Black Swans and the Future of Learning and Work

China’s coronavirus outbreak–which given its severity and unpredictability should be considered a Black Swan event–is already revealing stark differences in the way schools, universities and workplaces are responding and the extent to which they are prepared for operational continuity and future growth.  In fact, the crisis response is making the “future of learning and work” a reality now.  All we need to do is consider that a large proportion of 760 million people in China are now working entirely online, including an estimated 260 million students, to get a taste of the future.

Covid-19 will eventually (and hopefully as soon as possible) be under control in China and other countries such as South Korea and Iran.  In its aftermath, what will be learned?   What new models of education and business will be created? Who will learn the lessons and capitalize on future demand?

China as a “Remote” Economy

For all intents and purposes, China’s entire economy is operating remotely–for now.  Indications so far suggest that Chinese-based entities, and its population, are adapting as quickly as possible online because their survival depends on it. To do this they have developed and utilized new apps to facilitate communication, adapted to new ways of work and study, and created new protocols for interacting with customers, students and teachers.

But there are persistent problems. The transition online has exposed weaknesses in business, schools and universities in China, largely due to institutional rather than technological barriers. Additionally:

On the positive side:

  • Workplaces are using surveillance, scheduling and assessment technologies to check remote work in China. This includes apps such as Dingtalk to coordinate schedules and “work diaries,” a new chat use for Maimai (China’s Linkedin), and healthcare management platforms to help employees stay in shape while being stuck in their apartments.
  • AI leader Sensetime is offering an open AI leading program online to young students bored at home, prompting industry growth forecasts to be revised upwards for online education and video-sharing usage.
  • A recent tie-up between University of Michigan and Coursera is doing something similar.  All of this will surely acclimatize further a new generation of online learners, particularly those in China unfamiliar with online higher education.
  • Remote office apps and online medical platforms which are impacting the future of health education, offer significant upside to companies and consumers.
  • Finally, over the past month my own personal survey of existing education clients and other contacts in China suggests that a forced quarantine is catalyzing new business and operating models which, although initially acting as stopgap measures, are now being considered as more permanent features once the crisis subsides.  In particular, English language schools and after-school tutoring companies with centers across China are scrambling to provide online learning options. This has compressed years of future planning and testing into weeks.

Implications for Human Supply Chains

At this point, companies and institutions working with human capital–whether teaching, managing, training or facilitating the interaction of people and workers–can either choose to adapt to this environment or not.  But there will be fewer excuses accepted next time for those unprepared or unwilling to embrace new modalities to survive these events, whether they are epidemics, earthquakes, fires or extreme climate events. Internationally-focused education and workplace ventures–in effect our “human supply chains”–are particularly vulnerable.

I have more questions than answers at this point, but things are changing rapidly on the ground.

1. Building responsive online infrastructure. What’s clear from this crisis is that most universities and educational institutions simply are not prepared for a shift to online or blended learning options. Right now most universities are offering zero alternatives to Chinese students. The Australian case is germane (and if the crisis persists will have massive financial impact on one of Australia’s leading “exports”) but one can make the same argument for many US, UK or Asia-based universities.  Building a responsive platform of online course offerings, instructor training, and assessment, as well as testing and application alternatives for future enrollments, are all important areas to consider.  Of course, online learning doesn’t need to replace the value of traditional education but can enhance it; as well as respond to extreme events like Covid-19.  We are nowhere near this state of play.

2. Riding the wave of remote or flex-work acceptance.  Although most people affected by the crisis in China will go back to their offices, not everyone will.  Moreover the current working methods may become a new way for managers to run a more dispersed, cost-efficient and flexible workforce. HR and work productivity ventures will thrive in this new environment, and if China leads the way by adopting new solutions it will have a knock-on impact on anyone working with China.

3. Diversifying geography and resources. For many universities, EdTech and CareerTech ventures, China remains a center of gravity, and for good reason.  But this is often at the expense of other emerging markets in Asia, and to lesser extent Latin America and Africa.  Even within the Chinese orbit there is far less attention on business development opportunities in Southeast Asia and, beyond that, the Indian subcontinent. This continues to be a missed opportunity for growth and diversification.

4. Invest when markets are in flux.  A crisis of this proportion only comes around once in a while (and thank goodness for that).  Eventually there is a scramble to get back to normal but that “normal” is never the same. In my career I’ve witnessed up close the Asian Financial Crisis, the Mexican “Tequila” Crisis, the Russian Financial Crisis, the Dotcom pop, the 2008 Financial Crisis, Avian Flu, SARS and now Covid-19. After each event there were unusual growth trajectories for enterprises and investors with sufficient drive and creativity.

Who is seizing the initiative now?



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