COVID, Corporates and Campuses: Melanie Cook on the Future of Work and School

Meet Melanie Cook, 47, Managing Director (APAC) of Hyper Island, a digital creative business school that designs transformative learning experiences to help individuals and businesses grow. She chats with ISHAN SINGH about the world's ever-evolving learning needs, and how COVID-19 is reshaping the landscape for education and work.

Please tell us more about what you do at Hyper Island.

I was brought on to make Hyper Island more "structured and business-like" as a company. So in the beginning, I went about putting in place the fundamentals, like business information systems, developing roles and responsibilities, and creating a structured sales process.

However, in the 21 months since I joined the organisation, I've learned that talent and culture are the two most essential aspects of running a successful business. I therefore spend most of my days finding ways to remove any obstacles preventing our talented faculty members and colleagues from co-creating remarkable learning experiences.


Melanie speaking at the QSP Summit; image courtesy of Melanie Cook.

Right now, it is additionally challenging sustaining the business amid the COVID-19 pandemic. To safeguard the livelihoods of our employees, I have created a COVID-19 response plan. My mandate has therefore evolved from one of ensuring growth to that of protection.

In times of change, agility is so important. Agile principles help me to remain focussed on the things that bring the most value to our students, clients or co-workers.

Why did you decide to enter this field of work?

For a very personal reason: I remember when I was in corporate life and times were tough. I looked around, and it was apparent to me that the office culture was crumbling. Many people were unhappy, and I had no way of telling my regional bosses.


Image courtesy of Melanie Cook.

And so I searched for books and combed through blogs for advice on how a follower could be a bearer of bad news to a leader and not get fired for it. I didn't find anything, however. All I found were leaders writing books and articles for other leaders, or researchers and academics advising leaders. There was nothing about how a follower could empower themselves. This then became my purpose: to empower followers with capability, wisdom and skills—traits that would help shape an organisation. A few years later, when Hyper Island called looking for someone with business mind, who at the same time had a secret yearning to be an educator, it felt like a match made in heaven!

Part of what your company does involves predicting new trends and monitoring existing ones. Can you share one observation about a well-known trend?

Digital transformation used to be about finding the competitive edge, and shaping the industry before it shapes you. Today, however, digital transformation is about survival, and has become part of running a business.

In our course on leading remote teams, the first thing we do is get people used to technology. We teach them how to use videoconferencing tools, for instance, and try to ensure everyone above the "millennials" age group feels comfortable in front of a screen and camera.


Melanie speaking at the QSP Summit; image courtesy of Melanie Cook.

Earlier this year, CEO of Microsoft Satya Nadella observed that organisations are condensing two years of transformation into two months. However, I don't believe that such a speed of change to be sustainable. Ultimately, it's people who transform organisations, not technology—and it takes years for team culture and personal development to evolve.

On the other hand, I see a transformation happening iteratively, in many small cycles. It started with the fundamentals of turning on the tech, to the revolutionising of products and services to meet new customer needs. Apple, Amazon, Alibaba, Zoom, Tencent, Facebook and Hyper Island already have new release iterations many times a week. To stay relevant, other companies will have to learn to do the same.

What practical steps can such incumbent companies take to stay relevant in changing times?

They will need to:

  • Nurture a digital-first mindset
  • Bring business agility into the way they work
  • Inspire others with a shared purpose and empower experimentation in ways to achieve it
  • Develop data-driven decision-making practices
  • Innovate using Human-Centred Design, and
  • Change habits to foster a culture of experimentation


Image via rawpixel.

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested our available capabilities for learning and working virtually. How have Hyper Island's operations been affected, and what longer-term impact do you see it having on schools and workplaces?

Compared to other institutes of higher education, we are smaller and have fewer faculty across the world. This structure has forced us to become a distributed company where remote working with collaborators and co-workers has become second nature. Remote working has its upside: a recent survey by EngageRocket showed that most people feel just as productive or even more so working from home than in the office. I am one of them.

In line with social distancing protocols, we operate on a split-team arrangement, in which the respective teams alternate their work time on campus. To ensure business continuity, we also need to look at rent, which is our highest expense next to staff cost. With learning moving online and faculty no longer bound to their office desks, it's possible we might transition to co-working spaces, or even better, transform our campus into one.


Image via rawpixel.

What are some of the biggest obstacles to overcome before online learning can become a fair substitute to physical classrooms?

Online learning is often dismissed as detached and disheartening. Everyone imagines hours in front of a screen, listening to talking heads going through static slides. But it's not necessarily the case.

Look at Nintendo Switch's Animal Crossing: New Horizons, the game of the moment. It's meditative, therapeutic, and an utterly brilliant "escapist" type experience. In April 2020, Animal Crossing broke the mould by introducing a late-night talkshow within its virtual world. In "Animal Talking", famous personalities like John Oliver and Stephen Colbert are doing talkshows over Zoom. Gary Whitta (the writer of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), who created "Animal Talking", uses avatars within Animal Crossing to carry out interviews. It's genius.

Against the creative backdrop of gaming, why can't learning be the same? Online learning can also be an "escapist" type experience that learners willingly immerse themselves in.

To this end, Hyper Island's co-founder Professor Jonathan Briggs and his team of learning designers are creating new formats for "tried-and-tested content". In our gamified learning journeys, there are murder mysteries and virtual tours of Silicon Valley, followed by visits to the Museum of Failure.


Image of Animal Crossing by BagoGames via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

Since we introduced these formats, we've consistently garnered "8 out of 10" scoring in learner satisfaction. We're continually experimenting, measuring and working with our students to better their learning experiences. 

In your opinion, what does the ideal work environment look like?

It'd be a home away from home, and I mean this metaphorically. The ideal work environment is a shelter in times of need; a space where people gather to spend good times together; a place where one feels propelled to be at their creative best. In my ideal work environment, I can make a significant impact and fulfil my purpose—it's where I can be me. It is also not location-bound.

You've spoken at TEDx Singapore and been a co-curator since 2015. What's your favourite talk of all time?

My favourite talk is Andrew Solomon's "How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are". I listened to it again recently just to remind myself that what I do today makes me who I am tomorrow.


Where do you see yourself five years from now?

That's hard to say, but I do know who I will be with. My little girl, my husband and incredible friends, family and co-workers. I'm blessed with good people in my life, and that's all I hope for.

Once we can travel freely again, where would you book your first flight to?

I'd really like take my husband and little one on a trip to the UK to see my mother. We have daily Zoom calls with her, but I still miss her and look forward to visiting.