Creating a Practice of Lifelong Learning

Mark Bidwell interviews Pamay Bassey

Good morning. This is Mark Bidwell from the Innovation Ecosystem. With me today is Pamay Bassey. Pamay is an entrepreneur, author of the book ‘My 52 Weeks of Worship’, and earned her B.S. degree in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University. Currently, Pamay is the Global Head of Learning Platform and Professional Development at BlackRock. Pamay discusses how she went from employee to entrepreneur to intrepreneur on this week’s episode. Welcome to the show Pamay.

Hi, it’s nice to be here. Thank you.

That was a very impressive bio, but how do your friends or family describe who you are and what you do, Pamay?

Sometimes it’s funny — people just really don’t know what I do. Some people say I work with computers because I have a technical background, but many who know the different things I’m involved in would call me an educator.I would say that I use my different talents to communicate, connect, and enrich those around me in various contexts. So, I think somewhere between technology and education is where I sit.

You started your professional career with Accenture, and then founded your own company. What lead up to you doing that?

I say I was born and raised professionally at Accenture. I came out of university and Accenture was doing some innovative work with Northwest University around applying artificial intelligence ideas and thoughts to the field of education. They wanted to take the knowledge from the AI community about how people learn, and how people process information, and use that to create engaging and interesting educational environments in the corporate arena. I was able to ride that wave, spend a lot of years in consulting in the US and Germany for Fortune 500, Fortune 1000 companies really taking some time to create those educational environments where people can step into a role and learn by doing.

When I left Accenture I ended up going to a technology start-up. I went to school in the Bay Area here in the United States. I had a lot of friends who were doing foundational work in the area of technology, and thought that I should be doing the same. This mobile technology started back when I was doing more user experience, voice user interfaces, trying to figure out how to develop, or share information on a number of interfaces, mobile, technology, web, voice. That company unfortunately died after about a year and a half as startups sometimes do.

When was this?

This was in the late ’90s. Quite a long time ago. I’m dating myself. That was right around 2000 when I was working for the startup company, and then decided after that I would go independent, and it wasn’t a declaration — “I’m starting a company”. It was really started with me doing contract work. I was doing educational research for universities here in the states. I was teaching at online universities information technology type courses, and doing the design and development of learning environments, which is really my bread and butter. After a few years of doing that as an independent I realized that I had started a consulting company. I had formalized it, and then went on to continue doing that kind of work for the next 13 years.

When you say learning environments, what does that actually mean? I think you talked about the company as specializing in creating innovative educational learning environments. What does that mean?

Well what it really started out meaning — because technology enabled learning is my real interest — was trying to figure out how to use technology to create courses, training, and coaching. That would meet some specific goals, and imagine a company coming to me and saying, “Hey, we have 5,000 managers. Do you want to teach them the specific skill? We want to drop it in a virtual way. We want to do it in a blended way where part of the learning happens face to face, and part of it happens via technology, and trying to figure out the best combination of the two, and what the activities would be. What the content would be. What technology we’d be using.” A lot of the projects I worked on had that set as the mandate.

So, it’s a learning environment from a technology point of view rather than a physical office environment perspective.

It started out, really honestly, as a technology environment, but especially as we got closer to the present day there’s been more of a desire to what we call blended learning. This means some happens in the face to face, and we don’t want to lose the magic that happens when people are in the same space, and are able to learn from each other. Also, we don’t want to avoid innovating in the space where technology can be of service whether that be delivering a module prior to the face to face meeting, or some sort of simulation where you’re engaged and immersed in a virtual world. You’re able to go through specific activities. Learn from the decisions you make in that virtual environment, etc.

For me, it started out being more of an interest in seeing how technology could be of service in the educational space. Then the realist of the reality now is that it has to really be a solution to that agonistic action where we’re trying to figure out what we want people to learn. What do we want them to be able to do after they’re done with this learning experience? So what is the best delivery whether that be face to face or using technology, or some combination of the two?

I suppose back in those days, there were companies like Docent, and Sapient which had enormous valuations, which were all playing in this broad space, and a lot of them got washed out as your company did. Today, what’s the state of the art? Has it moved on significantly from those early days of learning management systems and things?

I think there’s a spectrum. Back in the day we were doing learning when there wasn’t even an internet. So, it was CD-ROM based. We had interesting ways of using media to create scenarios that could put learners in that virtual space. Of course when the internet came we had to back away from that rich media because the internet had to catch up. So, now there’s a spectrum, right? There’s e-learning, if you will, which has standardized in some arenas where you have things that are as standard, and perhaps I might say uninspiring as a PowerPoint come to live. Everyone knows the next button, the back button, or pressing a button, and going to take a nap, and coming back, and doing the next slide. It has its place that very, very standard e-learning.

I talked to a CEO of a company last week, and they’re using machine learning to create learning environments for elementary school students in the area of math. They are really trying to engage with students. They are saying “I really wanna know where you are and what you know.” A math example: “we’re going to learn from whatever process you went through to get to the answer, and then give you the next problem or question based on what we were learning from you.” It’s really adaptive learning in that space. Again there’s a spectrum and some of it is very standard because we’ve been through it and some of it is really pushing the envelope trying to create intelligent learning environments for people. I find it all to be very exciting.

In that example, is that specifically tailored for the individual, and how they interact with the content?

Exactly.

Interesting.

Yes, so you would increase engagement to the point where there’s always been a challenge when you had 100 people that a portion of those people know the content already. They’re bored, or pushing them, or lost, and people in the middle are really where education has been targeted, but if you’re able to figure out how to know where the learner sits, their background, their point of knowledge and tailor that learning experience to them, then everybody gets exactly what they need, and it’s really more engaging and interesting for that learner.

It’s rather like personalized medicine but for education instead, right?

Exactly.

Fascinating. You did this for 13 years. You founded the company without really knowing it on the basis of working with a number of clients, and I guess some of the clients you’ve worked with are pretty well-known organizations. Before we go to the next stage, what was it that they are actually buying from you? What was it that you were offering that others weren’t? Was it a technology? Was it an approach, or was it just the fact that you’ve been doing for so long that you could zero on their needs and meet them very, very quickly? It’s a blue chip client base that you have, isn’t it?

Sure. I was very honored and lucky to work for some really great clients, and sometimes it was myself, an independent. Sometimes I brought my friends with me. Sometimes I started in internal teams, and lead them, or contributed to them. I consider myself to be a learning designer, and what that means is I’m able to have a conversation with a subject matter expert. I really figure out whatever we are trying to help somebody learn. Help them understand the process. What are people doing? What do they have to do, or know, to gather a set of expertise? What are the common mistakes? What are the pitfalls that come when you’re learning something new? I was then taking that process and that ability to talk to somebody — any area of expertise to talk to companies that I had no interest in or a prior knowledge of — and stepping into the shoes of someone who didn’t know something. I would figure out how they would have learned something, and then having the educational experience we build mirror that.

Think about learning how to drive a car. What are the pitfalls you might run into when you’re learning how to drive a car? There are what we call common mistakes people make every time. So if you are including assessments, activities, you know that the people are going to make those common mistakes. How do we notice them when people make them? Give them feedback with a point of need. They’re getting what they need in order to learn something. There’s that whole methodology of learning design, and the ability to communicate with the technologists if we’re doing something technology enabled. Then the developers who are actually developing the system, and making it come to life for us.

Got it, got it. Now Pamay, we now get to an even more interesting stage in your career and journey. This is where you kicked off your project. The ‘52 Weeks of Worship’ project. Can you explain what triggered it and what was it?

It’s funny because the product was triggered by a very personal reason. I had what a very personally challenging year; in one year I lost my mother, and my grandmother, and ended a relationship. At the end of that year I was basically at the point where I was questioning everything about life. I think anyone who’s been through it, or has lost somebody, or has had their whole world crumble has been to that point. You think ‘well I’ve done some things in my life. I’ve seen some successes, but I’ve lost some people who really mean a lot to me. What am I going to do to heal and come back to the point where I’m as strong as I was?’ I’ve always had an interest in philosophy, and religion, what I’d studied at Stanford was a major called Symbolic Systems, which was computer science, but also had philosophy, and psychology, and linguistics. I’ve always been interested in coming at an issue from various perspectives, and various different thought processes. So, I decided to make a personal promise that I was going to be in a different place of worship every week for a year from all other traditions, and that was the genesis. No pun intended.

Was it really like that? Because I can understand that having been in this similar situation. I can understand the need to do something, but you got very specific. A different place of worship every week for 52 weeks. How did you actually land on that concept?

Well, for me it was just a need to see people, and I’m going to get very theological here. Having been through a tough time, I realized that I didn’t really have a strong spiritual basis to draw from, and why was that? I had been raised in a specific religious tradition. It was not something that I felt was as useful as I needed it to be when I was going through the fire. I really wanted to see how people do this every day out there. How do they search for the divine, how do they celebrate their pains? How do they celebrate their victories, and go through their pains? To perhaps convince me that there was hope for the future. It sounds very baked now, but it really was just where are you divine? Where are you God? I’m looking for you everywhere. So I decided I was going to go to a different place every week and see what I see, and see what people are doing in various context to search for the divine.

So, you visited 52 different places of worship. Some of them are unsurprising, you would recognize them, but some of them are a little bit more different. I think there was one which was you worshiped in the church in the great outdoors, which I love. Let’s pull out a couple of really rich examples where either you were enormously surprised by what you found, or moved by what you found. Anything that comes to mind over the 52 week physical, and metaphorical journey?

Absolutely. I think one of the things that was most memorable about the journey was it really was a way for me to heal. It was also a way for me to honor my father. He was a force in my life. He was a physican, a philosopher, and someone who encouraged me to look for wisdom wherever I could find it. He also emphasized achievement on the academic professional side. He always thought it was important to have that balance. I remember a place that I went to in Mexico. It was very early in my process. It was called La Vina, the vineyard. It was a pretty unremarkable location, and the service was not something that you might see anywhere, but a song played and it was his favorite song. So, I was reminded there that the people that leave your life don’t leave you forever, and I saw him in various places.

There were other places that I went to that I say have more commentary around them. I went to the Scientologists and spent some time with them. I went to a Wiccan festival, and spent some time with them. That’s an Earth religion, some people call them witches. I went to my family from Nigeria West Africa. I went to a very large sprawling extremely Pentecostal Christian service in Nigeria West Africa. The energy there was really memorable. I tried to spread out. I went to a number of catholic masses. I went to some masses, and some synagogues. Things that were a little less on the fringes, but I tried to experience as much as I could across the spectrum so that I was able to really challenge myself and learn some new things.

But wait…there’s more?!

This post has been adapted from The Innovation Ecosystem podcast. Listen here for the full interview and the story of Pamay Bassey and to download a PDF version of this entire conversation.

Subscribe to The Innovation Ecosystem via iTunes and connect on Twitter.

About Mark
Mark has spent much of his 20+ year career seeking out people and resources to help him innovate and grow businesses. He has worked at BP, The Hay Group , and most recently Syngenta, where he led the creation and development of a $2B Specialty Crops business unit. Wherever possible, he tries to learn from other people’s experience, especially if they bring a fresh perspective to a situation. Follow Mark on Twitter at @markehb.

We welcome your comments.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.