Q&A with John McGeown

Reading time: approx 8 minutes

As part of Learnovate’s Meet the Patrons series, we speak to John McGeown, Head of Digital Skills at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science.

DFHERIS is split into three key divisions. Research focuses on collaborations with the European Union and cutting-edge technologies like the high-performance and quantum computing strategy; Higher Education oversees the universities and the largest budget of the three component parts; while Further Education and Skills Policy manages relationships with SOLAS and Education and Training Boards, while also devising and implementing initiatives and programmes to achieve national digital literacy goals.

John has been with the DFHERIS for more than three years, arriving first as an Assistant Principal before moving on to his current role as Head of Digital Skills. Prior to joining the civil service, John had worked with Enterprise Ireland for two years and IDA Ireland for 12 years, spending more than a decade in the United States where he worked in a variety of locations and with companies across a range of industries – from life sciences and industrial technology in Atlanta, Georgia, to engineering firms in Chicago, Illinois.

As party of his role with the skills policy unit in DFHERIS, John has oversight of the project to uplift basic digital skills across society. The primary aim of this project is to ensure that 80% of the country’s population has basic digital literacy and skills. Reaching this target, John explains, is dependent on providing training to people over 65 years of age on how to use the internet and engage with basic services online.

Another key area for the skills policy unit is increasing the number of ICT graduates from third-level institutions across Ireland  from 7,000 a year to 12,000 a year. Ireland is now, on average, producing just under 14,000 graduates from ICT specific courses every year. The unit’s responsibilities also include a forecasting dimension, with team members monitoring emerging technologies and ways in which specialist fields might increase demand for labour in Ireland.

John earned his undergraduate degree in Business and Law from UCD before going on to the University of Glasgow where he completed his Master’s. He is currently studying for a diploma in Artificial Intelligence.

What are the biggest lessons you learned in your career?

I worked abroad with the IDA in the United States for 10 years. While it was a fantastic experience living in the US and working with ground-breaking companies across various industries, , I would say that I probably stayed too long.  If I could go back in time, I’d tell my younger self not to stay longer than four or five years. If you’re away from the mothership in any organisation too long you find that the culture changes and you can feel as though you’ve been cut adrift.

What was the best advice you ever received?

A Fortune 500 CIO once told me that everyone should aim to begin their career in the most complex organisation or role they can so that, as they progress, things get simpler. That’s the theory at least. I can’t say I’ve managed it myself!

How would you define your work style and how has this changed over your career?

I have become much more participative, which was more down to necessity than design. Going from business development with IDA Ireland to management in a government department with its own initiatives and targets was a bit of learning curve. The reality is that you can’t manage people like you run sales. You need a different approach.

What have you learned about managing teams and individuals?

Not everyone wants to be a high performer – and that’s ok! Every organisation needs steady, experienced hands with institutional knowledge. It’s usually underrated and often taken for granted. I like to think that I see and appreciate the people on our team who bring those underrated qualities.

Why is R&D important in your industry?

DFHERIS has a €1billion budget for R&D that’s managed in conjunction with Science Foundation Ireland, so it’s clear how much we value it. I know from my time with IDA Ireland that when businesses invest in innovation, they become embedded both within the economy and then the local community No business can thrive without some level of development. You cannot stand still and expect to not be outcompeted by rivals.

How should we prepare for the future of work? Does AI have a role to play in this?

When we consider AI from a policy perspective, we’re very aware that the automation versus augmentation debate is unresolved. Developments in the US over the past 12 months would suggest that augmentation is  winning out, certainly at the higher end of white-collar work. There’s been a growth in prompt engineering employment on the east and west coast and we would anticipate that developing in Ireland.

But it doesn’t follow that the fears around AI and automation have been overblown. Reskilling and upskilling must be part of the response to AI. When a business buys new software to automate its processes, there’s an opportunity to help employees with institutional knowledge and a background in the sector to reskill with the digital tools that will become part of the average white-collar workday. As policymakers, it’s incumbent on us to come up with the correct mechanisms to allow both the employee and employer to access those retraining services.

What are the biggest skills challenges to your business or sector?

DFHERIS concluded a review of country’s skills strategy last year in conjunction with the OECD. On one level, the OECD was very complimentary. On another, it was pointed out that our Lifelong Learning rates are very low and that there are opportunities for upskilling and re-skilling in the workforce. We also need to continue to ensure that our tertiary education system is producing graduates with the right transversal skills and an adequate level of digital skills for the labour market in general.

How can third level address the skills gaps/challenges you are facing?

There’s some innovative work going on in Higher Education Institutions. For instance, there’s a huge emphasis on transversal skills in Dublin City University now and it’s becoming embedded right across the curriculum. The DCU Futures Programme is recognised as world leading in this space. There are so many pockets of excellence across Irish academia. As policymakers, we have to help to embed that across the entire system.

What book would you recommend on learning, technology, business or understanding people?

I’ve got two young kids so my usual reading consists of CS Lewis or Tolkien! However, one book that springs to mind is Learning How to Learn by Barbara Oakley, Alistair McConville, and Terry Sejnowski. It’s straightforward and simple, but the lessons are quite timeless. It teaches you the basics of the neuroscience behind learning and techniques to help you learn. The most well-known is probably the Pomodoro Technique, which breaks learning down to 25-minute stretches of focused work followed by five-minute breaks.

What are your favourite tools and resources in work?

If I’m trying to carve out a chunk of time, I will shut down email and put my phone on airplane mode. I also use BlockSite, which is a Google Chrome extension that allows you to block certain websites for periods of time.

Any interesting podcasts or other media do you consume that you would recommend on learning, technology or business?

The Knowledge Project Podcast from Farnam Street.

It’s hosted by Shane Parrish. The whole thing grew out of his obsession with investing but he’s broadened it out to other areas.

Why is membership of Learnovate important to your company?

Membership of Learnovate is very important for us, especially in terms of the Tri-Skill project – the €400,000 project to research the development of a platform for core digital and data skills which is being led by Learnovate, Cisco and Skillnet Ireland. What the team are trying to do, in conjunction with IDA Ireland, is create a platform that will give any new employee a clear and precise roadmap of digital skills that they will need to participate in the digital economy. Beyond a roadmap, the platform will be bespoke, will provide them with simulation training, a practice environment and built-in assessment environment. When we consider our technology skills targets – to produce the digital skills required for the labour market – the Tri-Skill project is a key part of that. There are a lot of different bespoke training options in the multinational organisations. If you join IBM, or Cisco, for instance, you can train on the product suites they use. For SMEs they might use anything from Intuit, Success Factors for HR. However, there needs to be a platform that an employee can learn key digital skills that are required across all the software products that SMEs are using. From our perspective, that will help them meet the threshold of being adequately digitally trained for the labour force.

Learnovate has created a strong community around learning to learn, digital uplift and embedding a culture of success and continuous learning within the organisations they partner with. I would recommend sitting down to talk with them about membership options. If you’re a HR manager in medium to large corporate, I think they can be of real value to your business.

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