Online Course instead of “Massively”.

The other problem relates to the need for human intervention in the learning process. People need coaching by people.

You can substitute videos and clever online interactions, but at the end of the day people want someone to tell them to do something, that they’re on the right track, and to answer questions and provide encouragement. Our solution has been to do this by txt, phone, and email.

As I’ve alluded to, automation of the complex rule systems that drive the funding and compliance machinery should be straightforward. I’m not passing judgement here. But in a system administrated by machines there is little room for fuzzy decision making, risk taking, or innovation. This means that innovation in education needs to come from outside of the existing funding and compliance structures.

6. Fatigue

Continual restructuring, closures, mergers, complexity, opacity, and increasing risk for those in education mean that people get tired. Particularly smaller players.

The education system is in danger of creating a kind of educational chronic fatigue syndrome where the troops on the ground are chronically fatigued due to overwork and the continual threat of job loss. Not to mention other pressures such as maintaining student numbers.

7. Risk

Education is a multi-billion dollar industry. Because of this investors including government, want to see a return on their investment. All investors want to get their money (or value) out as soon as possible. This is a rule.

This leads to short term solutions that fail to take into account the bigger picture. For example, are poor student outcomes a reflection of the larger national or even global economic success and failure cycles? Do these then impact on family situations, jobs, health, and other variables?

Risk is now shared all the way down through the system. Perhaps this is as it should be. I don’t know. But, it seems short sighted.

Organisations and people who are over-exposed to risk in the system will work to mitigate that risk once they are aware of it.

There are two parts here. One part relates to awareness. Education providers are only just starting to wake up to the inherent risks involved in having skin in the education game.

The other part relates to mitigating the risk. Managing the upside against the potential downside, for instance. It doesn’t make economic sense to have a million dollars in revenue if you are spending it all to stay afloat.

How to survive and thrive…?

I don’t have a solution. I do think there are some broad principles that apply. But, you’ll have to wait for another post.