helen souness education

The days of obtaining one degree and believing you’re set for life are gone. From now on, lifelong learning will be the norm, says Helen Souness, CEO of RMIT Online. “The education we received at 22 will not stand us in sufficiently good stead to support us through our careers,” she says. “Every individual should be asking themselves whether their current role is allowing them to develop new and relevant skill sets.”

Souness cites McKinsey & Company’s projections that 25–46 per cent of current work activities in Australia could be automated by 2030. Those most susceptible are physical roles in highly structured environments with repetitive tasks, such as production lines, data collection and processing. She expects dramatic disruption and a huge need for people to reskill to meet new opportunities.

“We are seeing increasingly acute skills shortages across both digital and technology fields, and unless businesses, education institutions and individuals take a proactive approach to upskilling, we face a danger of growing talent shortages, unemployment and inequality,” says Souness.

Souness started her career as a litigation barrister in New Zealand, but switched into marketing and strategy. After a stint working in London, she returned to Australia to take on top roles at Lonely Planet, SEEK and Envato, a marketplace for creative assets and people. For three years, she was managing director of Etsy, an e-commerce website for handmade or vintage items and craft supplies. In 2017, she moved into a more traditional education environment, joining RMIT Online.

However, she doesn’t feel it’s a big change. “To me, it is another business, like Etsy and Envato, that requires a community around it to succeed and has a wonderful purpose — to help lifelong learners successfully navigate the world of work. I see more similarities than differences to my last few roles in what I’m doing in education now.”

Souness says working in fairly young digital companies has enabled her to learn from her colleagues. “What I love about leading multifunctional teams and working in the agile methodology is that you get to solve problems with people with different skill sets to your own,” she says. “That provides enormous learning opportunities for me every day. Of course, I also stay a lifelong learner by jumping into our courses and reading about new ideas I want to try, such as objectives and key results (OKRs) or other new approaches to management and digital methodologies.”

In addition to traditional undergraduate and postgraduate courses, RMIT Online offers a range of short, sharp, focused credentialed online “Future Skills” courses on subjects such as blockchain strategy, cybersecurity and AI strategy. Souness believes a mix of different courses will help directors plug the gaps in the skills needed to make decisions on technology.

“Lifelong learning takes many shapes,” she says. “It could be a postgraduate qualification or just the upgrade of one skill. The concept of alumni will disappear because you will never graduate. You are basically on a lifelong journey.”

She recommends boards visit other industries using technology well and talk to tech and customer-facing teams. “We don’t need to be practitioners, but to set strategy, we do need to understand what technology can do to increase productivity or create new opportunities for our businesses.”

Souness also sits on the board of courier service Sendle. “I learn a huge amount from James Chin Moody [Sendle CEO] in the collaborative, focused way he engages us as his board. I try to bring that open and transparent approach to my own board.”