Peter Cochrane's Blog: School's out

Will today's graduates be a force for change in corporate IT?

Written from a London hotel on a free Wi-Fi connection

It's that time of the year again. School's out and so are the exam results. Critics are throwing rocks as the national success rate has improved for the 23rd consecutive year. And suspicious universities plan their own entrance examinations to help differentiate the good and not so good. Prospective employers on the other hand increasingly ignore grades and rely on interviews and tests. When the majority get grade A what else can you do?

Defiant government ministers and spokesmen defy all logic and absurdly defend the situation. What is the truth? You can check out the products for yourself but I prefer having a chat with examiners over a pint of beer, and they will tell you it has all been made easier year-on-year. So it seems that the population isn't undergoing some miracle improvement in smartness. Phew!

Does it matter? Did school ever matter? Or will all this be put right at university? In part I think we are seeing a shifting skills need and resulting capability set driven by technology. Who reading this column still owns and can use a slide rule or log tables, or for that matter how about a programmable pocket calculator? All were important during my education but not any more - Excel and MathCad rule!

The last of my four children is finally out of the school system and on his way to university. After 27 years and arm wrestling the system, I am at last free from any more high school involvement. Did I worry through this process? Oh yes. Are my kids well educated? Yep, better than I at that age. And I might add despite the school system or their parents. I suspect it was ever thus.

My children are different to how I was, with new skills and abilities I never possessed at their age. Yep they have the 3Rs, history, mathematics, science and social knowledge. But they are also technology-agnostic and fearless, able to cope in a manner I had to learn. How come? A continual exposure to IT from age two and up. No courses, no formality, just raw exposure - living with change and being a part of it. They learned about IT in the same way they learned to walk - by doing. Only older people go on courses to learn IT, just as they learn to swim if they missed out in their younger lives.

By the time my youngest son and his cohorts get through university I think we will have passed a unique tipping point - more people will be IT literate than not. And more importantly perhaps, those who understand and can really leverage technology to corporate advantage will replace most retiring managers. If only it were so in government!

Until we get to that point I suspect we will continue to witness futile ministerial attempts to distort facts and figures, and misrepresent events. If politicians really understood the power of IT they wouldn't even try. A plethora of international channels and networks, blogs and other information sources are making it increasingly difficult to hide or distort anything.

So what of our budding students? For sure they are bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of energy and verve, flushed by recent successes. I think they are going to take on the world head on, and they will change an awful lot of things. After all, my generation did and we only had slide rules!

Somehow I can't see them bowing before the control freak mentality that seems to pervade many companies, and I can't see them hanging around in organisations that don't move at a pace dictated by the limits of technology.


Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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