Tuesday, September 28

Stride bravely into the new norm

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There is a debilitating mindset that has been floating about for some time that is summed up by the saying “one cannot teach old dogs new tricks.” This demeaning idea implies that one can be too old to learn new things. This view is damaging.

In the first place it means for a sizeable percentage of Malaysians, their journey of learning and improvement has stopped. That is at the personal level. Secondly, generally, the top management and decision-makers in our companies (and definitely our country) are from this “old dogs” sector (no offence to the seniors) and thus, our public and private sectors are stymied. Any suggestion of new ways of doing things tends to be treated with diffidence. With the world technologically moving at breakneck speed the nation that is slow to accept the opportunities offered by new inventions and innovation will be left behind.

However, sometimes fate can give a helping hand. In this case, it is dreaded Covid. Sorry, I promise myself that I would not write about that cursed thing but, in this case, ironically it is about its positive impact. Really? You might ask. Well, it is an ill wind that blows no one any good. In this case, it blows that old wives’ tale “one cannot teach old dogs new tricks” out of the water. Sometimes we need a push, nay, a shove, for us to take bold action.

Let me digress with a story. It is about Hernan Cortes. In the year 1519, he arrived in the New World with six hundred men equipped with the best arms of the time. He landed in the land of the Aztec Empire. He immediately saw the riches of the land and he wanted to claim it for Spain, but his soldiers were hesitant. So, he took the drastic step of burning his ships. This sent a clear message to his men: There is no turning back. Two years later, he succeeded in his conquest of the Aztec empire.

What has this got to do with Covid? This pandemic brought with it a whole string of prohibitions; the movement control orders (MCO) that forbid face-to-face meetings. It looks like the situation will remain so for quite some time. So, there is no option but to bite the bullet and resort to online meetings.

I have just sat through a training workshop for NGOs on “How to manage online meetings”. The workshop was fully subscribed up to one hundred participants, the number limit allowed by the platform Zoom. That was a surprise to me. What was equally surprising was that I note that the majority of the attendees was what I would diplomatically call “seniors”. These organisations have been conducting their activities and meetings in the traditional and only way, face-to-face. The MCO put a stop to that and consequently, the organisations went into hibernation mode, for over a year. The members knew that there are such things as internet and online meetings, but they were dependent on the younger set to facilitate. In the workshop we somehow managed to burst the bubble of “old dogs and new tricks” and imbue them with the resolve to continue on the journey of learning.

Now I can almost hear the song “A whole new world” from the movie Aladdin. The online meeting mode of operation has many advantages which we have not quite appreciated before. First off, I would say it saves time and cost. In the past one normally has to give a lead time of about four to four to six weeks to organise a decent size meeting. The pre-meeting tasks include the booking of a venue of sufficient size and location convenient to all; the making of travel arrangements and accommodation (if need be) and other logistic considerations.

Online meetings are not limited by capacity constraints. All internet meeting platforms can cater for participants in the hundreds and above, certainly bigger than the capacity of the biggest venue in the city.

The internet is aptly named the World Wide Web. Global outreach is a distinct advantage for online meetings, both for getting the participants and speakers. We can have a meeting of participants and speakers from the other side of the world if need be.

All these amounts to a very substantial reduction in organising costs. Any hotel with a decent size meeting venue would charge at least RM25 upward for use of venue and refreshment. Just do the math for a meeting of a hundred.

With these advantages, I note that one organisation has bravely put forward a programme of thirty lectures to be held every weekend featuring the leading experts and scholars of Malaysian affairs. A task undreamed of in the past.

Of course, not everything is plain sailing with distant online meetings. Firstly, there is the need for the necessities like internet connection and setup equipment like computers and phones. However, the price has generally come down and these gadgets are now affordable to most.

The biggest challenge is the human skill factor. The first being the ability to set up and manage such meetings. However, I feel that is relatively easier to overcome. A few hours training workshop should be able to take care of that. In the training this morning I note that the participants were able to take in the lessons. This is great satisfaction and encouragement to me because a month ago I have broached this subject of embracing the new technology to them and many were quite hesitant and lacking confidence.

I recognise that the bigger learning challenge is posted by the lack the face-to-face personal human interaction. The whole dynamics of communication is changed by the fact that we talk to each other via a machine – the computer. It takes a while to get used to.

As the famous saying goes, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”. The first step is to have the courage to believe that it is never too late to learn and also the humility to unlearn and relearn.

Let me end with a shout out, “Bring it on, the new norm! Yes, vinceremo”