As education minister, Hekia Parata upset New Zealand’s tech sector by not elevating digital technology teaching to the level they asked for.

The debate hasn’t stopped.

It may never stop. The technology industry is wealthy and powerful. It knows how to lobby. It is a master of using the media. Its voice will be heard.

It has a good point.

Digital curriculum

There’s a strong case for giving digital technology a greater share of the curriculum.

Digital technology doesn’t belong in a vocational ghetto alongside woodwork and other non-academic subjects.

While there is a case for non-academic digital education, technology also needs to be taught to a higher standard.

But let’s not carried away. Whether you call it digital literacy or technology it should not be on a par with language or maths teaching.

They are fundamental.

Although you might argue the same about technology’s role in the modern world, that’s not quite true.

Literacy and digital, different aspects of the same thing

You can’t do digital well without being able to read and communicate.

Without reading skills a young person’s digital experience can’t advance far beyond taking selfies, playing games and watching streamed video.

Most digital devices are, one way or another, communications tools.

Even if the tools evolve to the point where an ability to write or type is no longer essential, people still need basic communications skills.

If the goal is to encourage more young New Zealanders into technology careers, they need to be articulate and numerate to cope with the work.

At a pinch you can train a literate, articulate adult to work in almost every tech industry role. Although it may not be impossible to find meaningful work for those without those skills, it will be harder.

Education bigger picture

Education has be about more than preparing people for the workplace. Digital skills are important for every other aspect of life.

Which brings us to the most important aspect of technology education: the digital divide.

We often think the digital divide is only about access to devices, tools and networks. It is usually framed as something that affects poorer or more remote New Zealanders.

Yet there’s another divide that’s just as bad.

People who feel unable to perform even basic digital tasks because they lack the skills are as disadvantaged as those who can’t get online.

The same goes for people who can’t read, write or otherwise communicate. We don’t call that a digital divide, but it amounts to something similar. Let’s call it the literacy divide.

It’s great that we devote money, time and energy to helping people get across the digital divide. More power to those working in this area.

Yet we also need to use the same vigour to deal with the basic literacy divide because those people are in the same dark place.

So, by all means ramp up digital education, but not at the expense of something that’s more fundemental.

I’m not an early adopter.

Early adopters must own the latest devices. They run ahead of the pack. They upgrade devices and software before everyone else.

Early adopters use the latest phones. They buy cars with weird features. They queue up in the wee small hours for iPhones, iPads or games consoles. Back in the day they’d go to midnight store openings to get the newest version of Microsoft Windows a few hours earlier.

Their computers never work because they are awash in beta and alpha versions of software screwing things up.

And some of their kit is, well, unfinished.

Computer makers depend on early adopters. They use them as guinea pigs.

Early adopters first to benefit

Marketing types will tell you early adopters will buy a product first to steal a march over the rest of humanity. They claim they will be the first to reap the benefits of the new product. It will make them more productive or live more enjoyable lives.

This can be true. Yet early adopters often face the trauma of getting unfinished, unpolished products to work. Often before manufacturer support teams have learnt the wrinkles of their new products.

There’s another reason computer makers love early adopters — they pay more for.

New products usually hit the market with a premium price. Once a product matures, the bugs eliminated and competition appears, profit margins are slimmer.

Companies use high-paying early adopters to fund their product development.

Being an early adopter is fine if you enjoy playing with digital toys. If productivity isn’t as important to you as being cool. If you have the time and money to waste making them work.

I don’t. I prefer to let others try things first. Let computer makers and software developers iron out the wrinkles while the product proves its worth. Then I’ll turn up with my money.

In technology the early bird pays the bill.

Earlier this year IBM told remote employees they must return to the office or leave the company.

It’s a turnaround. IBM pioneered allowing employees to work from home. At times as many as more than a third of the firm’s staff worked at places away from company offices.

The company often lectures others on the merits of remote work. Company marketing describes telework as the future. Moreover, IBM sells products enabling its customers to offer remote work to their employees.

IBM’s remote work policy was popular with staff. Many talented people either opted to join the company or decided to stay put because they could work from home. It’s powerful for working women with families and just as good for dads who like to see their children more often.

Productivity or IBM’s staff costs?

The official reason for the change is that working together in one place helps productivity, teamwork and morale.

There’s something in this. Collaboration is easier when co-workers sit across the aisle. Video conference calls are productive, but so are well organised face-to-face sessions. Chance meetings at the coffee station can spark fresh thinking.

Yet, you can’t help wonder if IBM’s move is about cutting staff numbers. Many remote workers may decide it is too hard to move home in order to keep their job. Some of the office demands mean people have to move long distances to keep their jobs.

There’s research, some sponsored by IBM, showing teleworkers are more productive than office-bound workers. Which argument are we supposed to believe? Can we trust anything the company says on the subject?

Ominous

Yahoo made a similar back-to-the-office move. It was unpopular. Many talented staff members quit. We all know how well that story ended.

There’s a practical problem for IBM workers in places like New Zealand. Some specialist roles are shared with Australia. There are ANZ managers are in New Zealand, others across the Tasman. They shuttle between locations and make a lot of conference calls. What happens to them under the new rules? The fear is they will be under pressure to move closer to the regional HQ in Sydney. That will not go down well with New Zealand customers.

Remote working became popular with large companies about a decade ago as suburban broadband improved. Video conferencing went from being difficult to practical.

Senior managers across the technology and other industries loved the idea of remote work as they thought it would save costs. In theory, offices needed less real estate and fewer support services when workers were elsewhere.

Things didn’t work out that way. Few savings materialised.The other part of this equation is that management went through a stage of being output-focused. That is, they were more concerned with what employees produced than in keeping close tabs on them all day long. If someone produced a report in their pyjamas or by sitting next to the pool that wasn’t a problem so long as the work was good. It seems the pendulum has swung back to command and control.

Also on:

NZ cities innovation

London, New York and Tokyo top the 2017 Innovation Cities index. Auckland limps in at a feeble 89. Wellington rates at 108.

An organisation called 2thinknow released the index. No, I’ve never heard of it either. It describes itself as a “global innovation agency”, whatever that means.

According to 2thinknow the index scores 500 cities using 162 indicators for measuring conditions conducive to creating innovation in a city.

It says the top 50 cities, which includes Sydney and Melbourne – 2thinknow’s home, are nexus cities. Auckland and Wellington sit in the second, hub, band. Below that are node cities. 

Yes. You’ve guessed it. The 2thinknow survey is meaningless. There is no need to take it seriously, but no doubt someone will see it and worry.

Rod Drury AWS Summit Auckland 2015

If you’re wondering why the government was so keen to build a fibre network look no further than Victoria White’s Xero boss brings jobs to Hawke’s Bay in Hawke’s Bay Today. She writes:

Next year, Hawke’s Bay will join the likes of San Francisco, London, and Singapore, as a base for global software company Xero.

The ever-expanding company will be opening a new office in Napier — potentially at the new Ahuriri Tech Hub — which will create 30 support jobs over the next 18 months to join the company’s global customer experience team and specialist payroll experts.

The story is mainly concerned with Hawke’s Bay potential for acting as a hub for other technology companies. That’s as it should be for a Hawke’s Bay newspaper. Good luck with that project, the more tech jobs in regional New Zealand the better. Xero is already helping to pull the national technology economy along.

Three-quarters of the way down the page, White gets to the important point. She quotes Hawke’s Bay-based MP and Small Business Minister Craig Foss, who says:

“Fibre has enabled world-leading innovative companies, such as Xero, to be based in our stunning region – living and working the dream.”

Tuanz CEO Craig Young makes the same point in a Tweet:

More initiatives like this please.