Zapnito advisor insight: Reda Sadki’s story

I spoke to Zapnito about why I became an advisor, my background and more...

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Please tell us a little bit about yourself

My name is Reda Sadki, born and based in Geneva, Switzerland. I came to education from publishing, confronted with the challenge of how to harness the digital transformation to help meet the learning needs of 17.1 million Red Cross volunteers in 190 countries. 

I could see and feel the changing landscape of education, with the hype of MOOCs as a tangible harbinger of the next wave: the fusion of machine learning, neuroscience, and life sciences (think CRISPR) to augment how we learn and help expand what it means to be human. I saw that existing organisations, mired with the legacy of training, needed a catalyst to embrace such changes. 

Today, I lead The Geneva Learning Foundation, a non-profit with the mission to foster learning innovation to help us meet the humanitarian, global health, and development challenges that threaten our future. The Foundation’s focus is on R&D, trying new ways of doing new things. The other half of my time is spent building Learning Strategies International (LSi.io), a startup based at EPFL’s Swiss EdTech Collider. LSi is betting on ‘wetware’ – human beings with incredible talent and experience – to help organisations find their way through the Digital Transformation.

How did you end up becoming a Zapnito advisor?

Charles [Thiede, Zapnito CEO] just had to ask. I believe in the value of sharing experience and networks: that is how we grow. I first came across Zapnito while working with the OECD and was impressed with the simplicity and efficacy of its product. 

Organisations that work with the imperative of profit are interesting to me, because of how different and similar their logic is compared to that of non-profits. There is something to be gained from any profit-driven business, no matter the size, whether it’s Zapnito or Google (worked with them too, a while back). 

My know-how is in how to take a strategy problem that is complex, distributed, and global and build an incredibly effective experience that will involve not just staff but customers, helping each of them make sense of their own context while strengthening their connection to others, delivering not just performance but mindfulness, building key analytical and reflective capabilities to navigate the knowledge landscape.

Having a good knowledge system like Zapnito is a cornerstone to building such experiences.

Why is Zapnito necessary and important today?

I have written about the autopsy of knowledge management and my belief that 'KM' is a dead-end when trying to grapple with knowledge. [Read Reda’s insights on the the death of the knowledge bank here and here.] 

Companies selling KM have over complicated the issue. There is so much rubble left over from past failures of KM driven by IT teams obsessed with putting pieces of information into pigeonholes. That failed because knowledge is a process not a product, and its half-life constantly diminishes. 

To me, what Zapnito has done is to clear the rubble leaving only what an organisation actually needs in order to have its capabilities in the production of expert knowledge recognised, in the right place and at the right time. Any organisation needs this capability so that expertise can be harnessed into routines that confer decision options.

How do you see Zapnito’s business developing in the next 5 years?

Zapnito makes me think of Auttomatic, the company behind Wordpress. Zapnito has a unique, syncretic synthesis of talent and technology to scale craftsmanship. How you do that is a 21st century business challenge. Think mass production of highly-complex hardware like smart phones and how even the Big Five can stumble and fall (Amazon’s Fire phone or Google’s Pixel…). 

Every Zapnito instance can be a carefully-crafted labor of love that is uniquely carved (not just tailored) to its environment no matter how many instances there are in the world. And, unlike Wordpress, none of them will be ugly. 

What in your opinion/experience is the single-most important skill in running a successful start-up?

A good question. The most important skill is your ability to diagnose and fill the gaps in your own capabilities as a leader, at any point in time, by connecting to the right talent and technology.

What has been the biggest lesson you have learnt in your career to date?

You can have all the right ingredients but making the perfect dish at the right time is not certain. It is a constant struggle of learning and labour. Sure, you need a compelling vision and great talent to execute on that vision but that is no longer sufficient to guarantee success. In large Fortune 500 companies, there is a restructuring every seven months, on the average. It is not just the fast pace of change, it is the acceleration of it. How do you navigate the unknown? How do you build the capabilities that will let you prepare for what you are not expecting? That is now what it is about.

And what is your main career goal for the next 5 years?

Sorry, I think in terms of mission, not career. I have had the enormous privilege of working only on solving problems that matter for humanity. 

In a society where the nature of knowledge is changing, where we accumulate information but know less and less, I have two convictions that drive me. The first conviction is that learning is the key process to help us navigate and shape our future. I discovered this working on what Ben Ramalingam calls the ‘edge of chaos’, where humanitarians face disasters, war, epidemics, and more, when failure usually means that people will die. My second conviction is that what works on the edge can also be useful to other organisations – including companies whose mission is to make money –  trying to survive and thrive in these changing times. I would like to share our R&D and expertise with others working to help organisations solve knowledge and learning problems, such as Zapnito. 

If you could advocate one company to the world (aside from Zapnito & your own), what would it be and why?

I would look for the most improbable startup in the most unlikely place. The next big things are going to come from the periphery, not the centre. If Facebook hadn’t bought it, WhatsApp would be an example of that: it solved a bandwidth problem for people in developing countries and moved to everywhere. It is our responsibility to seek out and nurture new leaders who may not resemble us but who are part of our shared future. 

Everyone has a brilliant app idea. What’s yours?

The app that frees us from all other apps. An AI app that can do more than find knowledge, but empower each of us to become a knowledge producer, in a global network of knowledge producers.

If you had £1 billion and had to invest it in only one of the following three, which would it be and why? 1. Virtual Reality, 2. Artificial Intelligence, 3. Renewable Energy

AI. I don’t see an end to the possibilities of AI. It is key to the 2nd Machine Age, what some have called the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution'. At the AI for Good Summit organised by the United Nations, there was a session about AI for education. No one had a clue. That is in itself a signal that the implications and impact are likely to be profound. 

And that’s me. Please do contact me if you would like to learn more about Zapnito or even to get in touch about my work.

Reda Sadki

Founder, The Geneva Learning Foundation

Reda Sadki is a chief executive with lifelong experience in forging multi-disciplinary teams to invent and execute new ways to lead change. He is the founder and president of the Geneva Learning Foundation, a Swiss non-profit research-and-development organization and think tank. In the past, Reda has worked for the United Nations, primarily for the World Health Organization, and at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), the world’s largest humanitarian network, responsible first for the design and production of IFRC’s publications and then for its learning systems.

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