There is nothing like provocation for discovering a purpose. For Adam Freeman, ad man turned philanthropic leader with an eye on the future, it was being involved in an unpleasant redundancy process that lit the spark.
“That was fifteen years ago,” he explains from the Freeformers office, an organisation committed to helping society prepare for a digital future. “We were doing the painful bit of transformation: making large-scale redundancies to reduce the existing headcount, freeing up money to invest in new skills and tools, and new ways of working in tech and digital.”
He winces at the memory, admitting, “we made very little attempt to help the existing talent play a role in the future. It’s a horrible thing, and it’s really unsustainable as a model as you lose the social capital inside the organisation, which is very easy to underestimate. It was a real eye opener for me: I was young enough to recognise that it wasn’t a good way of doing it.”
It took some time for this realisation to become his work. He spent 22 years with the Guardian and then two years with Bloomberg Media before he finally found himself in a position to deliver the right kind of digital transformation. Today, Adam, as co-founder and managing director of Freeformers, and his team work to shape current and future workforces to meet the changing demands of the digital world.
The organisation’s approach to training is complementary yet divergent from the national push for technical skills like coding. “It’s about hearts,” he says, cryptically. “Work used to be about your hands – manual labour, working in a factory – and then after the industrial revolution it became more about the head; ideas, innovation and intellectual property. If this will largely be handled by AI and automation, what’s left? Hearts. It’s about how human beings help other human beings to be the best they can be.”
Skills such as team work, collaborative thinking, creativity and empathy are prized, and will prove invaluable to all as the world is shifted by digital advancements. The ability to be agile is crucial within organisations, as hiring new talent is a slow and expensive process. “We need to be confident about uncertainty, and the challenge starts at the top. The leader needs to be inspired and ready to change, with people looking out rather than in.”
This is not, unfortunately, always a given. “Sometimes, we simply can’t work with some organisations as they don’t have a leader who is committed to change,” he says. “There are too many blockers.” He suggests that many long-standing organisations have developed too far from the people they should be serving; the customers.”
“Look at businesses beating the legacy businesses,” he continues. “They are all customer-obsessed: Google, Amazon, NetFlix. They have so much data and they use it. They can pivot quickly and react quickly, which is why they are so successful.”
Success is only one area that matters. Adam is firm on his belief that “businesses need to leave the world in a better place than they find it – we all have a responsibility to help others.” Freeformers is a purpose driven organisation. For every corporate learner they register on the Freeformers platform, the company provides a 16-24 year old learner from a less advantaged background with access to the platform for free. They are also working in partnership with Facebook on a programme that hopes to upskill 300,000 people across six European countries in two years.
In short, the Foundation is taking the longer-term view, training the next generation of workers while the main business works on upskilling those already running the show. This ensures the correct talent will filter down the pipeline. “There is a lifetime benefit in training young people,” says Adam, “yes, we mustn’t forget the older generation who have a lot to lose by redundancy, but we can have the biggest impact by training the young.”
Being a parent of three himself, Adam is particularly aware of the needs of the next generation. He admits he worries about the future, feeling that too many young people are coming out of the education system without gaining the skills they need for the world of work. “They are growing up in a digital world and they know how to use digital channels, but it doesn’t mean they have the right life and work skills, like collaboration, communication, team work, and the ability to self-learn. The quicker you gain them, the quicker you can get on.”
The offspring of a successful tech entrepreneur, with the resources and support to navigate the systems, have an easier time of it, of course. How do we help those who would fall through the cracks? Adam recognises the scale of the challenge: “disparities are getting greater.”
“The world’s not an even or fair place. Digital opportunities are making the world less even and fair because the digital ‘havenots’ are being completely left behind. If you can’t get into the system and it’s changing around you, your choices are low skilled jobs, and they will go with automation.”
The solution is in taking what’s needed to those most in need. “Young people can feel disconnected, which is ironic in a digital age. We must make sure there are plenty of opportunities around them and that it’s accessible. We need to work with the communities and authorities that they trust to help them access what they need.” Freeformers hope to be a part of that. The company is working with the Greater London Authority to upskill NEET (not in education, employment or training) youngsters, providing digital skills to help them find their way back into employment or education.
Adam is an optimist by nature, and indefatigable. “I love what I do, and am always checking something or following something up.” That said, he is aware that “my CV is not going to be on my gravestone. My family is very important to me, and I like to stay fit, which keeps me happier and healthier.” He is also stimulated about the future of technology: “It’s coming back to the core human skills of audio and visual, talking to tech as a standard way of controlling it, or integrated into our eyes. This will make it more accessible to more people, which I get excited about.”
“A digital society provides more opportunities to connect with people who care, which gives me hope.” He’s also confident that humans are up to the task that lies ahead on the journey to a digital future. “The human spirit is pretty indominable. We’ll find a way through it. It’ll take all the stakeholders – Government, NGOs, communities and companies – to collaborate. We’ll get quite a lot of it wrong on the way I’m sure, but it’s about creating a digital economy that works for everyone.”
Adam Freeman is part of the National Coherence Working Group of the Digital Skills Partnership alongside Nominet COO Eleanor Bradley.