When the pieces fall into place, the big picture emerges.

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How a graduate of the Human Potential for the Digital Economy programme found her voice to contribute in strategic decision making.

Cushla Henry has climbed a solid career ladder but despite years across varied roles within the same organisation, she still felt she lacked an ‘expansive, holistic understanding’ and strategic view of a business and it’s potential in an increasingly digitised and diverse future state.

A successful content marketer who, after earning her Bachelor’s degree at Auckland University in English, Film & TV media, had worked her way up through varied roles, first at the NZ Herald and then the merged NZME media giant. Her ability to shift and pivot in job roles demonstrates the flexible open-minded attitude she holds and in every role she learned more about the functions of the business she was within.

But it wasn’t developing her ability to see that bigger picture of the organisation; how things fit together (or didn’t in many cases), what the organisational structure meant to the overall culture and where real strategic impact could be made.

Cushla had reached a point in her career where she was ready to step up in a strategic capacity but didn’t have the right tools to do it. She could see it was time to look outside of the workplace.

“I realised that it wasn’t necessarily just about job learning and knowledge gathering from each experience – I felt it would be nice to actually be in a structured educational environment.”

Cushla describes her previous state of mind as a ‘do-er’ – raising three kids, balancing home life and a busy work schedule; she was ‘running at pace’ with little space to breathe in and pause to reflect on the bigger picture. So when she came across the Human Potential for the Digital Economy postgraduate programme at Tech Futures Lab, it caught her eye.

“I wanted that experience of just sitting down and learning, sharing knowledge and being with like minded people. I’d got to that point in my career where I’d worked in so many positions but I had never sat down and done that synthesis you need to really think things through.”

The part-time online format of the programme fit well with her busy schedule and it delivered on her need to pull together all she knew into a framework view of the future, one where technology will be ubiquitous.

The role technology does and will play in our world is often a topic people steer clear of. When it comes to the deep discussions about tech’s impact on different pockets of society – how emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence can challenge our ethics of what’s right or wrong and the accelerating pace of technology convergence with our everyday lives – it can be a little intimidating.

Yet the Covid pandemic is a clear marker in time when digitalisation became a necessity for business. For Cushla, it brought home why it was just the right time to take a leap and study again.

“If the programme had only been about digital, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But it was that human aspect I found interesting, that juxtaposition between the two – it really brought out what you needed to know in the technical space that maybe digital specialists don’t even realise”

The title of the programme says it all – finding human potential in a world that will be so deeply intertwined with digital technology. A big part of navigating our way through that future is having the knowledge to engage in the decisions we’ll all need to make.

“I didn’t think I’d understand everything, but I did. And I learned that I do have the strength and I can articulate and put my point of view across. I’m not going to start a big data company or get into machine learning but it helps me to have the conversations. It’s helped me to understand from a top line perspective and I’ve gained a belief in myself through the process.”

What Cushla learned on the programme was something she was able to apply right away. Not one to sit still, she finished up the course the day before she started her new role as Global Content Marketing Manager at kiwi-owned toy innovation business, Zuru. “Previously when I started new roles, I would just look at my job in isolation, whereas now I ask questions to look at the bigger picture. From an organisational perspective, from a sustainability perspective and a diversity perspective… now I can look and give constructive strategies on how we can work together better.”

Cushla was surprised to find that as she went through the programme, she was drawn to what it really means to have diversity in business. “My Mum’s Māori and I thought I understood diversity, but by actually having sessions on diversity and inclusion I realised it means so much more, there’s so many more layers to it. Now I notice when things are just fluff, I can see ‘this has no depth to it’”.

As the summation of the programme, students create a strategically considered business proposal – either in an area that interests them or for their current place of work.

Cushla focused on strategic business and community partnerships that would help combat fake news – by educating people on societal changes to help reduce, or eliminate, misinformation.

Authenticity was key though, as mainstream media is becoming less trusted amongst communities tired of never seeing their stories told. Through working on that proposal, Cushla has opened up her view to a future she hadn’t seen for herself before. “In ten years I’d like to be leading these strategic partnerships that my project was based on.”

In addition to synthesising the knowledge she had about business and layering it up with deeper understanding about emerging tech, ethics and diversity, she also found comfort in being with others who were on a similar journey to her.

“It was nice to be around people who acknowledge the change – the change of pace and the change of the world and know that you’re not in your own little waka.”

The experience of the programme has given Cushla the voice she always had – now she just has that extra edge to offer up her ideas in the knowledge they are anchored in foresight.

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