American tech entrepeneur Vivek Wadhwa on diversity, the future of education and Apple's innovation model

Vivek Wadhwa
Vivek Wadhwa/iStock
Jamie Lawrence
Editor
HRZone
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Vivek Wadhwa is an American technology entrepreneur, thinker and academic. He is a fellow at the Rock Center for Corporate Governance and wrote the 2014 book 'Innovating Women: The Changing Face of Technology.' Vivek is a regular columnist for the Washington Post and Bloomberg BusinessWeek and he is a strong proponent of greater diversity in organisations. In 1999, he was named a 'leader of tomorrow' by Forbes magazine and in June 2013, he was included on Time Magazine's list of the Top 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech. Vivek will be attending and speaking at HR Tech Europe, hosted in Paris in October 2016, which brings together HR technology thought leaders from across the globe.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Indian companies have made up for poor education by developing stronger in-house training programmes, creating very strong organisations filled with skilled people. This model seems to be working but you also argue for the importance of the education system, and I agree that the education system is fundamental. How will these tensions be resolved in future? Will greater collaboration between organisations and the education system be the answer?

Vivek Wadhwa: The problem with the Indian education system is that it relies on rote and memorization. When people graduate, they have little real-world experience or practical or social skills. That is why Indian companies have to have their own education institutes—they have to re-educate their employees.

What is needed is an education system that imparts practical skills and teaches students how to learn.

In the future we are headed into, this will be a most important skill. Industries will be severely impacted by advancing technologies and workers will be displaced. They will have to rapidly learn new skills and be adaptable.

Employers will surely do some training, but by and large, the onus will be on the employee to stay current with technology and trends and to be able to adapt to change. The good news is that there are many new ways of learning: information of all sorts is freely available on line.

 In the future, we will have digital tutors that can help us learn new topics and prepare for new professions.

Employers may develop some of these digital tutors, but there will be a wealth of information available through other sources by which people can learn.

In the future we are headed into, this [how to learn] will be a most important skill.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: You argue that emerging technologies give small teams the capacity to act like corporations in solving problems. How does this change the skills make-up that people in the workplace need nowadays? Will we see a resurgence in the focus on team dynamics, role profiles and high-performing teams?

Vivek Wadhwa: Yes, the best way for companies to become innovative and solve problems now is to harness the collective power of their employees.

They can crowdsource the solutions to problems and come up with ideas for new businesses. From the employee perspective, the ability to work together with others, share knowledge, and collaborate on problem solving is a critical skill.

In the past, the so-called “experts” hoarded knowledge so that they could stay important.

Today, sharing knowledge and collaboration are what count. Companies want people who can work together to help the organization succeed—not the arrogant information hoarders.

In the past, the so-called “experts” hoarded knowledge so that they could stay important.

The success—and survival of companies depends on their employees more than ever before, so this change in mindset is very important.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: One of your goals is to help prepare students for the 'real world.' What do you think about the real world surprises them the most?

Vivek Wadhwa: I teach my students how to learn.

I show them where technology is headed and ask them to conclude for themselves where it will lead. Then I ask them to think about the opportunities for them to use these technologies to make the place better. My students are always surprised that I treat them as an equal and challenge them to perform independent research and ideas.

And they are always amazed—as most other people who hear my lectures are, about the pace at which technology is advancing and the opportunities and risks this creates.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Innovation is a hot word at the moment. In one of your blog posts you mention that Apple's 'innovation model' needs refreshing. Can you give us a bit of insight into the general types of innovation model companies can choose from nowadays, and how they differ structurally?

Vivek Wadhwa: Companies are organized in divisions that focus on defending their old products and technologies - they are focused in narrow niches.

Disruptions happen when many technologies advance exponentially and converge. This is the problem that practically every company, including Apple, has, that their different divisions can’t collaborate effectively to develop technologies that will put one or more of them out of business.

There is no company that has figured out how to innovate effectively in the new era of exponential technologies

Apple had a fearless and ruthless leader who would cannibalize his older business to release products such as the iPad and iPhone. Few companies take such risks.

Apple has a bigger problem now: its entire innovation model - which focused on releasing perfect products - has been outdated. In the tech world, companies build simple products and let the markets provide feedback and help evolve these.

There is no company that has figured out how to innovate effectively in the new era of exponential technologies and convergence, by the way.

Google, Microsoft, and Facebook are doing many radical things to reinvent themselves and stay ahead of the next wave of technology, but they too could be disrupted.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Despite progress, many boards are not as diverse as they need to be. Aside from forcing diversity through quotas, we must convince organisations diversity has benefits. In your view, what are the main business/economic arguments - aligned to the idea of creating shareholder value - for why you need diversity in the boardroom that could be used to convince organisations to take action?

Vivek Wadhwa: Innovation thrives in diversity as you see in the technology world - where people from all over the world come together and collaborate to create world-changing technologies.

In companies, when you have groupthink at the top, they miss out on ideas that can help the companies reinvent themselves and thrive. They become private boys clubs in which there is little dissent and out-of-the-box thinking.

Every metric you look at shows how companies that have diverse boards outperform all others. This is important for the growth and survival - it isn’t something that they do because it looks nice.

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