Brian Green: Staying Ahead of the Technology Curve

On this edition of the Inc. Tank, host Christina Elson talks with Brian Green about the impact of fast-moving technology on the workforce. What can firms and individuals do to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution? What is the role of academia and government? 



Christina: Hello, I’m Christina Elson. And on this edition of the Inc. Tank, we’ll discuss the impact of fast-moving technology on the workforce. What can firms and individuals do to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution? What is the role of academia and government? My guest today is Brian Green, a senior vice president at Learning Tree International. Brian works across industries to support lifelong learning goals.

Brian, good morning. Thanks so much for joining me today in the Inc. Tank. I was thinking last night, in preparation for our conversation about the industrial revolutions. We’re gonna talk today about the fourth industrial revolution, what that means for us, but this analogy popped into my mind of a train. I was thinking like, okay, well, the first industrial revolution, you know, there was the train. And people were like, “Oh my God, what is this iron beast?” Right? And then the second industrial revolution…do you remember those videos of people watching the train come at them on the screen…

Brian: Oh, yeah. Of course.

Christina: And they start to scream, and they’re like, “Oh, my God,” you know, “what is that?” And then, here we are. And so I was thinking, that’s a perfect analogy for the fourth industrial revolution. Because it’s coming at us.

Brian: The train is still coming. Yeah.

Christina: Right, the train is still coming. And a lot of people are just like, “Oh my God, what does this mean?” So we’re gonna talk about that today.

Brian: I love it.

Christina: Let’s just jump right into that. So what is the fourth industrial revolution and what are we expecting about this?

Brian: First of all, good morning, and thank you very much for bringing me here. I’ve had the opportunity of listening in and even watching a lot of the Inc. Tank interviews, and not only are you doing a good job, but your guests are doing an incredible job and hopefully, I can meet that bar. So thank you for having me, really enjoying it.

So the fourth industrial revolution, as you’ve suggested, the first one was all about steam mechanics. And the second one, we introduced electricity. Third one, we really introduced computer power. And now, it’s really this fourth industrial revolution, which a lot of you and your guests are speaking of, is how do we now amplify and accelerate the power of these network devices? And in many cases, moving these devices into the Cloud and on mobile devices, where we almost always are connected, even in our homes now as well, right?

So that fourth industrial revolution is now looking at this broader connected network of devices, humans, data. And in many cases, that data is able to tell us different things that we didn’t know. It’s allowing the workforce to be a little bit wiser and smarter about the work that they do. And it’s also really changing the dynamics of how the human capital workforce needs to engage in the business. So we’re moving from, perhaps, away from more of the low-skilled outputs to higher output because a lot of these machines and data are doing the work for us.

Christina: We wanna jump into that deeper because we wanna focus on the impact that it’s gonna have on the workforce. And what does that mean for continuous preparation? So preparing in our basic education, higher education, but then what that means for us throughout our careers. And so, we really wanna get your expertise and your thought leadership in that area. And a point that you just mentioned, which is so important, is this idea of…technology is allowing us to not have to do some of the more mechanized tasks. We’re gonna talk about the kind of skills that humans are gonna keep doing for a long time and some of the things we may not. But one of the things it is allowing for is to think creatively about how to use this kind of technology. And what are your thoughts in that direction about the need for human creativity and the application of technology?

Brian: In our space, thought leaders, if you will, in workforce development, you know, we’ve always had the ability of utilizing technology to advance any of the work that we’re doing. You and I talked earlier on a new report that came out from the World Economic Forum on the impact that technology is having. And I would say that broadly, it’s saying or suggesting that there’s a small percentage of the population that will be completely eliminated because of technology, right? Three, 4%, but that’s today’s technology. But if you look back over the last 20, 30, 40 years, if you will, technology has always impacted us directly. The use of computers allows us to be a lot more efficient and productive.

But to your point, though, as we look at the workplace and how individuals are performing on the job, in many cases, I think leadership is expecting us to be able to work more curiously and more creatively. And in many cases, in government as we’re here in Washington, DC, is trying to improve citizen services, trying to improve the customer experience, the user experience. And many of those things fall short, if you will, if we apply technology first and go try to find a solution. So what most organizations that we’re seeing, both in the private and public sector are asking their staff is to really develop strategic thinking, creative thinking, really trying to harness curiosity, to get them to start recognizing, what are the problems that we’re trying to solve first? And then let’s figure out how technology can enhance that or apply that.

Christina: So that’s so important because it really is about solving problems, identifying really challenging problems and thinking about how to solve those, and not so much about…getting away from this idea of just short-term incremental change. Like, we have some big problems out there in the world that technology can help to make not only human…you know, contribute to human progress, but really enhance the quality of life for us. And so that kind of focus on being able to apply technology there, but what is actually the business case for thinking about how to get workforce readiness for the technologies that are coming our way? How should leaders think about that?

Brian: There’s two different frames of mind here, if you will. So, on the government side, the ecosystem of the government somewhat stymies, if you will, a little bit that creativity. But I think the President’s new management agenda is beginning to recognize low trust in government and really trying to bring value back to the federal employee, and we all celebrate that. It’s unbelievable the expertise that exist in our federal agencies, whether it’s civilian or DOD. So I think in many times, it really is leadership really enforcing the idea that our employees are hired to deliver value and put them in a position to deliver value.

So on the private sector side, I would say, you know, financial services organizations and technology, manufacturing organizations, those organizations are inherently inundated by the stress and risk of losing customer satisfaction, customer confidence, customer satisfaction, in principle, because they can go somewhere else. If they don’t like product A from company A, they can go to product B in company B, and most likely it’s gonna be a similar experience.

In the government, you really can’t do that. There is a bit of a monopoly effect if you will. And so I think the federal agencies have been a little bit slower to adopt some of this mentality, but it’s really impressive to see pockets where it does exist, and they’re doing exceptional work. HHS, doing exceptional work. Veterans Affairs, doing exceptional work. So I think the tide has definitely turned in recognizing the value that that individual has in really identifying ways in which that we can improve the customer experience. And then identifying through their colleagues, and IT, and other organization, where, in fact, we can apply, now, technology once we’ve identified a path for improving the user experience or customer experience. A veteran trying to get benefits much more efficiently, right? Or someone at Social Security looking to get their benefits much more efficiently. So I think in many cases, the awareness of the employees’ role for identifying opportunities of increasing user or customer experience is here today.

Christina: Yeah, that’s really important, obviously the first step. And then we have to think about how we make sure that the employee is skilled to be able to think about delivering the strategy. What is the thought about that? How do we keep the workforce…? You know, technology is moving so fast and we don’t always know what things are gonna look like five years from now. So how do we think about keeping the employees, you know, ready?

Brian: There’s a moniker, if you will, that a lot of organizations are beginning to adopt. Harvard did a great study on it recently. It’s called VUCA. It’s a phrase that the U.S. Army first, originally, came up with. And I think it’s being pressed out even more now across organizations because of the recognition that technology is creating VUCA. And what VUCA is, is a description of an environment. And that VUCA environment is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

If you look at this fourth industrial revolution, getting back to where we started, and looking at the amount of data that we’re collecting and the volatility of the user, right now, being able to essentially pick a service or a platform that they want rapidly, in real-time, and that uncertainty of technology and where technology is going. And so I think, in most cases, this adoption of Agile is really a result of this, right?

And so what Agile is really teaching the workplace and the global organizational workplace as well, not just here domestically, but it’s really saying, “Let’s not boil the ocean.” Because technology is changing so quickly and so rapidly. What’s more valuable to us is to deliver incremental value to our customer. One, so that we can make progress, right? And if that progress is good, great, let’s take round two, round three, round four. But in many cases, in round four or round five, new technology might come in, and say, allow us to pivot this way, but still showing value to the consumer experience or the user experience. And I think Agile plus the changing roles in technology, giving employees a lot more confidence to deliver without having to have the whole pie baked first. And that’s critical.

Christina: So, as an employee, if I am thinking about how to manage my career over the next… I see that there’s a lot of new technological adoption, people are looking at different roles. I don’t even know if my role is gonna be around in the next 10 years, you know. Let’s see what everybody else is doing, you know.

Brian: We’re gonna be two robots, here, in about three years. It’s gonna be Alexa speaking to Alexa.

Christina: Alex and Alexa, right? Yeah. So, I f you’re an employee thinking about that, like, how do you get into this idea of, “I need to rescale, I need to upscale.” Like, what do I need to do? You know, I wanna be proactive about it, but there’s just so much going on, right? How do I think about it? How do I sort through it? What should I be asking for my company?

Brian: What you just characterized is this classic umbrella called, “the war for talent.” And, you know, the way in which our social networks are now created and very transparent, I think, first and foremost, is that the accessibility of this war for talent, and upscaling, and rescaling, and visibility on how technology is changing the landscape. You know, I would say 20, 30 years ago, the employee base might have been sort of checked out on that stuff because it wasn’t as transparent or at least accessible. I think now it is. And you’ve got platforms like LinkedIn and others that are clearly demonstrating workforce trends. And I think, you know, HR organizations are not just looking at policy and legislative issues or workplace issues. They’re really looking at workforce development because so many organizations recognize with this dominant platform of fourth industrial revolution of technology, that if we don’t have the type of skills in our staff to keep up as organizations that we’re associated with like, ACT-IAC… We have conferences, and everybody, the senior executives within government, as well as private-sector organizations are all saying, “Listen, technology, modernization, is great. But technology doesn’t work by itself.” We still need that human element. And if the human element isn’t keeping up with the technology element, we’re gonna spend a lot of money without any functionality.

And so I think the advice to employees is to really get involved in the communities that you have a shared interest in or you have a passion for. A lot of those fundamental things are still very relevant. People still look to identify, to have people within their organization that have passion, that have direction, that have a strategy, that have motivation. And so find those communities that are common to you and that share your values, and really begin to understand, what are those skills that you’re seeing that your colleagues are getting hired for? Or check out the local training industry associations, and identify what those skill trends are. And there’s one that recently came out, the 2019 trends for, you know, IT professionals…or whatever it might be. We’re focused a lot on IT. It’s not just about IT, but nonetheless, no matter what profession that you’re involved in, technology is being integrated in all of them, across the board, whether you’re in healthcare, financial services, even manufacturing. A colleague of mine said that the largest data sets in any industry is actually manufacturing, not financial services. So even some of the first and second industrial revolution organizations are still being revolutionized with technology.

Christina: Certainly. And referring again to this World Economic Forum report, which was so enjoyable and for a couple reasons. One reason is that it highlighted the idea that many leaders are unsure about the future. If you and I could predict the future, we’d be having this talk on a private island somewhere in the Pacific. Right? Okay. So, we’re not doing that. But you have to make bold choices, right, about what you’re gonna do and what you’re gonna invest in and how you’re gonna invest in rescaling. And one of the points in the report was that, you know, most organizations are going to need to invest, almost on a company-wide basis, in rescaling and that there is a business case to be made for rescaling. It’s not, just, fire everybody and find some 22-year-olds, right? That’s just not gonna work, okay?

Brian: Not that the 22-year-olds would mind that.

Christina: Right. So you really do have to think about the long term, but you have to take risks. You know, no one knows where it’s all going. But another point that I found quite interesting is this idea that what you really wanna invest in, just is to go back to these points of creating the right culture, creating the right environment, creating the right attitude towards lifelong learning, which is something that you talk a lot about, and the curiosity aspect. So tell me a little bit about that, what you’re seeing in terms of this balance between investing in rescaling and investing in creating the right environment to encourage that proactivity.

Brian: So let me take the first part first, on the environment for rescaling and some of that strategy. And we’ll talk about the culture, second because many times culture can kill the strategy. So relative to the environment… So I’ve been in the training industry for 20 years plus or so, and my goodness, has it changed so much in those 20 years. There used to be monopolies, and I’ve worked for a couple of them, where you could only get training from us, the private sector. Educational institutions are, in many cases, monopolies as well. But then again, there’s also a choice within those monopolies, right? But for the most part, you didn’t have the flexibility and access that you do today, which I love actually. And so if you look for, you know, unique professions…and the vast availability to gain access to content now, and experts, right, that are in your field, that are unique to you, or unique to your little problem.

If I can do a little bit of a tangent, back in the ’90s, there was this great movie that I was a big fan of called the, “Matrix.” So, Keanu Reeves, good guys fighting bad guys. But the unique thing about the Matrix was this little chip that each of them had in their head. And so whenever they needed something on the fly, like for instance, you need to hot wire a Black Hawk helicopter to get your kids to soccer practice faster, you just download the chip, and you hop in a Black Hawk helicopter, and off you go.

And so, while there’s nobody flying around Black Hawk helicopters in DC, but they are able to identify skills that are unique to that need right now, before I go into my meeting, or before I lead a project review, or before we bring in these technology vendors, that I can get a quick dollop of knowledge really fast. Or I can actually invest a half a day, learning from leaders or hopping onto my platform and downloading a half-day session. And so in many cases, the access to learning that learners have now is incredible. And now, this desire to have access has created this new cottage industry called Ed Tech. And Ed Tech is really vastly expanding the access and making it seamless to the users like a Netflix, right? So you go on Netflix and you say, “Hey, I like this genre, I like that genre.” So these Ed Tech platforms are now allowing that. And with AI, they’re saying, “Hey, Brian, you’ve tended to like, you know, How to Cook, you know, English muffins. So here’s some french toast offerings for you as well.” And so it’s beginning to learn more and more on the types of skills that you need from the type of subject-matter experts that you’ve been watching. And I just think the ease of access and the relevance of that that’s providing good learners who are really investing in themselves, I think, is an amazing opportunity for the workforce.

Now, getting back to the culture side, I think we are in a fairly major shift right now. You have a lot of employees that we see that are old school, that they’re doing a job and they’re doing it very well to the best of their ability. And then there’s a new school, which really represents, I think, what most current CEOs are concerned about, which is, “Hey, Christina has a skill and she sits over in this department, but I can’t grab her now to bring her over because she’s tied up.” Most organizations now are saying, “No, Christina has a skill, it’s highly valuable. We’re gonna allow her to pilot around. And wherever that skill is necessary, at the time that it’s necessary, we’re gonna use it.” And so a lot of these organizations are getting a lot flatter. Some people are responding very well to that. Other people, you take away that hierarchy and they’re freaking out. And so I think culture is a big, big and will have a big, big impact on that portability of skills that exist in these large organizations, where I need access to it right now. I don’t have to go through Christina’s boss or Christine’s leadership, I can go into my system, see the skill that I need, pop it right in, and we’re delivering value to the company like that.

Christina: So you did open up the higher education can of worms there, so we can talk about that. It’s clear that many companies feel that the talent they’re hiring from higher education is super enthusiastic, very bright, but they have to invest many, many months right from the get-go in filling a skills gap. And that’s fine, but there is a bit of a disconnect on a broad scale between what many companies feel that they’re able to acquire in talent, and where they feel they would like people to be before they’re kind of onboarding them. So that’s one issue that we wanna think about.

And then, of course, the other is this idea of, you can have great content, but if it’s not delivered in an intriguing or interesting way, then how do you make sure that people are retaining it? So, you know, and that goes back to higher education. Like, what are the things that really help people learn? What are the environments? Because Ed Tech is great, but, you know, when Ed Tech came on, everybody thought, “Oh, well, we don’t need four-year colleges anymore, we can just do it online.” And, of course, that doesn’t work either. So now, we’re sort of in the middle. Like, we’re trying to figure out, like, “Okay, should I go to class? Should I do it online? Do I need internship? Do I need, like, mentorship?” So like, what are you seeing about that in that area?

Brian: So I will say that I don’t have one disparaging remark about higher ed. The higher education institutions, I think, provide immense value and have continued to. And I found a little bullet that I love to share for my friends and colleagues in higher ed. The number one reason for Chinese investment in the United States of America, most people don’t know, is real estate. The number one investment that they’re making in America is real estate. And the reason for that is education. And that was a Forbes study that came out and said, “Anybody realize what the number one reason is…” And so our education system is still the best in the world. But I think what’s occurring and the challenges of this new fourth industrial revolution is that things are changing so fast. And so I’ve been in some conferences where academic institutions were really applauding themselves for the type of work that they’re doing and the talent they’re developing, but in many cases, that content or that curricula doesn’t necessarily take that last yard, if you will, of really ensuring that they’re prepared to be doing what they’re supposed to be doing in the workplace.

And so organizations have to invest a little bit more, right? Whether it’s three months or 18 months. But I think that’s always been the case, right? I think the challenge now is that those higher education institutions are trying to figure out, “Hey, how can we get only an inch off the end zone,” if you will, “rather than a full yard or 10 yards, where you still have to invest.” And so I think through this public-private partnership that we’re starting to see, and I think more and more, maybe towards like the fourth year or the sixth year or the eighth year, right? Maybe we’ll have more of a transition that begins to occur, where we have a little bit of work share that goes on, or maybe the curriculum begins to modify a little bit. And I think we’re seeing that in certain cases like cybersecurity. I think cyber is gonna be one of those ones that is adopted not only in the collegiate level, but I think we’re also gonna start pushing it down to K through 12. And so I think that bridge is gonna start occurring, certainly, there, and I think it’ll continue to expand from there.

Christina: At this point, you know, I really do have to give a huge shout out to my institution, University of Maryland and in particular, to a program that I’m very passionate about and teach in, which is the QUEST Honors Program.

Brian: Yes. Unbelievable.

Christina: It’s a beautiful model, a great example of really taking inner-disciplinary, cross-disciplinary talent and putting them together for two years, partnering them with industry, and, you know, really, really thinking about how to give them the space to learn the technical part, but apply it creatively. And really have to think about being leaders in this environment of thinking about this really challenging transition that they’re gonna make out from the higher education environment into the industry.

Brian: And where else or how else would they be able to develop that mindset, if it wasn’t for that program? They’re not gonna learn that in the college hallways, right? They’re gonna learn that through that real hands-on environment, where they’re having to apply those skills. And then you, as you suggested earlier, sort of get into this cultural conversation. Now we gotta deal with diversity dynamics and leadership dynamics, and retirement dynamics. So there’s so many different elements now that applying a skill is not a singular task, right? You gotta apply a skill within a very diverse environment, where there are political and organizational issues that you have to deal with. But I think the key, that the more and more that we can train our young college-level grads, undergrads coming into the workplace, if we can push them out into that community more and more, all the better for us.

Christina: Yeah, you know, again, when I was looking at the report, the skills that it was mentioning are these really important skills like interdisciplinary, holistic, agile, multidisciplinary, flat hierarchies, just curiosity, all the things that we want people to adopt as the first step of being lifelong learners. So that gives me good classroom ammunition. Right?

Brian: Take it, take it. I also think that some of these trends where employees, you know, even the LinkedIn CEO, I think, said it a couple of years ago. He said, “Listen, I can’t count on having staff anymore for 10, 15 years, right? I’ve got them for, like, three to five years,” and maybe not even that long, right? And so you think about that and, like, what’s my return on investment as a CEO or as an executive of an organization? When I know that the portability of my employees are sort of a shelf life of three years, how can I ensure that I get value and benefit from hiring them and investing them as I am? But also, I think the challenge is, how do we ensure that we extend that a little bit, right? How do we create that environment here that they don’t wanna leave in a short amount of time? And how do we ensure that, not only the environment is there that they wanna be in, but also that we’re providing the challenges and the opportunities long term? And then I think on the other side of that, if you think about employee dynamics, in many cases, a lot of these organizations are moving to a contract-based staff, right, almost like a project. They come in and help us with this project, and you’re with us for three months, six months, two years, whatever it might be, and then you’re ported out. So I think there’s a lot of different unique changes going on and I think all for the good, but it certainly makes us all look at our skills that are relevant today because of this high-demand environment that we’re.

Christina: Tell me a little bit about how you came to be interested in this higher education and talent- development space. What’s your background? And, you know, how many careers have you had?

Brian: Right. So I have to say that, I actually came into it by luck of a draw, if you will. But I originally was going into the business of culinary. I applied and was accepted to the Culinary Institute of America, phenomenal school up in Poughkeepsie, New York. I had a sort of a brainstorm one day, and I said, God, you know, being in a restaurant on Christmas and Thanksgiving and nights and weekends, I thought, “Ah…” So then I started pursuing a business career. And, you know, early on in my career, Christine, I worked for a lot of entrepreneurs, and those entrepreneurs were just incredibly strong mentors of mine, and just the value that they have provided me as a mentor and as a mentoree of them, you know, it just stuck with me. I was originally in sort of a project manager role, always in business development, and serving on kind of major programs. And then a recruiter actually called me one day and said, “Hey, given your PM background, I wanna bring you over to an organization that actually specializes in Project Manager training.” That was my original introduction to it.

But since then, the impact of technology on the workforce forced me into this space in IT, and I just think it’s getting more and more exciting. I mean, if I had to retire right now, I would be like most and be locking myself to the desk. Because I think there’s so many fascinating things going on, right now, that will both change the way that work gets done, and will unhandcuff a lot of employees that want that flexibility and portability to be able to apply their skills and get recognized for that, and provide even more contribution than they can, sort of, in this bureaucratic environment that they might be in today. And the social platforms really allow for that expertise to shine. And if you have that expertise, you’re gonna be high in demand. And that’s great place to be for our country.

Christina: It really is. And you know, going back to this whole technology…ultimately, the long-term value of this, it really is to keep us, you know, America, as a progress-oriented society, right? We really do want to leverage technology to solve these important problems and to keep our young people and people of every age really involved in doing that, right?

Brian: And diversity too.

Christina: And diversity.

Brian: I mean, we have the blessing of, you know, we’re still an attractive island to come to, and I saw some of the students that were part of the QUEST program, and the amazing level of diversity that’s there, working together on these programs. I mean, we need intelligent, young, aspiring individuals, early, mid, or at the tail end of their career, leading this industrial revolution because I think we’re just cracking open the door on what we’re really about to expose ourselves to.

Christina: Well, we’re in complete agreement on that.

Brian: For good or for worse.

Christina: For good or worse. Well, Brian, it’s been a great pleasure to talk to you.

Brian: I loved it.

Christina: Any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

Brian: The only thing that I would like to say is that, there’s some big things going on in government. And I would love to continue to see our elected officials find ways in which that we can create more seamless portability in and out of government. There’s so much great talent in this world of ours and so many incredible missions in our federal government, between civilian missions, defense missions, intelligence missions. And the one thing that’s preventing a lot of this rich talent to come in and serve our national interest is the hiring constraints that our government has imposed on itself. And I’d love to be able to see the portability of talent from those that are attracted to the private sector come in and do a three-month stint, a two-year stint, be able to pop right back out. If we can do that, our government’s gonna be even better than what it already is.

Christina: That’s a great idea and something I think we definitely wanna strive for, that talent exchange, and cultural exchange, and experience exchange. Yeah. Thank you, Brian. It’s been lovely talking to you.

Brian: I’m honored.

Christina: And I’m looking forward to our further collaboration.

Brian: Outstanding.

Christina: Take care.

Brian: Thanks, Christina.

Christina: Bye.

Brian: Bye-bye.

Christina: Employers and institutes of higher learning will have challenges trying to keep up with the pace of technology. A prepared workforce committed to lifelong learning is the only way to stay ahead of the curve. Thanks to Brian Green for talking with me today. Until next time, this is Christina Elson in The Inc. Tank.


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