Future-Proofing Educational Strategies in the Era of CBE, GenAI, and Qualifications Beyond Degrees

In this interview, Dan McFadyen, Managing Director of Edalex and Kate Valenti, Co-Chief Executive Officer at Unicon Inc. explore the evolving education landscape as they delve into key aspects of Competency-Based Education (CBE), the integration of General Artificial Intelligence (GenAI), and the redefinition of qualifications beyond traditional degrees. The conversation is divided into 6 thought-provoking chapters, each shedding light on different aspects of their covered topics.

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Chapters

0:00 – Introduction
01:13 – Exploring the Landscape of Competency-Based Education: Insights from a Leading EdTech
11:39 – Strategies for Competency-based Education Adoption: Current Infrastructure vs Customised Solutions
15:23 – Embracing the Artificial Intelligence Wave: a Perspective on Integrating GenAI in Educational Institutions
22:21 – Skills-Focused and Beyond Degrees: Rethinking Higher Ed in the Face of Declining Enrolment
31:26 – Innovative Projects with Strategic Partners to Reshape the Future of Education in HE and K-12
35:09 – Building and Sustaining a Successful Culture for a Remote-First Workforce

Chapter videos

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Transcript

(This transcript has been lightly edited for readability)

Dan McFadyen (DMcF) – Hi, I’m Dan McFadyen, Co-founder and Managing Director at Edalex. I’m very pleased to have with me today Kate Valenti from Unicon. Kate is the Co-CEO of Unicon and she co-leads the Senior Executive team and all aspects of corporate operations alongside Founder and Co-CEO, Jon Blakeley. Kate is responsible for the profitable execution of market strategies as well as internal operational efficiency towards Unicon’s goal to deliver outstanding service to clients and significant impact to learners throughout her career at Unicorn. Kate has previously held key leadership roles, including Chief Operating Officer and Senior Director of Integrations and Analytics. Previously, Kate worked at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young as a Management Consultant with a focus on enterprise application integration. Kate, thanks so much for joining me today. Great to have you. 

Kate Valenti (KV) – Yeah, Thanks so much for having me.

Chapter 1: Exploring the Landscape of Competency-Based Education: Insights from a Leading EdTech

DMcF – And when thinking back, we first connected in 2017 or 2018 when Unicon and Edalex were
collaborating to take, at the time the software known as EQUELLA, to take that open source which now seems like really ancient history but for those who don’t know Unicon or don’t know some of the more recent changes with Unicon. Can you can you fill us in?

KV – Yeah. So it does feel like it feels like so long ago. Well, you know, Unicon is a 30-year-old education technology services provider. So that’s the first thing that typically surprises us. It’s 30 years old. I’d like to say we were calling ourselves an EdTech provider, before EdTech was sort of a thing, but we have a North Star around really supporting and improving learner experiences. So those digital experiences that learners have to interact with every day are mission is to make sure that those are as seamless and as fruitful as possible for learners. We don’t have a product, so we are a consulting and services organisation, and essentially our people are our products. We deploy a specialised team with domain expertise and the clients that we work with are edtech. So for EdTech, we help them bring their products to market. For schools and institutions, we solve both strategic and operational gaps in that they may have needs for in the areas of application development, data integration, identity and cloud,
and then for foundations and for other funders, we help to advise around the future of grant making in the EdTech space.  We do have roots in open source, so we for a long time were known as an open source company, but mostly that is the ethos of let’s use components that help our customers to maintain and to deploy things as cost effectively as possible. So open source and open standards are a big part of our story. 

DMcF – That’s a wonderful story. And yes, 30 years. So that is quite a record and testament to Blake and many others, and certainly you as well. And how long have you been at Unicon?

KV – I just celebrated my 20th anniversary this year.

DMcF – Wow. 20 years. Congratulations.

KV – Thanks. 

DMcF – Fantastic. So that’s been the history. And then the last time we caught up face-to-face
was at the CBExchange conference just in October, which is always a fantastic event that Charla Long and her team put on. So that’s why I’d love to start our discussion today around CBE (Competency-based Education). And I know you and Unicon have done some pretty significant work in that space. Can you fill us in on that? And why do you think it’s time for CBE? and why is the interest in it really increasing?

KV – Absolutely, we see CBE is really an area of expansion, both from the academic perspective as well
as from the technological perspective. Competency-based education is essentially a learning modality that places an emphasis on measuring learning by what a learner knows and can do. So rather than being able to describe a capability actually demonstrating the knowledge and skills and behaviours that denote mastery for learning essentially, in CBE model learning is measured through that mastery of competency rather than simply through seat time like it might be in a traditional program. I think there are a series of forces that are converging in the indication space right now. These are true, specifically in Higher Ed, but market forces that hit post-secondary often have a way of filling into K-12, and filling into the workforce. So those include things like better outcomes, learners are just wanting to be sure that they know what a credential, or what the money that they’re putting into a program will get them – lower cost options, and then more flexibility in terms of where, and when that learning is happening. So how does that relate to CBE? Why does CBE become a modality of interest? Well, CBE allows for student pacing that allows the learner to set the pace of their learning, whether to speed up or slow down based on their individual needs. Many CBE programs allow credit for prior learning, which means that folks who have invested in military careers or have experience that comes from on-the-job work that may not necessarily be reflected; and a credential or a degree actually gets counted toward their education. And then CBE also helps to map skills and competencies directly to workforce needs. So when you’re talking about that tradeoff and making sure that the degree is going to be worth something, when you go through a program that is specifically designed for the applicability of the credential to employment, you have a better sense of what you’re going to be able to do with that credential when you get done. And so that in Higher Ed, CBE can be used both in degree programs, as well as in non-degree credentials that
a lot of learners are seeking right now.

DMcF – Fantastic, and recognising other the financial pressures and the increasing tuition and cost of living.It just makes sense on so many different levels. And I think when we have a kind of new foundation and others coming out and saying it’s time to move on from seat time, that’s a fantastic endorsement. So carrying on with this same and building on the comments that you mentioned already in terms of how you work with various institutions. Can you fill us in on that side of things? And from the institution perspective, what are some of the best practices, pitfalls to avoid? What have you learned to this?

KV – Yeah, we’ve learned so much. So even though CBE is a pedagogical approach has been around for decades and decades it’s only in recent years that we’ve had the opportunity to work with schools that are running traditional programs and then starting to sort of explore what building some competency-based programs might do for their learner. And unfortunately, what that means is that many schools are trying to fit CBE programs into traditional architecture, which as you can imagine, presents itself some challenges. So what we’ve seen over the past couple of years is the interest in CBE has grown, but a lot of the technical limitations for end-to-end system implementations have really remain. And while there are some very successful purpose-built systems in the CBE ecosystem, not to name any specific products but in the areas of credential management or authentic assessment, for instance, most of the systems that power CBE programs weren’t actually built for CBE, so the technical left can be considerable. And a lot of the work we’ve done with clients over the past couple of years has been really in the realm of evaluation work. So helping schools to look at what are the current state systems they’re running, what is the future state need to look like to support the CBE operating decisions that they’ve decided that they want to deploy inside of a program? And then how do you build that roadmap to get from current state to future state? So I think we’re going to need the big higher EdTech providers to make investments in purpose-built functionality for CBE, and we’re starting to see some of those features get added to roadmap. But Instructure’s last week announcement of the acquisition of Parchment obviously is a huge signal of the thought of building ecosystems for supporting these digital skills versus traditional programs over a learner’s lifetime. So that’s really exciting. And from our perspective, it’s an advancement in the space. 

DMcF – Yes. And from some of the discussions that I had at CBExchange and more broadly, as you flagged, it’s from K-12 all the way up, you know, community colleges, universities, systems. So organisations are thinking about this really massive scale. 

KV – And in addition to that, some of the interest comes from the more non-traditional learning providers as well. So sometimes I feel like when I talk to Higher Ed institutions, there’s so much about Higher Ed implementation that is just rooted in its tradition that sometimes it can be hard to break out, whereas there are alternative learning providers that are maybe able to be a little bit more nimble in adopting features that are more CBE friendly. So I think it’ll be really interesting to watch where Higher Ed goes in the next couple of years and how much they’re able to embrace skills as the new currency.

DMcF – Right, Right. No, I totally agree. And one of the phrases, an expression that I heard at the conference that I loved was ‘Think big, Start small, Move fast’. I mean, is CBE something that can be implemented in a couple of months? Or what’s your sense and feedback?

KV – I think it’s hard. I think a couple of months is a very short time frame. It’s like when somebody tells you: ‘Only takes 15 minutes.’ Nothing ever takes 15 minutes. I think it really depends on systems that are being run. So I assume the question is in terms of a digital program. Obviously, CBE does not require technology. CBE as a pedagogical model does not require technology. So there are lots of you can teach kindergartners a lot of things and have them show you how they tie their shoes, right? That don’t require technology. And that’s a very simple example. But I think when it comes to digital programs, it really depends on the systems that are being run and then how broad and diverse the operating functions are that you want to adopt. So things like if you’re changing a faculty model so that faculty can form on assessment and can sort of pick, and take an assessment, and help to do that authentic assessment kind of … I like to call it, kind of an “Uber framework”, you know, grab the next person who needs assessment. That takes time that there are a lot of ramifications for asking faculty to swarm in that way. So there’s some more complicated operating models. If you’re just doing some much more simpler use cases then you might be able to spin something up in a matter of months. But it is a fairly complicated kind of end-to-end conversion.

Chapter 2: Strategies for Competency-based Education Adoption: Current Infrastructure vs Customised Solutions

DMcF – Right. I think it’s important to share that information rather than in some individuals or institution that I think – OK, yeah, we can, just let’s make this up by the end of the year and then we’re off and running. You mentioned there’s a pedagogical aspect, but then a technical aspect. What are you seeing in terms of the technology that institutions should look to set up in a very bespoke custom environment for CBE, or work it in through the existing, even if it’s not perfect, but you know, use our existing systems, and architecture. 

KV – That’s a great question. And it’s a little bit of ‘do as I say, not as I do’ when we look at the institutions that are the leader in Competency-based Education, a lot of them have built very bespoke technical implementation. And the reality is that most schools that want to do this just don’t have the capacity, whether it’s time or funding, to be able to do that. And so even though some of the hallmark that we look at the CBE implementation are very custom, the schools we’re working with are most often saying, how do we do this with the systems that we already have because we don’t have the ability to go and make a bunch of new purchases. So trying to be very mindful and intentional about the places that we do recommend to add a system and then trying to be very practical about the ways that we reuse the systems that are already entrenched. You know, it’s very difficult for CBE implementation to uproot a Student Information System (SIS) inside of a school. I mean, just think about how that would work. So we have to live with the SIS that we have. We have to make use of the LMS. The good news on the LMS side is that most of our large market leaders in LMS are behind CBE and they are thinking about how to add features that allow those CBE implementations to be more seamless. So there are movements in the technical space. I don’t want to represent that there aren’t, but it’s still then … from there, what are all of the platforms that you need in order to plug in for assessment or to plug in for communication or to plug in for competency management or credential management. So there are a number of other components that you end up having to integrate into that final solution.

DMcF – Perfect, that’s great wisdom there. Okay, so lots of experience. And do you see that institutions are looking to switch 100% to CBE, or have hybrid or again, part of this year’s long process because obviously, there are the giants of CBE like Western Governance University. And they would have bespoke systems and you know, built from the ground up. But every existing institution is coming from that more traditional model. Are they looking to make a whole transition or … 

KV – They are not. They’re looking to pick a specific programs, or in some cases specific departments that fit CBE, and start with those to be proof of concept to sort of pave the way and then many of them are saying, ‘well, if we do that and it’s successful, that gives us a way to talk to other departments and programs about the benefits of doing things in a competency or skills-first way’, and then they’re hoping that would then create the momentum on campus. 

DMcF – Perfect – I think that makes a lot of sense, and it is also realistic: Work with the systems that you have, work with the models that you have introduced. Yeah – ‘Think big, Start small, and Move fast’.

KV – So there you go, there you go. 

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Chapter 3: Embracing the Artificial Intelligence Wave: a Perspective on Integrating GenAI in Educational Institutions

DMcF – And great to know that there are companies like Unicon that are out there to assist with the evaluation and the implementation process. Brilliant – Well, thanks. Thanks for that. And I’d like to  pivot to a different topic and one that does seem to come up quite a bit and has been discussed… And in fact, I don’t think we can have any discussion without talking about GenAI, and probably anything that we say during this discussion will obviously be obsolete by the end of it. We’ll have to say, something else has changed. There’s a new platform out. But for the next couple of minutes, we’d love to hear what you’re seeing in terms of institution in the education space – GenAI, I think a lot of that initial reaction was fear – “Wait, wait, no. Students are going to use this to cheat.” Well, it’s now woven into everyone’s daily lives. So what are you seeing? How are you advising institutions and organisations on it? Where do you think that the future is? 

KV – Yeah, I was checking the clock to see to get 20 minutes to get to the GenAI topic. We haven’t touched the ‘pandemic’ topic yet, but 20 minutes to get to GenAI. I am so AI but, I am also a very practical leader; and I feel like there’s a lot of not only fear, but there’s also hype around how AI can revolutionise things. And no doubt, AI will revolutionise things in our lifetimes. But we’ve been using tools and products long before ChatGPT became a household name. We’ve been prompted in our Google Docs for years, right, with suggestions of the next word that we want to use them, and that’s AIML-based. So I believe in the short term we’re going to continue to see AI as a feature in the tools we use. So the tools that we use and interact with every day, we get a little bit smarter based on the ability to process these large amounts of data, and anticipate our need. I think future-focused product organisations are going to continue to offload processes that can be done more efficiently by machines. And I think operationally, all organisations need to think about where they have processes that simply struggle to scale when you’re relying on manual handling. So these are the processes that I think are going to be re-imagined using AI. In K-20 that can be administrative functions, or it could be nudges, or career and skill matching, right? There are lots of different areas that don’t need a human to do the list. But then the benefit of that is when we offload the processing in that way, that allows the humans to focus on where they actually should be in the value chain supporting other humans. So it’s similar to, I feel like a decade ago, this was the conversation about the LMS. Like would it revolutionise teaching? No, it helped to offload some of the processes that faculty members got stuck in and allowed them to be more available, for instance, right? So I think that’s what we’re going to see with AI – It’s going to offload some of the processing that today is manual so that the humans can interact with the humans in a better way. 

DMcF – Yeah, I think that’s a very positive view, and realistic, right? So there is a hype, and it’s something that we need to be aware of, certainly, that the downsides, the negatives of it. But I know that for our team, we’ve woven it throughout our internal processes, operational processes, and certainly from platform perspective as well. Do you know, from an academic perspective, I don’t know if you get involved in any of those discussions, and your clients concerned about the students using it or that or the staff using it? 

KV – For students, we don’t get so much involved in the faculty to the students, to sort of tangle of how folks might use it. Although, I’m very interested in that conversation that’s going on. And so I tend to read all the articles that I see about that, and I think that will get to a healthy place where faculty are able to find ways to use it as a tool. I always say I am like a broken record on – my graphing calculator, right? I can hand my five-year-old a graphing calculator but he can’t do calculus. Right? So you have to sort of understand how to use the tool. And I think that there are ways that faculty will find to integrate those tools inside of courseware so that again, we’re offloading some of the things that don’t necessarily need the thought, or we’re creating writing bodies, or we’re creating other kinds of supports using the AI for first draft for papers, those kinds of things. I think they’ll find ways to do that. And faculties are smart, they’ll find ways to utilise those tools inside of their work, so that becomes less of a conversation about whether it’s a cheat or not a cheat. In terms of staff, definitely in the context of implementing new systems, definitely in the context of us having a big identity and access management practice so the conversation can come up around ‘what is it? What could we be doing to help with functions and grouping and things inside of our identity platform in order to make use of these features?’ I still think it’s a lot more conversation than it is in implementation at this stage. So a lot of interest, but not a lot of active implementation yet. But I expect that to change in the next few years as people just sort of get used to. We just use this as part of our internal process or part of our product feature. It’s just something that becomes another tool that we can use.

DMcF – Right. Now I think that’s great. And I do see some very strong positives in terms of a further push
for authenticate assessment. So, multiple choices that’s not going to cut it anymore, right? So how can we have the students prove their knowledge, their skills for, but then how do we scale it, right? Because part of the challenge, and again that’s where GenAI can help, and in terms of the 1:1, tutoring, training, it’s an exciting opportunity, but certainly something that we all have to keep our eye on, and look at what are the latest development, and where do we go from here.

KV – So yeah, get at our crystal ball.

DMcF – Yes. And I think we’ll probably have to, you know, record another session later, and then splice it in here so that you can say ‘and of course, this is happening!’

KV – Yeah, I know. I mean, last Friday we had a big boom in the world of openAI. So, yes, it’s changing so quickly.

Chapter 4: Skills-Focused and Beyond Degrees: Rethinking Higher Ed in the Face of Declining Enrolment

DMcF – Changing so quickly. Brilliant. Brilliant. Something that hasn’t been changing as quickly, but also has a massive impact on the education system, that is the broad decline of the number of American students going through higher education. And this has been happening for years and we’ve seen some positive upshot. But then some of the more recent news is negative again. And certainly from an institutional perspective for many institutions, you know, that’s this is an existential question as enrollment continues to decline and then broadly for the economy, what does that mean? How are we tackling the skills shortage? Because we know globally, 79% of companies are struggling to find people with the right skills, and again, this ties back to CBE as well. But from an educational institution perspective, what do they need to be thinking about? What works and what should be on their radar? And do you have any thoughts on how they might be able to turn things around? Or at least any thoughts on things for them to consider? 

KV – Yeah, and I don’t want to paint too broad of a stroke. That’s a generalisation across all of the enrollment declines. But I don’t think that there’s any secret in the changing demographics of the average learner. And the fact that there are a lot of Higher Education institutions that are just simply not listening to their customers, which means learners are no longer like one monolith – You can create one profile and say: ‘This is how we serve these customers.’ They have very nuanced needs, and when you look at learners, they’ve historically not been well-served by traditional Higher Education. And you have these adult learners who need flexibility, right? They have priorities like families. They work well going to school. They have maybe limited or constrained financial resources. The last statistics I saw, 29% of all undergraduate students and 77% of graduate students are over the age of 25. If we think about that, these are parents, these are folks who work more than 20 hours a week. These are raising and supporting families and extended families. And then you’ve got the adult learners that are in the statistic of 39 million learners in the U.S. who have some credit, but absolutely no degree, no credential to show for that. And the realisation that an adult learner, when it comes to employers through lots of different paths, not all of which are marked by a degree, which does not mean they’re not skilled. It means that it’s not marked by a degree. So I think that this is where skills have to come into the conversation. And even if you look at learners who are traditionally well-served by the traditional HE environment, they’re calling ROI into question and they’re saying, ‘what am I going to get for these large tuition increases? What am I going to get for these huge tuition increases for this debt that I’m going to incur?’ And we learn that 90% of learners go to college for a job. They go to college for employment, right? Which is not the statistic that it was 50 years ago, which there was a lot more sort of altruistic vision of education. And so I think that these changing trends really call for a change in the approach to matriculate learners. And this is where skills come in, because when we define learning by skill and by competencies, we give learners that language to describe what they can do. And when we give them that language, we give them a currency essentially to exchange with employers; and employers on the other side can express their needs via the skills language as well. So taking a job description and making it skills-based. And so when we accommodate those changing needs of learners, institutions have to be thinking: Number 1 – Who are my learners? They need to be thinking learner-centric. You know, e-commerce, retail folks think about this a lot. Higher education, I think, needs to do their soul searching on who are our learners and what do they need from us. And secondly, I think that they need to define their skill strategy. So how are they going to promote a learner from enrollment through a program of study with incremental signals of achievement, right? Not there’s one big thing at the end, but these are learners who need incremental signals in order to get jobs, in order to get promoted before they finish the credential. And then how do we leave them with demonstrable, trusted credentials that can then be read by the workforce. So if we’re listening to our users and they want jobs, and they need jobs sooner rather than later, right? There’s a different cadence that Higher Ed can set up to enable learners to achieve those incremental goals that they have. So I think Higher Ed really needs to be taking, you know, taking a deep look at who are their learners, what are they designing for, and then making sure that their programs fit those needs. And I know that’s easier said than done. 

DMcF – No, but yes, well said. And there’s a lot to unpack in there. But I think as you’re talking, one thing that struck me was a conversation I had, fortunately now is quite a few years back, with a leading Australian university who was expressing that their students were not customers, that they were those students were privileged. They had the privilege to attend that august institution. But we’re seeing that change and that shift to skills across…, you know, it’s always been present to a certain degree in the community college or TAFE sector here in Australia. But universities are recognising that as well and that you talked about 39 million individuals who are trying to crack that …, I love the expression ‘cracking the paper ceiling’, right? They don’t have that diploma, that degree. And so unfortunately, historically they’d be recognised as they’d have a black mark against them and that they didn’t see it through, and they didn’t finish it whereas the model here and in many others are saying: ‘Yes, let’s recognise skills as we go, credential those human skills, verbal skills, 21st century skills, as well as domain specific skills all along.’ And yeah, there’s so much great potential. That is just not businesses aren’t recognising it, but as you said, it’s also on the learner not having that vocabulary, not having a voice or evidence to be able to put their own unique voice and share the skills that they do have and how that can really help a number of different organisations.

KV – So I think it’s possible that we tend to have these conversations about Higher Education and we think about 18-year-old, 19-year-old students who are coming from high school directly into a college environment. And the reality is, you think about the 50-year-old technologist who has worked in an actual job for 30 years, didn’t get a degree, but has 30 years of experience inside of that job and then gets laid off. And that’s the learner who does not have a paper to demonstrate that capability. But I can guarantee you that likely has more impact on day one than a fresh out of college, you know, a newly degreed learner. And there are places for both of those people. But there are use cases beyond those that are going through a more traditional path. And I think that that’s where when we talk about who are the learners and how can Higher Ed really react to the changing demographics, those are the situations that we need to acknowledge exist and that helps to create those paths. And you create lots of different paths to that final… whether it’s a degree or a non-degree credential that allows that person to get back into the workforce. I mean, those are really the life changing moments for Higher Education.

DMcF – Brilliant, brilliant point. And I know for us as well, when we look to hire someone and we get an applicant who’s fresh out of school, for example, if we need a programmer like, okay – well you spent a certain amount of time at college or in the university or whatever the program was. But did you have that practical hands on, can you hit the ground running? Whereas the other examples that you find. And that’s where we are seeing bootcamps being integrated into more traditional degrees. And so that is a very practical competency-based, true, realistic experience and again, for the learners to be able to validate that and demonstrate that is so important. Brilliant – look, we could spend hours just talking about that, but I’ll keep moving us on because I’m sure we’ll have to come back and read the latest on GenAI, and see what things have changed.

KV – It’s been 15 minutes, something has changed. That’s for sure.

Chapter 5: Innovative Projects with Strategic Partners to Reshape the Future of Education in HE and K-12

DMcF – So circling back to Unicon, for the last couple of questions. I’ve pushed the discussion around CBE, and GenAI, and education more broadly but what are some of the initiatives that you’re excited about that you’re working on at Unicon that you can share with us.

KV – We have a really diverse portfolio so I’ll just pull a couple out that are on top of my mind. So one of the supports that we’ve been doing over the last 12 to 18 months with the Gates Foundation has been Thought Leadership on the Learner Information Framework (LIF). So this is very relevant to the skills, and credentials conversation, but the Learner Information Framework basically has convened interested parties and experts from all over, from technology firms, from data standards committees, basically to explore how technology can be used to collect and describe a person’s whole experience. So that’s sort of idea of a longitudinal learner record and this has, you know, diverse groups coming in and providing their input into what this could look like, that it would not only be able to describe those experiences, but then be able to explore what are the guidelines and the processes for how that information should be protected, how it should be accessed by stakeholders when it’s needed. So it’s a pretty comprehensive view, and it’s early, it’s in its infancy in terms of just getting started with some data models and things. But it’s really interesting item to watch. So you can go to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation website to see a briefing on the LIF. But that’s something that we’re excited about. On the K-12 side, the example that I’m most excited about right now is we’re working with our friends at Education Analytics and several regional service centres inside of Texas to build out the Texas Education Exchange, which is an effort to deliver sort of essential data infrastructure services for K-12 districts and charter schools in Texas, basically to streamline those systems that allow educators to stay focused on students and to surface up insights and things that can be shared broadly across Texas K-12. That has the opportunity to be really impactful to those districts, and hopefully a model for other states. So that’s the other one that we’re working on right now.

DMcF – Brilliant, brilliant. That’s fantastic. And just on the Texas topic, I’ve seen a stat that in K-12, the typical teacher is only spending 49% of their time actually engaging the students, with the learners. So they spent most of their time on admin, and so many other things. So that’s a huge initiative. And again, if you make it work in Texas and expand that elsewhere, then that’s a wonderful benefit to the teachers, to the admins, but most importantly to the students. Yeah. And then, your work with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is fantastic as well. And I know there are lots of interesting initiatives here in Australia. They are in their early days, but they’re really planning to roll out a national skills passport. It’s really moving forward in that area as well. So I think we’re seeing leadership in a number of different areas and so great to see that you’re playing a key role in some of those really important initiatives as well. 

Chapter 6: Building and Sustaining a Successful Culture for a Remote-First Workforce

DMcF – Right. And then yeah, we’re close to the end. So, thank you so much for your time so far. But one more question around Unicon. I have very wonderful memories of visiting the Unicon Office in Phoenix and I think it was close to Halloween. So there is this fantastic decorations and I remember a tree growing out of certain areas as the teams built out their Halloween decorations. Maybe those stay up year round. But in this day and age of remote work, and when I see those beautiful trees in the background that doesn’t look like a Phoenix. So how do you continue to grow and maintain the Unicon culture, and for you as well, having now stepped up into this amazing role of co-CEO and very deserving. How are you doing that, in terms of building and maintaining and strengthening and reinforcing the wonderful Unicon culture?

KV – It is exciting, and it’s exciting time to take the reins. It’s also sort of an unprecedented time with this remote for expectation from employees. But just a comment on our work – Our work has really always been distributed since our clients are all over, and we don’t have a heavy travel culture. I come from management consulting in a heavy travel culture and a lot of us came to Unicon because that was not a life we wanted to live. So our project teams have served our clients in a remote way since the very beginning of the firm. So while our in-person presence is admittedly much, much smaller than pre-pandemic, so it took us 41 minutes to get the pandemic. And our work itself really hasn’t changed that much. That said, well, I haven’t really codified this, but maybe three things that I’ll say about building and maintaining culture. At first, at Unicon we have five core values, so our core values are integrity, mastery, impact, curiosity and uplift. And our first rule is hire well. So when you have these guiding values, it’s imperative that you use them in hiring. No exception. Everybody knows when somebody doesn’t check one of the values boxes is when we hear that they’re not hired. So our employee engagement surveys that we do quarterly with our folks internally tell us that the number one reason people work at Unicon is because of their teammates, the people they get to work with. So one of my jobs is to make sure that we continue to foster a culture that attract and retain really exceptional people. And that’s very important to keeping the culture that we have. The second rule for our talent is… , and this is remote or not, but giving them the autonomy to do their job well and then provide support when and where they need it. So we don’t have People Manager inside of our services department. And sometimes our new hires are like, ‘What do you mean? We don’t have People Managers?’ – We have Project Managers, and Project Managers are critical to the delivery success of our client engagement, but we don’t have People Managers, and our Services Team is just not overhead that we care to pay for. And when you have high performing adults who want to own their own work effort, you don’t place a manager over them poking them for status, right? You give them the right amount of support, and then you get out of their way. And that’s our cultural approach. So the third thing I’ll say is that we really, truly respect our employees’ home lives. And we recognise that, especially in a remote first workforce, each employee every day blends work and home. And I don’t say balance because the visual of a balance one is up and one is down.

DMcF – Okay?

KV – So to me, it’s a blend, and we’re people who are inviting you into their home, which is usually where their work environment is. And that blend is something that shows us all that each of us is multi-dimensional human being. And when you treat people as such and you recognise that they have home lives and work lives, they bring the best of themselves to work because they know that they don’t have to be one thing over here, and another thing over here. So the average tenure for Unicon employees, I’m proud to say, is ten years. We actually have people celebrating 25 this year, who are not our founders. And as you know, culture is not the executive team or the founders. It’s the collective behavior of the group. So we’re very grateful to have employees who have been here for a decade or two, and these folks model the culture and their team interactions, their client interactions, and then our newer employees are able to sort of see that and learn the norms through those remote interactions. But, you know, very personable ZOOM chat, lots of ways for people to be connected. So coming full circle, when you hire for those shared values, you allow newer folks to add to that collective culture in a way that keeps, you know, kind of great place to work. And I’m very proud of the culture
that we’ve built and the people who make it that way – All of our employees.

DMcF – Well, yeah, you definitely should be. And everyone that I’ve interacted with at Unicon has really impressed me. And that’s a very refreshing attitude. I think, some of what you read in the paper online about, you know, and they tend to be some of the larger organisations saying that everyone has to come back to the office. And to me, that just seems shortsighted that through the pandemic we’ve seen that we can just get on with things. And so that we’re humans are adaptable. And so to force everyone into a single model and back on the highways, and in traffic, and away from that blend of their lives, of which work, is a very important part. Yeah, to me just seems shortsighted. So we likewise try to find that balance. I think having the right people to fit that culture and then ultimately to deliver on the some of the amazing projects that you described for us today is fantastic.

KV – And we are looking to create a community of really experienced folks to serve this space. And it would be silly for us to think that we could find them all within the Phoenix Metro area. So being able to be more remote friendly allows us to hire from all over and again it allows people to do the things they want to do for their families and in their personal lives, but then also contribute to something that they believe in. So that just makes operational sense. 

DMcF – Wonderful. Well, Kate, thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate your insights across so many different areas and yeah, it’s so amazing to hear all the wonderful work that Unicon is doing. So thank you again for your time. And yes, we’ll splice in a new section at the end just an update on whatever the latest is on GenAI. I think we’ll have the computers will do that for us.

KV – That’s right, there you go.

DMcF – Yes. Our avatar as well as will carry on from here. 

KV – Great. Thanks so much, Dan. Really good to talk to you.

DMcF – Pleasure. Thank you, Kate. Bye.

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