As usual it’s about balance – and timing – of course

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Nikkei Weekly, February 11, 2013

Didn’t we hear this about the prowess of Roger Federer, for long a top tennis player?

We have just held the Horasis Annual Meeting in Zurich, where there was much discussion about the need for change globally. I also hear this in our other meetings focused on businesses wishing to invest in (or diversify out of) China, India, Russia or the Arabic nations. There are at least two connected fronts. First, we need to invest in education. Second, we need to invest in innovation. These sentiments are all laudable, but they rest firmly on balance and timeliness – and above all, on governments.

We need to reinvest in the hardware of education: the schools and the teachers. In most nations, there are too many unemployed youths and business leaders saying youths do not have the “right education.” As the demographic decline hits all nations, it behooves them to educate 100% of their children so they can contribute to each nation’s economy. We need to persuade fathers to allow their daughters to be educated and not to fear the cost of providing a dowry for “a nonproductive daughter.” Yet we all ought to recognize the time delay of education. It is maybe 20 years before the brightest become employed as they pass through primary school, secondary school and then into university or college. We may have to add several more years before these children become decision-makers high up the management or political chain.

And those considerations naturally lead me to mull balance and timing. There are many traditional businesses with their legacy technology, and adherents of “if it works, don’t change it” – with which I often agree. Why do we have to throw away whole assemblies when only a small part has failed – or half a new car when only a fuse needs to be replaced? This kind of process is not sustainable. In contrast, we understand many new technologies and management practices are simply more effective than the old. So we have a problem of balance. It is difficult to predict the effect of innovation “to change old for new” as we implement disruptive technologies.

There is a further balance and timing issue. It links back to education. By teaching children about the status quo and the need to think critically we set the seeds of revolution, not necessarily physical aggression and the overthrow of governments, though this may occur. No, I refer to the young adults who question dogma and invent new theories. They may prove novelty works in the laboratory and want venture capital to progress their ideas – which moves us firmly into timing. At the present time, it will be many years for early-days venture capital to be won, and still more years to get to the larger venture capital funding that takes inventions to commercial deployment. Education thus has a very long lead-time when imagining the deployment of new ideas by our children of today.

I am not contradicting anyone who says we must educate all and do this better. Nor will I rebut those who say we might get a kick-start by advancing more training and apprentice schemes for older children who missed out on their early learning. What I am saying is that we must take care to observe the balance (the cash spent on the redevelopment of education schema) against our wish for timely results (as outcomes take time). Please let us be magnanimous in our desires – by all means invest in good education programs teaching critical thinking from the beginning; but also let us recognize that the commercial success of our education investments (of all types) takes many, many years. We must all demand our governments create ring-fenced large budgets for education, and also create nation-backed early-days investment funds. Without such deep investment stability we will never achieve the long-term education and development that will raise national and global performance.

We must not be downhearted in recognizing that we cannot instantly affect these changes. After all, Federer did not become world-class without training and practice, and by heeding the advice of his coaches over many years. We all must wait for years for the seeds of education to bear fruit no matter if this is via the traditional routes, or apprentices, or via online courses. Not only must we instill in our children the desire to learn and enquire but we must demand governments responsibly implement enlarged education budgets even in our present austerity.

Frank-Jurgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a Swiss-based global visions community