Ensuring managers of the future have the skills they need

Vladimir Vano, Group Economist at CentralNIC Group, was a keynote speaker at AMBA & BGA’s Business School Professionals Conference 2019 in Vienna, Austria. Here, he outlines his views on the changing workplace and how new skills will be required to grapple with digitisation and automation

What topics did you cover in your talk at AMBA’s conference?

I focused on how MBA programmes should prepare for the automation, robotisation and technological transformation of the workplace. How should MBA programmes change, in order to adapt to that transformation? The answer is by focusing on the following seven skills that are unlikely to be automated in the foreseeable future: 

  1. Effective communication skills
  2. Critical thinking skills and having an innovative and creative mindset
  3. Having a broad perspective and the ability to understand context
  4. Emotional competence: self-awareness and social awareness 
  5. Teaching and coaching skills; the ability to lead people
  6. Networking skills and the ability to build fruitful relationships 
  7. A moral compass: the ability to make ethical decisions and having a set of core values

How will digitisation and automation change the workplace of the future? 

We are talking about the third generation of automation. It began, in the 20th century, with the automation of repetitive, mundane manual work and tasks. In the 21st century, even decision-making processes will be replaced by the machines, algorithms and AI. From the economist’s viewpoint, digitisation and automation should free up humans to take on more fulfilling, creative tasks, leaving the repetitive, mundane and boring tasks to the machines. But the workplace of the future will be a blend of semi-autonomous, or even autonomous, machines which will interact with and work alongside humans.

How can the managers of the future ensure they have the skills needed to remain employable? 

I would say that there are five steps towards remaining employable in the future, and these are to:

  • Upgrade your level of education: take an MBA or do some executive. education; keep challenging yourself
  • Strengthen your ‘human skills’ that cannot be replicated by machines.
  • Learn to interact with, oversee and monitor the machines and algorithms that will be present in the workplace of the future. 
  • Find a niche that is too expensive to automate.
  • Learn to code; it will be one of the basic skills of the future. 

What are the ethical implications of the digital revolution? 

In the analogue world, business leaders were focused on optimisation; satisfying the needs of existing customers using the resources available to them. 

There was a limited workforce with the required skills available. However, now, you can create as many robots as you need. You can optimise your profits in line with global demand. 

Therefore, digitisation is significantly broadening business horizons and bringing ethical dilemmas to the fore. This means it will be even more important to have strong human leadership to set boundaries. In future, with the almost unlimited supply of robot workforce, we may be able to produce cheap gadgets for literally everyone on the planet – potentially putting a huge strain on the environment. Do we allow this to run unchecked, despite the consequences for the planet? That’s just one example of an ethical dilemma we will face going forwards; another is the potential dangers associated with driverless cars. 

There will be a growing need for leaders to have a moral compass – something that cannot be replicated by a machine and that should be in a manager’s core skill set.

This article previously formed part of a larger feature published in Ambition, the magazine of the Association of MBAs.

How to use education technology in Business Schools – and why

Technology can help Business Schools meet the evolving needs of their students. Alain Goudey outlines NEOMA Business School’s use of virtual reality in the classroom

The adage, ‘tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn’ is often attributed to US inventor and polymath, Benjamin Franklin. My years of experience as Marketing Professor at NEOMA Business School in France, have shown me that this saying holds true. And now, as Chief Digital Officer at the School, I challenge my faculty colleagues with the power of digital tools for a highly needed transformation of the higher education sector. 

My mantra is ‘disrupt before being disrupted’. It’s time for today’s digital culture to spread into Business Schools, worldwide. The mission of the Business School Professor has dramatically evolved in the past two years, due to the huge technological wave which we are now riding. I believe that, as a Professor, I have to prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, using technologies that have not yet been invented, to solve problems that have not yet been raised. 

Employment: a technological shift

According to a 2008 article by Centron and Davis in The Futurist, everything we knew about technology in 2008 will account for only 1% of what we will know about it by 2050. Research and technology is evolving at an exponential rate and this will have a deep impact on organisations and jobs, reshaping skill requirements. There are a great number of figures to illustrate this trend: 

  • Up to 85% of jobs that will be available in 2030 don’t exist yet, according to a 2017 report from Dell Technologies. 
  • Almost half (47%) of jobs in the US and 35% in the UK are at risk of automation over the next decade or two, according to a 2013 study by economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne. 
  • In France, 42% of jobs are under threat of automation, according to the consulting firm Roland Berger (2015).
  • The average projected job loss across OECD countries is 57%, according to a 2016 World Bank Development Report.

I’m convinced that 100% of jobs will be transformed in the coming years and a significant proportion of them will effectively disappear due to automation with wide-ranging impact on local and regional job markets. In parallel, new jobs have been appearing for decades thanks to the evolution of the internet, and mobile and data markets. 

New ways of learning

A vast quantity of information is now widely available online. With more than 4.7bn web pages to choose from, hundreds of new videos uploaded to YouTube every minute of the day, a wide choice of social networks and millions of apps to download, access to information, experts and tools has never been easier. Much of this information is streamed directly to your pocket 24/7 thanks to the mobile phone.

Finding relevant and accurate information is far less simple. Nowadays, the challenge is finding the right information at the right time. Professors have to enhance their students’ skills around the critical analysis of online content, tools and expertise. 

The student demographic is also evolving, with so-called ‘digital natives’ proliferating within Business Schools, but there is a tremendous need for all employees to become lifelong learners.

Game-changers in higher education

In the early 2000s, the very first e-learning platforms appeared in the education sector and, in 2008, the MOOC phenomenon gained momentum, thanks to companies such as edX, Udacity or Coursera. During this period, education technology (edtech) providers, including the Khan Academy, Udemy, Coorpacademy, and LinkedIn Learning, also emerged, leading to a plethora of accessible content direct from experts. 

Knowledge is available in the desired format anytime, anywhere, and on any device: from a two-hour recorded masterclass to a one-minute ‘how-to’ YouTube video. Moreover, e-learning platforms are evolving into adaptive learning platforms so that content can be adapted automatically, thanks to algorithms and data, which can set the pace of the learning to suit the abilities and preferences of the learners. This could be the end of the ‘one-best-way’ approach to higher education. In short, it is impossible for us to continue teaching in the way we have done for decades. 

The needs of businesses have also evolved. The World Economic Forum expects critical thinking, creativity, coordinating with others, emotional intelligence and cognitive flexibility to be the key skills that individuals now need to develop for the workplace. Business Schools are therefore strongly advised to explore alternative and disruptive ways of teaching in the classroom.

Using virtual reality case studies 

Since 2016, I have been using immersive virtual reality (VR) to teach merchandising and marketing to thousands of students, thanks to the #ExE Project (experiential education). This is an immersive, VR-based application designed and developed at NEOMA Business School for its specific needs.

VR is a great tool for enhancing the learning experience. For instance, VR can:

  • Make business students experiment with technology and consider what they could do with the technology later as managers.
  • Reinforce the involvement of students by breaking the learning routine. Students are totally engaged during the class, have fun and are active with the learning.
  • Develop a systemic approach, in a non-linear way, to analysing complexity. The experience is much more realistic than a traditional business case with dozens of pages of linear facts and interviews.
  • Avoid group think; students are fully immersed and can live the experience as individuals.
  • Promote interactive and action-based learning by offering access to a wide variety of locations and managerial contexts. The feedback is faster and more efficient.

With this technology, we aim to achieve three key improvements around learning: 

1. Faster learning: the use of VR speeds up the learning process. Students are more engaged and involved in the case studies, and this means that they pick up the marketing concepts linked to the business case more quickly.

2. More memorable learning: students are likely to be positively influenced by this innovative and novel style of teaching. Its effects will therefore last longer and they stand to remember key concepts more clearly.

3. More complete learning: students experience the world in its full complexity and in a ‘natural non-linear’ way: they enhance their critical-thinking skills and creativity, thanks to shorter feedback loops around the experience itself during class.

Neuroscience has shown that incorporating gaming and active student involvement into learning creates powerful shifts. This is precisely what VR technology facilitates. I therefore recommend that other Business Schools invest in this area in the very near future.

Innovation and faculty

Launching the #ExE Project was a wonderful adventure because it gave us the opportunity to understand how people respond to disruptive technology, such as VR. Students were amazed that their Business School was so innovative and discovered this technology as a result of our classes. Staff and faculty members were more sceptical, however, and wished to see the technology in action before being convinced.

At the outset, VR was viewed by many staff and faculty as a gimmick as they lacked a thorough understanding of the value it brings to the classroom. To convince them, we organised demonstrations and seminars in which we explored how to engage a class with VR and what it can provide, both for students and professors.

We brought together a team of five marketing professors to disseminate the findings around our first VR-based case study. During a two-hour meeting, I personally taught them how to use it in their classes; I was also present when they used the technology for the first time, to assist and reassure them. 

In addition, our technical VR team is always on hand to help faculty set up technical elements of a case study. A member is present at every class using this technology, to ensure it goes smoothly and to enable professors to focus on teaching. Two years later, we launched our second VR-based case study; this was designed by my colleague Aurélien Rouquet on the subject of supply chain management, featuring the biggest drive-in hypermarket in France, E.Leclerc. We have a third case study planned for the field of HR, using another large French company. 

Faculty lie at the heart of successful innovation within Business Schools and it is incumbent on Schools to create an environment that supports innovation. At NEOMA, we are lucky to have faculty rules that recognise the value of innovation in teaching. Without such rules, innovation would be unlikely to take root.

It may take time to convince colleagues of the value of a disruptive technology. I have had to explain to peers the value of VR, show people how it works in practice and repeat this time and again, in order to win their trust and backing. Not all disciplines or individual professors will be interested in innovation, and it is unlikely that you will convert everyone to your way of thinking. Demonstrating value creation for learners and professors will support your cause.

It should, however, become clear to all that today’s Business Schools are operating within a period of technological transformation, which is affecting entire sectors and most organisations. Schools need to support students and lifelong learners through this period of drastic change, and to do this successfully they also need to transform themselves. Digital transformation is not an option but a necessity.

To conclude, let me remind you of a quote from management guru, Peter Drucker: ‘The greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence; it is to act with yesterday’s logic.’ Don’t be afraid of the turbulence, go forth and transform. 

Alain Goudey is Chief Digital Officer and Professor of Marketing at NEOMA Business School in France. He is also Founding Partner of AtooMedia, a sound design agency, and its subsidiary, Mediavea, a retail marketing provider. 

Winning at interview and preparing for AI-infused recruitment

If your CV was good enough to get you an interview, that’s great, but looking good on paper is just the starting point. At interview, you have to demonstrate that you have the skills to do the job and will be a good fit with the team.

Your audition

An interview is an audition – your opportunity to shine and prove you are the perfect person for the role. The actor Harlan Hogan is famous for delivering the catchphrase, ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression…’ and it certainly pays to be well prepared.

The interview is not, however, just an exercise in self-promotion. The hiring manager has a specific brief and, in effect, you are there to convince the interviewer that you can solve their hiring problem. An interviewer will focus on gaining an understanding of you and your motivation and how these fit with the role, existing team and organisational culture.

Be prepared to show how you will add value and that you are the best candidate to help the organisation succeed. When you are asked to tell the interviewer about yourself, what this request really means is that you should show ‘what value would you bring to us?’

Thorough preparation and the way in which you present yourself are crucial to success; but, since performance at interview is not a reliable indicator of job performance, interviews these days tend to be quite structured and often concentrate on competencies with targeted behavioural questions.

The basics

Clarity and brevity are your touchstones. Show you are articulate and able to think on your feet while communicating effectively under pressure. Be ready to provide work-related examples that show your personality and how you operate and illustrate that you will be a good fit in the role. Ensure you pinpoint your strengths and expertise and emphasise your points with examples that showcase your achievements. Show how you will make a real difference when you are appointed.

You may be asked some tricky questions as interviewers probe to assess how you react. Keep your answers concise and relevant. You are likely to be asked competency-based questions relating to your previous roles, so make sure you have plenty of examples prepared.

Employability skills are also an important factor for success at work and showing that you have these skills and focusing on them during the interview process, along with your technical expertise, will help differentiate yourself from the competition. Concentrate on showcasing good communication skills, commercial awareness, a commitment to lifelong learning, problem-solving skills, and professional manner and attitude.

Demonstrating your skills at interview is not easy and we all have ‘off days’ but interview practice will help. If you can, get a friend, colleague, career coach or mentor to help with some sessions to rehearse your responses, improve your confidence and hone your performance.

The changing face of recruitment

HR now use robotics to enhance and expedite the recruitment process and leave hiring managers free to concentrate on more complex tasks. AI is supposed to remove human biases that adversely affect some candidates and it seems that nearly all Fortune 500 companies are using some form of automation to enhance hiring processes.

It’s interesting to consider what changes job seekers are likely to see as robots are used in the interview process more often. A large Swedish recruitment specialist, TNG, has been experimenting with such a system to offer candidates job interviews that are free from the unconscious biases that managers and recruiters may bring to the hiring process. The idea is to make the experience ‘seem human’ while ‘background-blind’ AI programmes manage tests and perform initial online interviews.

The robot interview doesn’t indulge in pre-interview small talk and asks all questions in an identical way, in the same tone, and typically, in the same order. This is believed to create a fairer and more objective interview. Recruiting managers are then provided with transcripts of the interviews so they can decide which candidates to move to the next stage of the process, based on their answers alone.

Impressing the algorithm

Interviewees can’t relax too much in this context as the AI programme records and analyses responses, and where there is a video interface, monitors facial expressions. Some candidates will find they are comfortable with such an interview, as they will perceive it as a non-judgmental, non-threatening and non-invasive means of interaction which affords them scope for presenting themselves in a relaxed manner. Others may find talking to a screen and recording their answers more challenging.

There is some discussion around the issue of bias and AI. After all, the algorithms at work here are programmed by people who have flaws, biases and preconceptions that are all too easily inherited by an AI system. That said, many candidates seem happy with these developments. Randstad, a Dutch multinational recruitment firm, found that a majority of US job candidates believe technology, AI included, has made applying for jobs more efficient. These same candidates also felt more respected and engaged in the recruitment process as they received automated updates.

Impressing a robot at interview may require candidates to adjust their focus. Answering questions that will be analysed by an algorithm means your responses must focus on the job specification, using words and phrases directly related to the role. You cannot rely on building rapport with the interviewer because a robot is not interested in bonding with you. It will still be important to be well prepared for the interview, having read not just the job description but also the organisation’s website information to see what qualities they prioritise and the culture they portray.

The plain fact is that a robot can interview many more candidates per day than a person can and will also review a candidate’s social networking activity thoroughly and quickly. At least in the early stages of the recruitment process, we are likely to see automated AI powered systems being used as a matter of course. Whether the interviewer is human or machine it remains important that the applicant makes a good impression.

Liz Sebag-Montefiore is a Director and Co-Founder of career management firm, 10Eighty and has provided HR solutions to a wide range of industries since 2005.

Is AI making dangerous decisions without us?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is set to take control of many aspects of our lives, but not enough is being done with regards to accountability for its consequences.

The increasing application of AI across all aspects of business has given many firms a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, its meteoric rise also paves the way for ethical dilemmas and high-risk situations. New technology means new risks and governments, firms, coders and philosophers have their work cut out for them.

If we are launching self-driving cars and autonomous drones, we are essentially involving AI in life-or-death scenarios and the day-to-day risks people face. Healthcare is the same; we are giving AI the power of decision making along with the power of analysis and, inevitably, it will have some involvement in a person’s death at some point in the future, but who would be responsible?

Doctors take the Hippocratic oath despite knowing that they could be involved in a patient’s death. This could come from a mistaken diagnosis, exhaustion, or simply missing a symptom. This leads to a natural concern about research into how many of these mistakes could be avoided.

The limits of data and the lack of governance

Thankfully, AI is taking up this challenge. However, it is important to remember that current attempts to automate and reproduce intelligence are based on the data used to train algorithms. The computer science saying ‘garbage in, garbage out’ [describing the concept that flawed input data will only produce flawed outputs] is particularly relevant in an AI-driven world where biased and incomplete input data could lead to prejudiced results and dire consequences.

Another issue with data is that it only covers a limited range of situations, and inevitably, most AI will be confronted with situations they have not encountered before. For instance, if you train a car to drive itself using past data, can you comfortably say it will be prepared it for all eventualities? Probably not, given how unique each accident can be. Hence, the issue is not simply in the algorithm, but in the choices about which kinds of datasets we use, the design of the algorithm, and the intended function of that AI on decision making.

Data is not the only issue. Our research has found that governments have no records of which companies and institutions use AI. This is not surprising as even the US – one of world’s largest economies and one that has a focus on developing and deploying AI – does not have any policy on the subject. Governance, surveillance and control are all left to developers. This means that, often, no one really knows how the algorithms work aside from the developers.

When 99% isn’t good enough

In many cases, if a machine can produce your desired results with 99% accuracy, it will be a triumph. Just imagine how great it would be if your smartphone can complete the text to your exact specification before you’ve even typed it.

However, even a 99% level of precision is not good enough in other circumstances, such as health diagnostics, image recognition for food safety, text analysis for legal documents or financial contracts. Company executives as well as policymakers will need more nuanced accounts of what is involved. The difficulty is, understanding those risks is not straightforward.

Let’s take a simple example. If AI is used in a hospital to assess the chances of patients having a heart attack, they are detecting variations in eating habits, exercise, and other trends identified to be important in making an effective prediction. This should have a clear burden of responsibility on the designer of the technology and the hospital.

However, how useful that prediction is implies that a patient (or her/his doctor) has an understanding of how that decision was reached – therefore, it must be explained to them. If it is not explained and a patient [that is given a low chance of having a heart attack] then has a heart attack without changing their behaviour, they will be left feeling confused, wondering what the trigger for it was. Essentially, we are using technical solutions to deal with problems that are not always technical, but personal, and if people don’t understand how decisions about their health are being made, we are looking at a recipe for disaster.

Decision making, freedom of choice and AI

To make matters worse, AI often operates like a ‘black box’. Today’s machine learning techniques can lead a computer to continue improving its ability to guess the right answer or identify the right result. But, often, we have no idea how the machines actually achieve this improvement or ‘learn’. If this is the case, how can we change the learning process, if necessary? Put differently, sometimes not even the developers know how the algorithms work.

Consumers need to be made more aware of which decisions concerning their lives have been made by AI, and in order to govern the use of AI effectively, the government needs to give citizens the choice of opting out of all AI-driven decision making altogether, if they want to. In some ways, we might be seeing the start of such measures with the introduction of GDPR in Europe last year. However, it is evident that we still have a long way to go.

If we are taking the responsibility of decision making away from people, do we really know what we are giving it to? And what will be the consequences of the inevitable mistakes? Although we can train AI to make better decisions, as AI begins to shape our entire society, we all need to become ethically literate and aware of the decisions that machines are making for us.

Terence Tse is an Associate Professor of Finance at ESCP Europe Business School and a Co-Founder of Nexus FrontierTech, which provides AI solutions to clients across industries, sectors, and regions globally. His latest book, The AI Republic: Building the Nexus Between Humans and Intelligent Automation is due for release in June 2019.

A calling in business

From Sri Lanka to Europe and grocery shop to international corporation, Allirajah Subaskaran, Founder and Chairman of Lycagroup, has remained agile and adaptable, creating an 8,000-strong business with a family feel. Interview by David Woods-Hale

Can you tell us about your career to date, outlining some of your biggest challenges and achievements?

I was born in the town of Mulllaitivu, Sri Lanka, to a working-class family. 

I am from humble origins, having lost my father at a young age and being brought up by a single working mother as a result. During my childhood, Sri Lanka experienced internal conflict caused by a civil war and my hometown was a major conflict zone. My family decided to emigrate in the hope of finding safety and increasing our chances of having a positive future.

In 1989, I followed my brother to Paris and was joined shortly after by my mother and sister. After some time, my family, led by my older brother, opened a restaurant. It was entirely family run and it was soon joined by a grocery shop. We began selling calling cards for people who wanted to phone abroad. Initially, a distributor was providing us with
the calling cards to resell. However, they stopped providing the cards, creating a sudden vacuum. My brother recognised that there was a demand for the product and identified the opportunity for us to distribute the cards ourselves.

As this venture developed, instead of selling cards produced by someone else, we started producing and distributing them ourselves. By 1997, our market had grown from just Paris to a number of countries in Europe, and we found ourselves, led by my brother, travelling from Paris to many European cities.

After marrying in 1999, my wife and I decided to move to London and continue the business; in 2002, I started Lycatel, a telephone calling card company. 

By 2006, with advancements in technology and the emergence of the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) market thanks to government regulation, there was a void to be filled. This is how Lycamobile came to be.

Due to our price positioning and the global movement of people, the company has been able to expand rapidly and now, 10 years on, we are operating in 21 countries and have become the world’s largest international MVNO and the market leader in international prepaid mobile calls. 

We have also expanded beyond the telecommunications space, launching a range of complementary businesses servicing different market segments, including LycaMedia, LycaHealth, LycaFly and Lycaremit. 

In my younger days, I didn’t have any plans for the future. I always focused on seeking out and seizing the opportunities available to me. This approach has been fundamental to the growth of Lyca Group over the past 10 years and is something I continue to live by now. 

What does your role as Chairman involve?

In the early days, we were very focused on the day-to-day business activities and tried to be spontaneous, seizing every opportunity as it came along. 

Now, while I play a very active role in everyday business activities, my priorities as Chairman involve developing a long-term strategy that will ensure we are delivering the best services to our customers and meeting their ever-changing needs. This involves thinking outside the box and introducing innovative and complementary ideas, as well as looking for big investment and expansion opportunities. 

Part of my role has also been about building a strong team from the ground up throughout the business. I believe in the need to diversify a company’s power base and I know the business would not be where it is today without the work and support of my management team. These individuals play a vital role, overseeing the development of the business as we continue to innovate and grow. 

What has fuelled the growth of Lyca Group over the past 10 years and what are your next steps? 

Lyca certainly looks different now than 10 years ago. Geographical expansion has been a long-term focus and strategy of Lycamobile, in particular as we work towards our goal of reaching 50 million customers by 2020. We are now present in 21 countries around the globe, ensuring we are the largest MVNO by geographical footprint. This means we are able to offer a cost-effective service, and we are constantly innovating to meet the needs of diverse markets, geographically and across sectors and communities.

Some of our recent product launches have seen us breaking into new territories to bring our low-cost calling, messaging and data services to emerging markets such as Tunisia and Macedonia, and we have plans for further expansion into six new countries this year, including Ukraine, Serbia, Russia, South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe and South-East Asia. The market context in these regions presents numerous challenges that we have continued to tackle through focused innovation and building meaningful relationships with partners.

To meet the needs of a rapidly developing global community, we have also needed to innovate, not only by launching Lycamobile’s services into new territories, but also by expanding our range of services into new business sectors. 

Today, it isn’t enough for families to be able to contact each other; they want to be able to transfer money to each other, watch the same shows, listen to the same music, and share in each other’s everyday lives. It is along these lines that the Lyca Group has evolved. The Lyca Group is now a multi-national corporation delivering low-cost products to more than 15 million customers, not just in telecoms but also across technology, media, financial services, travel and transport, healthcare and entertainment.

We have bold ambitions, and have already launched a number of new products and services in recent months, including Lycalotto and ChilliTickets, which we acquired earlier this year. Ultimately, we want Lycamobile to be an industry leader in the technology, media and telecoms (TMT) sector and for the group to be a well-established brand, synonymous with connectivity, trust and affordability.

What are the challenges and opportunities you’re facing in a VUCA world? 

We are operating in a highly competitive environment that is becoming increasingly saturated. 

Our flagship brand Lycamobile is faced with the entrance of businesses from a wide variety of sectors, which are showing an interest in launching MVNOs, be it post offices, football clubs, social-media start-ups, multilevel marketing groups, banks, and non-for-profit associations. 

In addition, the sector is rapidly changing with new technologies coming to market, and new regulations being brought in to manage them.

We need to ensure that we are always offering a differentiated service to our customers. We have done this not only by expanding our existing MVNO business into new geographies, ensuring we are able to offer a cost-effective service in the market today, but also by diversifying the business, offering our customers a range of complementary offerings that meet their needs. 

Do you think it’s possible to have a long-term strategy in business, or is success based on agility within the marketplace? 

In this volatile environment, I believe it is important to focus on a long-term strategy and core product offering, ensuring it is delivered consistently, with the highest possible levels of service. 

At Lyca, this means being dedicated to driving forward our ambitious growth plans and customer acquisition target. However, it is crucial to ensure this long-term strategy is never static and continuously reviewed. We must continue to have an innovative, dynamic and entrepreneurial approach that will allow us to react quickly to changing technology, customer needs, and the developing economic and political climate. 

We would not have got where we are today without this ethos. We have always been committed to staying ahead of the game, and so must remain dynamic and adaptive and push forward into new areas and markets that others haven’t, adapting to our external environment accordingly. 

What do you see as the trends impacting most on employers’ strategy globally? 

We are predominantly a technology-focused business and must compete with some of the world’s largest tech companies, to source and retain people with the right skills to drive the business forward and remain on top of the recent technological advancements. 

By fostering employee growth and development, we aim to create an environment where our staff are able to thrive, feel supported, become adaptable to different situations and want to remain loyal to the firm. Despite being a company with more than 8,000 employees, we retain a strong family feel, with everyone invested in the success of the business and experiencing the same highs and lows together. Everything we do at Lycamobile is about connecting with people and bringing communities together, and that’s also our attitude towards our employees. 

How do you ensure there is a culture of innovation throughout the organisation? 

Ensuring a culture of innovation within the group is crucial as we continue to develop high-quality products and services to meet our customers’ varied needs. 

Lycamobile is proud to be a market leader in our industry, and a large part of that is down to our commitment to staying ahead of the game by pushing forward and moving into new areas or markets that others haven’t. Not only have we been able to capitalise on this approach, but we’ve ensured we are delivering the best services to our customers, by continuing to meet their ever-changing needs.

We are dedicated to supporting, developing and nurturing the next generation of senior management, so hiring the right people at all levels of the business is vital, ensuring we maintain and foster the company values of trust, connectivity and innovation. It’s important that despite being a company of 8,000 people, we’ve maintained an open atmosphere, where staff at all levels feel comfortable putting forward ideas, big or small, which are supported, discussed and explored. 

You’ve moved between borders throughout your career. How have you been able to adapt?

I’m not sure how rare this trait is; the movement of people is as old as the world itself. However, having moved from Sri Lanka to Europe to escape the civil war at an early age, I’ve had to learn how to quickly and purposefully adapt to new cultures, markets and contexts in both my personal and business lives, and this certainly hasn’t been easy. But, over the years we’ve managed to transform these survival tactics into a set of core skills which have become the foundation of Lyca’s success and the key to running a successful global company. 

These skills – agility, flexibility, being relationships-driven – are not only the skills that we drive every employee to have, but also enable us to adapt our products and services across borders, and build strong and constructive relationships with partners across our operating regions. 

Lyca Group has employees in 21 countries – how do you ensure there is
a consistent mission and culture?

Working across such a diverse range of markets, it’s important that we uphold the clarity of our mission to connect communities and bring people together through a range of high quality products and services. To ensure that this message is spread across all our operating regions, we have a strong culture driven from the centre of the Lyca Group. 

Our management team is committed to travelling across the different markets to lead negotiations, build lasting relationships with our partners, and place people who share Lyca’s values in key positions.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of business in the age of the ‘new normal’?

As a group, we continue to adapt and evolve to market developments and new environments and are excited about plans to ensure the continued success of the Lyca Group through a programme of expansion into new markets and sectors. 

Reports have shown that the MVNO market will continue to grow in the coming years and we aim to be at the forefront of that growth, with plans to have 50 million people using Lycamobile by 2020, focusing on Africa, Asia and South America for growth – huge, largely untapped markets for MVNOs. We know we can make a real difference to people’s lives by bringing cost-efficient, high-quality products and services to help them better connect with their communities. 

I certainly feel very optimistic about the future. 

What is the blockchain?

Blockchains are part of the evolving history of internet technology, so we must grasp their potential, writes William Mougayar

If you cannot understand it without an explanation, you cannot understand it with an explanation’ – Haruki Murakami

Understanding blockchains, the technology underlying cryptocurrencies, in the form of a shared digital ledger, is tricky. You need to understand their message before you can appreciate their potential. In addition to their technological capabilities, blockchains carry with them philosophical, cultural, and ideological underpinnings that must also be understood. 

In terms of defining blockchains, they are essentially digital ledgers, in which transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are recorded chronologically and publicly, but unless you’re a software developer, blockchains will not be products you just turn on and use. Blockchains will enable other products that you use, though you may not know there is a blockchain behind them.

It is my belief that the knowledge transfer behind understanding the blockchain is easier than the knowledge about knowing where they will fit. It’s like learning how to drive a car. I could teach you how to drive one, but cannot predict where you will take it. Only you know your particular business or situation, and only you will be able to figure out where blockchains fit – after you have learned what they can do. Of course, we will first go together on road tests and racing tracks to give you some ideas.

Visiting Satoshi’s paper

When Tim Berners-Lee created the first World Wide Web page in 1990, he wrote: ‘When we link information in the web, we enable ourselves to discover facts, create ideas, buy and sell things, and forge new relationships at a speed and scale that was unimaginable in the analogue era.’

In that short statement, Berners-Lee predicted search, publishing, e-commerce, email, and social media – all at once, in a single stroke. The Bitcoin equivalent to that type of prescience by someone who just created something spectacular can be found in Satoshi Nakamato’s 2008 paper, Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, arguably the root of modern blockchain-based cryptocurrency innovation.

The paper’s abstract depicts Bitcoin’s foundation and explains its first principles:


A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution


A trusted third party is not required to prevent double-spending.


We propose a solution to the double-spending problem using a peer-to-
peer network
.


The network timestamps transactions by hashing them into an ongoing chain of hash-based proof-of-work, forming a record that cannot be changed without redoing the proof-of-work.


The longest chain not only serves as proof of the sequence of events witnessed, but proof that it came from the largest pool of central processing unit (CPU) power. As long as a majority of CPU power is controlled by nodes that are not cooperating to attack the network, they’ll generate the longest chain and outpace attackers. 


The network itself requires minimal structure. Messages are broadcast on a best-effort basis, and nodes can leave and rejoin the network at will, accepting the longest proof-of-work chain as proof of what happened while they were gone. 

If you are a non-technical reader, and you focus on the italicised parts, you will start to get the gist of it. Please re-read the above points, until you have got to grips with Nakamoto’s sequential logic. 

Seriously. You will need to believe and accept that validating peer-to-peer transactions is entirely possible just by letting the network perform a trust duty, without central interference or hand-holding. 

Paraphrasing Nakamoto’s paper, we should be left with these points:


peer-to-peer electronic transactions and interactions 


without financial institutions 


cryptographic proof instead of central trust 


put trust in the network instead of in a
central institution. 

As it turns out, the blockchain is that technology invention behind Bitcoin, and what makes this possible. With Satoshi’s abstract still in your mind, let us delve deeper with three different, but complementary, definitions of the blockchain: a technical, business, and legal one. 


Technically, the blockchain is a back-end database that maintains a distributed ledger that can be inspected openly.


Business-wise, the blockchain is an exchange network for moving transactions, value, assets between peers, without the assistance
of intermediaries.


Legally speaking, the blockchain validates transactions, replacing
previously trusted entities.

TECHNICAL: back-end database that maintains a distributed ledger, openly

BUSINESS: exchange network for moving value between peers

LEGAL: a transaction-validation mechanism, not requiring intermediary assistance.

Blockchain capabilities = technical + business + legal.

The web, all over again

The past is not an accurate compass to the future, but understanding where we came from helps us gain an enlightened perspective and a better context for where we are going. The blockchain is simply part of the continuation of the history of Internet technology, represented by the web, as it carries on its journey to infiltrate our world, businesses, society, and government, and across the several cycles and phases that often become visible only in the rear-view mirror. 

The internet was first rolled out in 1983, but was the World Wide Web that gave us its watershed evolutionary moment, because it made information and information-based services openly and instantly available to anyone on earth who had access to the web.

In the same way that billions of people around the world are currently connected to the web, millions (and then billions) of people will be connected to blockchains. We should not be surprised if the velocity of blockchain usage propagation surpasses the historical web users growth. 

By mid-2016, 47% of the world’s 7.4 billion population had an internet connection. In 1995, that number was less than 1%. It took until 2005 to reach 1 billion web users. By contrast, cellular phone usage galloped faster, passing the number of landlines in 2002, and surpassing the world’s population in 2013. As for websites, in 2016, their total number hovered at around one billion. Quite possibly, blockchains will evolve into several flavours, and will become as easily configurable as launching a website on WordPress or Squarespace. 

The blockchain’s usage growth has an advantage on the web’s trajectory, because its starting point is amplified along four segments: web users, cellular phone users, website owners, and any ‘thing’ that benefits from being connected, becoming a ‘smart thing’. This means that blockchain usage will ride on these four categories, instead of purely seeking new users – and the possibilities are endless. 

Once you start to imagine blockchains’ possibilities on your own, without continuously thinking about trying to understand them at the same time, you will be able to move forward in terms of how you can exploit them. 

Further reading

Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System, https://bitcoin .org/en/bitcoin-paper.

This is an edited extract from The Business Blockchain: Promise, Practice, and Application of the Next Internet Technology by William Mougayar (Wiley, 2016). 

WILLIAM MOUGAYAR is general partner at Virtual Capital Ventures, an early stage tech fund. He is on the board of directors of OB1, the OpenBazaar open source protocol that is pioneering decentralised peer-to-peer commerce; a special advisor to the Ethereum Foundation; a member of OMERS Ventures board of advisors; an advisory board member to the Coin Center; and founder of Startup Management.

He has been described as the most sophisticated blockchain business thinker. He is a blockchain industry insider whose work has already shaped and influenced the understanding of blockchain for people around the world, via his generous blogging and rigorous research insights.