David Price

Each week Maria Franzoni, Speaker Bureau Director, invites one of her speakers to talk about their life, work, passions and leisure so that you can get to know the person who is the speaker behind the mic.

This week Maria’s guest on the show is David Price. David is an expert in organisational learning for a complex future. He is a senior associate at The Innovation Unit and co-founder of We Do Things Differently, a cultural change practise. His book, Open: How We’ll Work, Live, and Learn in the Future, has been an Amazon bestseller since its publication. In 2009, he was awarded the OBE by Her Majesty the Queen. He writes, talks, trains, and advises around the world on some of the biggest challenges facing business, education, and society, solving the problems of employees, student, and civic disengagement, maximising our potential to be creative, innovative, and fulfilled citizens, and understanding the global shift towards open organisations and systems of learning.

David talks about his fascination with how people learn informally, shares his thoughts on the education system, talks about engagement & learning and what we expect from his new book. David tells about some major health challenges he has dealt with and what he said to the queen when receiving his OBE.

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We are finally recognising this thing that I call social learning, which is our capacity to learn from one another.

Podcast Transcript

Maria’s guest on the show is David Price. David is an expert in organisational learning for a complex future. He is a senior associate at The Innovation Unit and co-founder of We Do Things Differently, a cultural change practise. His book, Open: How We’ll Work, Live, and Learn in the Future, has been an Amazon bestseller since its publication. In 2009, he was awarded the OBE by Her Majesty the Queen. He writes, talks, trains, and advises around the world on some of the biggest challenges facing business, education, and society, solving the problems of employees, student, and civic disengagement, maximising our potential to be creative, innovative, and fulfilled citizens, and understanding the global shift towards open organisations and systems of learning.

Maria Franzoni: 

So, David, welcome, and first, before we start, I have to say Happy Birthday.

David Price: 

Thank you, yes. Don’t remind me.

Maria Franzoni:  

You thought I’d forgotten. How will you be celebrating, apart from obviously doing this podcast?

David Price:  

Working. And then we’re going out tonight, at least I’m told we’re going out tonight with dinner with friends, so it’s compulsory. I tend not to make a big deal out of birthdays. I never have done that. I usually forget it’s my birthday, so thank you for reminding me.

Maria Franzoni: 

That’s all right. You’re very welcome. The present is in the post, not. So David, take us back to maybe earlier birthdays, when you were a young lad. What were your aspirations? What did you want to be?

David Price: 

Gosh, initially I wanted to be a journalist. I had no idea why. It was just something about writing that I enjoyed doing. It was probably the only subject that I was halfway decent at school. But then, once I kind of discovered music, that became the obsession for a long time, I guess from the ages of about 13 to well, I was a professional musician for 15 years until I was about 30, and then I thought, this is not really a job for a grownup. Having said that, look at all the grownups, Rod Stewart, etc. They’re still doing it. I saw Billy Joel in New York a couple of weeks ago, and he’s 69. It’s just amazing. And he said, “I never thought I’d doing this job when I was this age.” But I guess I also felt there was something more that I wanted to do. I didn’t know what it was, had no idea. I was just drifting really.

And then a friend of mine said, “Why don’t you go to college?” So I went to college when I was 30, and I ended up, just through no particular plan, in education. Initially, it was community education, and then I realised I was fascinated about how people learned outside of the formal structure. So having worked in institutions, including universities, for a while, I just thought I wanted to delve into this deeper. We always look back on our careers, and it makes perfect sense in hindsight, but at the time you just kind of go from one opportunity to another.

When I sat down to write the book, I really had no idea what I was going to say, but as I was writing it, I realised that this fascination I’ve got with how people learn informally, and now the way in which we can all learn so much from each other, I realised that that had been a kind of common thread almost right throughout my career, even when I was playing in bands, because that’s how you learn in bands. It isn’t like you get some music and start playing it. You just learn from each other. So that capacity, I think, that people have got to learn from each other is enormous, and the system tends to drive it out of young people. And so I’m about trying to make sure that we recognise it and incorporate it.

Maria Franzoni:    

That’s fascinating. You’ve covered a lot of things that I was going to ask you about. We’ll go a bit more in depth, actually, because I was fascinated to know where that interest in organisational learning came from, and so as you said, it’s a thread all the way through. Do you think life might have been different had you stayed in your music career? Would you have been a rock star, do you think?

David Price: 

No, I was never good enough, and I kind of realised that not long after. But I was one of those people who 1977, the punk movement just, it decimated so many careers, mine included, in a very, very short space of time. It’s ironic that that whole do-it-yourself ethos, which drove the punk thing, which I loathed at the time, I felt bitter about it, and these people couldn’t play, and I’d worked for 10 years to get where I was, and now I couldn’t get any work, because people who couldn’t even play three chords were now forming bands and in the charts. Now it’s the thing that I’m really fascinated by. The whole do-it-yourself ethic is, I guess, what’s driving, I think, a lot of the changes that we’re seeing, not just in the way organisations learn, but in the way society is changing. So I’m a kind of latter day punk, I guess.

Maria Franzoni:  

Fantastic. I could see that from your hair style as well today. David, congratulations on your OBE. I mean, I know you’re very proud of it. Can you tell us what that was awarded to you for?

David Price:  

Well, I wish I knew. The whole process is clothed in secrecy, and indeed, when the Queen gave it to me, that was the question she said. She said, “So what did you get this for?” And sometimes, I guess, when I’m in the presence of well-established people I drop all pretence. I said, “Well, I don’t know. You’re giving it to me. Do you not know?” Then I realised that was perhaps a little forward, but she had seen me years ago when I helped establish the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts, so it may have had something to do with that, but then I also worked, and I think this is more likely, I worked with the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, which is a charitable trust, and I set up a project, which ironically was about music.  Again, it went back to that thing where there was this question, why is the most popular cultural activity the least popular subject at school when kids have a choice? I hated music at school. Loved music outside of school. So I set up this project, which was attempting to bring that informal learning into the formal context of school, and it’s gone on to be hugely successful. It’s kind of all around the world. So I think it was perhaps in recognition of that.

Maria Franzoni:  

You’re a modest man. You’re a modest man, and I’ve heard you say that OBE stands for Other-

David Price:  

Buggers’ Ethics.

Maria Franzoni:      

Yes, yes. Might have to edit that out. I will leave that in, but you’re a very modest man. Talking about the education system, do you think that the education system prepares students for this really fast-paced changing world of business that we are finding ourselves in?

David Price:     

It depends where you go. There are some countries like Finland, New Zealand, Canada, who I think are leading the way now and doing very different things to what we see in the UK. Although in the UK, if you’ve got enough money to be privately educated or send your kids to an international school, you are probably preparing them and giving them a big advantage. But right now, in the UK, we have this obsession with what we call a knowledge-rich curriculum, which is essentially just cram as much bits of information into kids’ heads, without thinking about what are the skills that actually employers are saying that they need, which are all the so-called soft skills.  But soft is the wrong word for them, and not enough schools. There are some great schools in the UK that are doing this, but not enough schools are equipping kids to be able to present their ideas, to be able to articulate their ideas, to be able to work collaboratively, to be able to work in teams to problem solve. The countries that I mentioned are doing this now and putting it right at the centre of their education systems. Sadly, we are not. We are one of the countries that are lagging way behind.

Maria Franzoni:  

It makes me glad not to have children, to be honest with you, when I hear things like that, because it’s such a worry, such a worry. I’ve heard you say that you inhabit the intersection between education and business. I mean, that’s a big sentence in itself. What does that mean?

David Price: 

If you look at what’s at the heart of both of those environments, although I think one is very overt about that, which is school, and we think that we go to school to learn things. We don’t always think that we go to work to learn things. There is still a common perception that you do school, and university if you’re lucky, and then your learning stops and you use that learning. The truth is, the way the world of work is now changing, that’s going to be impossible. We’re all going to have many, many different jobs throughout our careers, and we really will have to be lifelong learners.

So although it may not get the recognition it perhaps deserves, I think, in the workplace, what we see when you look at the research is that the companies that are the most innovative and future-focused, it seems to me anyway, are the ones who regard work as an opportunity to learn. The reverse of that is true in our education system. We need learning in schools to be more like work. We need to put kids out in the world to understand how the world works.

So there’s a curious kind of paradox within that, but that intersection is really that question of what is the best way for people to develop themselves as individuals, as human beings, as efficient workers, as curious citizens? That’s why I’m fascinated by learning, because I think the big shift that’s gone on in the last 10 years is that we are finally recognising this thing that I call social learning, which is our capacity to learn from one another. And it’s causing employers quite a lot of angst, because we all know that if we can do so much more in terms of our professional learning outside of work, that’s telling us that there’s something not right.

The model of the training room where you sit down and you endure death by PowerPoint, that no longer cuts it for most people, because when they go home, they’re communicating with people all around the world. They’re following their passions, they’re talking about really interesting stuff. So they are becoming … the phrase I use is they’re becoming self-determined learners. The challenge for most corporations and most organisations is, how can you manage self-managed learning? It’s almost a paradox in itself. So what I’m fascinated in, and where most of my work now sits, is helping people to understand that there are ways in which you can support people to be self-determined learners.

Maria Franzoni:  

Fantastic, really fascinating. You also talk about engagement and disengagement. Do you think those two things, do you think the learning and the engagement is linked?

David Price:   

Absolutely. There’s a clear correlation between innovation in an organisation, between the learning culture and how seriously people take engagement. I’ve been doing the research now for the follow-up to Open, which is going to be called, very originally, Learning To Be Open, and I was in New York last week at a company called Sparks & Honey. It’s a kind of company that could never have existed 10 years ago. They’re culture seekers, so they have a network of people all around the world who essentially pick up on any kind of memes, anything that’s happening in social media, and they feed it into this computer that they’ve got, which is artificially intelligent. And they turn these kind of signals into what appear to be trends.

They’re now advising big corporations like McDonald’s, the US military on changes in culture, because that’s going to enable them to get ahead of the curve. But the fascinating thing is that they’re doing that through completely open and networked clusters of individuals all around the world, and it’s almost a kind of an organic model of leaning. It’s fascinating to see, and they’re highly successful.

And to go back to the engagement piece, they place very high regard on engagement, so one of the questions I’ve been asking everybody as I’ve been doing the interviews is I say, “Learning or free lunches?” And by that, the inference is, we seek to get employees’ loyalty through perks. Everybody’s read about Google and the way that you can get free food, and there’s pool tables, and all of that kind of stuff, but actually, when you go to Google, as I did recently … I was in Australia, and I went to their headquarters … it’s the learning environment that they’ve created that really is why people stay, because when millennials are asked about do they want more money, do they want a boss that trusts them? Well yes, trust is a very big factor, but actually their main drive and the reason why they change jobs is to learn more and to grow as individuals. So for me, engagement and learning are indivisible, and sadly, too many employers take neither of those very seriously.

Maria Franzoni:  

Yeah. I mean, we’re blessed in the business that we’re in, because we’re constantly learning from our speakers. We are working with experts, and in fact, we are constantly learning from our clients, who are demanding the experts in the next area, which is why I’ve stayed in this business for over 20 years, because at the end of every day, my brain is fried from learning from people like you.

So anyway, I’m really thrilled that you’re writing your second book. I think it’s about time, because I absolutely devoured your book. I took your book, Open, on holiday, and I couldn’t put it down. I think it was brilliant. It absolutely changed the way I looked at my business, so you’ve had a huge effect on me. But anybody who doesn’t know what you mean by Open, could you just summarise what that means?

David Price:   

Okay, yeah. It took me a very long time to do the 30-second sell on the book, and eventually I saw in the Guardian, of all places, I just saw this little ad that they put out, and they said, “The Open exchange of information and ideas has the potential to change the world.” Essentially, that’s what I was picking up on. So I looked at Open as a mindset. I looked at Open as a structural vehicle, so we are seeing now more organisations that are completely self-managed, there is no hierarchy within them. I looked at Open in terms of that thing that we’ve already talked about between informal and formal and how you achieve that kind of blend.

So I looked at a number of different definitions of what we might deem Open, and I guess what I’m trying to do with this book now is, a lot of people said, “Well, the ideas are great. How do we do it?” And so this next book is much more a kind of how-to guide to create an open learning environment, because it’s easy to talk about, and it’s easy to describe, but it’s hard to actually achieve that.

Maria Franzoni: 

Absolutely. Absolutely. You also say that the next big shift is people-powered innovation. Will you be writing about that as well, and will you share what that’s about?

David Price: 

Yes. What I picked up on was … let’s take an example. The humble potato chip came about as a result of a disgruntled businessman in a restaurant in Saratoga. I think it was about 1853. He went in and his meal was served, and the potatoes were just soggy, and he really didn’t like them at all. He said, “I want these taken back, and I want them cooked really thinly.” Their chef was really quite upset about all this, so he decided that he would cut these potatoes incredibly thinly, throw them in a frying pan and put tonnes of salt on them, and served it up. He expected the guy to storm out. The guy actually loved them, and of course, that’s how the potato chip was born. There is no patent on the potato chip. The chef should have been wise, because it’s a $6 billion industry in the US alone.

David Price: 

What I always ask when I talk about that particular example, I always say to people, “So who invented the potato chip? Was it the chef or was it the customer?” And the truth is, it’s both. I think what we’re seeing now is we’ve moved from sharing what we know, which is what I really wrote about in Open. We’ve then moved into sharing what we own, so Airbnb, Uber, all of those things, you’re using your own possessions and you’re sharing them. Now I think we’re going to start to share what we can create, and by people-powered innovation … Not many people know this, but almost all, certainly well over 50% of the mobile banking innovations in Africa have come about as a result of the customers inventing things.

This is presenting another challenge for organisations, because we now for the first time have the capacity to make these things ourself. We can make things, we can invent things, and we can now go to scale, because hitherto we were missing two things. We were missing capital. If I had an idea, or my friends had an idea, how would we raise the capital for it? Well now, we’ve got all sorts of Kickstarters, GoFundMe. There’s all kinds of peer lending, which makes that possible. But we also didn’t have the means of production. But with 3D printers costing $1,500, we can build these things ourselves.

And what I’m observing is this people-powered innovation in so many fields. I see it particularly in the field of healthcare, where more and more people are taking responsibility for their own healthcare. And there are things like garage pharmacists, which are people who are not trained medical practitioners. They’ve got a DNA editing machine from eBay, because they’re relatively cheap and affordable. They’re sequencing DNA. They’re creating their own pharmaceutical drugs. None of it is being regulated, which of course presents another challenge, but there is no point in trying to outlaw these user-led innovations.

What we need to do, as Proctor & Gamble did, is to work with them and to say, “We’ll be your partner. We’ll help work with you, but you own this and you are the people now who can take this to scale.” Because what happens is, when the big organisations come in and then kind of buy it up … I’ll give you a concrete example. Skateboards were created by surfers, who during the winter wanted something that they could use. So they essentially cannibalised a pair of roller skates, put a plank of wood on it. It was as simple as that, and then that was the first skateboard. And the skateboard community grew and grew and grew. There was no commercial involvement. Then along come the commercial organisations, you get people like Billabong, what they do is to take it to scale. But if you followed Billabong’s fortunes, they’re sharply on the decline, because they’ve lost that punk ethic

The thing that drove all these people was this desire to hack and to tinker, but also to share it. Nobody was in there to make a tonne of money, but it was to share those ideas with other users and to keep it within that spirit. And surf culture is really fascinating for this, because as soon as Rip Curl and all those big companies got involved, the real surfers just said, “To hell with that. We’ll just go back to the garage, and we’ll just make our own again.” So there’s a kind of ethic which goes with it, which sits alongside that open learning, but I will predict it will get bigger. This notion of people-powered innovation will get significantly bigger over the coming years, simply because we can now.

Maria Franzoni: 

Love it. I’m really looking forward to the book, so make sure you focus on writing it. Now tell me, David, how did you get into speaking?

David Price:   

Well, I’d always sort of done that, and when I was working at the Liverpool Institute, because it was quite an innovative project, we had to set up essentially a new university, doing things that no other university had done. Once we opened and word got around, people started asking me to speak. There’s a performance gene in my body, and I thought, “Wow, this is just like being on stage.” I loved it, and I still do, and since the book came out, it’s kind of opened up so many other doors and so many other opportunities to speak. So I’m really fortunate that … There are some people who just speak domestically, and they’re experts in what’s going on in some narrow field or perhaps in one country or another. I’m lucky that I’ve got this jack of all trades, master of none approach, which has meant that I’ve been able to speak in many different companies on many, many different topics.

Maria Franzoni:  

Actually, you spend a lot of your time every year in Australia, don’t you?

David Price: 

I do.

Maria Franzoni:    

So you skip the winter, you skip the winter here? How did you end up working in Australia?

David Price:

Well, that was through that project I talked about, the music one. The first country that really picked up on it was Australia, and so they asked me to go over and help set it up. As a result, I then started working with … it was mainly educators initially, and then I started getting requests to speak over there. But that’s only part of my work. I really enjoy training, so there’s one part of my work which is kind of up here, it’s the strategic policy. But the other part of it, which I could not leave behind, is either going in working with teachers or employees and doing workshops with them. Really enjoy doing that.

I think sometimes when you’re working as a consultant, you do the report and it goes on the shelf, and maybe something happens. You don’t know, though, because they’ve moved on, you move on. But there’s something about going into a school or a college and giving them a new way of working, which you can do very quickly. I can do it in a couple of days. Giving them a new way of working, and you know that it’s had an impact. Now, it may only be one organisation at a time, but I actually think that’s how the world’s going to change. The big sweeping radial changes, it seems to me, don’t often stick.

Maria Franzoni:  

Yeah, and actually, it’s not just educational organisations, because we’ve sent you into businesses as well to do the same thing. Finally, I’m going to end on something very personal here, and I hope you don’t mind. I hope I don’t have to edit it out.

David Price:  

You can’t write a book called Open and then put a barrier up.

Maria Franzoni:  

Okay, so we’re going to end on something that is a big deal. It’s a big deal. You often open your speeches these days saying that you’re happy to be here when you’re actually on the stage and that actually has a huge meaning, doesn’t it? Why do you say that, and what’s happened, and how has that changed you?

David Price:

Well, I’m currently on my third about of cancer, so I got prostate cancer about nine years ago, and it was fine until two years ago, when it started to reappear. But you know, prostate cancer’s quite a manageable condition. But in between that, I also got colon cancer, and I had surgery for that, which went horribly wrong, and I ended up with severe sepsis, of which the death rates are 50%. So it’s a 50/50 chance whether you’re going to survive or not. I was lucky that I did survive, but it genuinely was a life-changing moment, because I had to consider what was it I wanted to do with the rest of my life?

None of us know how long we’re going to be around, and it ties back into my work interest, insofar as currently I’m kind of following a fairly unconventional path, from people that I sourced through that prostate cancer community. I think sadly, too many people go down the surgical route with prostate cancer, which is not always in your best interest, because it’s also about the quality of life. Again, I take responsibility for my own health, and it’s astonishing. I was talking to a nurse the other day, and she said, “You know, sometimes I’ll have patients, I’ll say, ‘You do know you’ve got cancer?’ And they go, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, I know.’ And I say, ‘Do you know which cancer you’ve got?’ And they go, ‘No, no, I don’t really know.’”

I find that astonishing, that anybody would not know what kind of cancer they’ve got, but it shows … I think, I can’t prove this, but I think being curious as an individual, taking that responsibility, having the confidence, I guess, not to panic and not to say, “Okay, doctor, whatever you think,” and to recognise that out there, there are millions of people who are doing some very different strategies. And I think the medical community, to go back to that open learning thing, the medical community all over the world is failing to recognise the enormous range of skills in its patients, and the experience in skills. And largely, they’re not tapping into that, those skills and experience. So to cut a long story short, yep, I’ve had some major health challenges, but touch wood, everything’s under control right now, and yeah, I think I’m going to be around for a while yet.

Maria Franzoni: 

Fantastic. Well listen, I’m glad you’re here. You’re looking great. Have a wonderful birthday, and thank you for your time.

David Price: 

Thanks a lot, Maria.

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