Milena Merten and Sebastian Seitz, ada: Courageous, Optimistic, Open

The philosophy of ada is “Understanding tomorrow today.” And ada is many things: a versatile publishing platform and an organizer of remarkable future conferences and festivals, but it is as well a modern 360-degree education program for companies that want to turn their employees into digital pioneers. At the heart of the ada|Fellowship is modern knowledge transfer using digital mobile tools for the optimal integration of learning into professional and everyday life. Over a period of twelve months, 450 high potentials are familiarized with valuable material and become acquainted with executives from business and politics and with digital thought leaders. Their common objective is the creation of an innovative community for the digital lifestyle and economy of the future. Will they be successful? Detecon’s FutureLearning experts Jaqueline Engels and Samuel Schwab spoke with Milena Merten and Sebastian Seitz about the ada platform and the future of learning.

Detecon: Where did the idea of the ada|Fellowship come from?

Milena: Initially, our idea was to launch a new magazine in combination with a podcast, a newsletter, and other formats, all revolving around future technologies. The concept continued to grow dynamically, and at some point it gave rise to a desire to create a community around the journalistic content, a group of people that would share experience and ideas about the important issues of digital transformation and learn from one another. We wanted to link advanced education with journalism to create a new business model in journalism as well as an innovative cross-company learning platform.

"Successfully shaping our digital future means reinventing learning" - that is the purpose of the ada|Fellowship Program. What exactly have you reinvented?

Sebastian: The combination of a journalistic approach and a didactic model. The focus of journalistic material tends to be more on the storyline, a narrative that you follow. The approach to didactic material such as a textbook is quite different. For example, it is restricted to the academic level, illustrates the theory with a few examples, and refers to the models to which they connect. The ada|Fellowship combines both concepts and offers materials in many different formats: videos, podcasts, texts, interactive elements, and curated materials that we research and make available externally. We put it all together so that you have the most enjoyable and exploratory learning experience possible while having fun. There is no clear linearity. Just as in real life, you can access many different materials if you are interested in a specific subject area. Our role is to help you find the materials and give you the best possible insight into a topic.

A fellowship lasts twelve months. How do you manage to maintain participants’ enthusiasm over such a long period?

Milena: We start with an inspiring kick-off event. Last year, 450 Fellows gathered at the Zeche Zollverein in Essen, a huge event featuring internationally known speakers and interactive exercises. That was a cool way to get started and a chance for everybody to get to know one another. Every few months, we organize live events when all the Fellows come together. At the beginning of each month, new content appears on the learning platform, and we call attention to it in the newsletter. In addition, we have a LinkedIn group in which the Fellows can share ideas on topics that concern them. This and the practical innovation projects create a program that continuously encourages the Fellows to reflect on their thoughts and to contact one another.

How do you ensure that the participants transfer the learning content into their company?

Milena: We always provide two to three materials per module that are suitable for small micro-training courses in companies. The idea is for the Fellows to conduct so-called burn-to-learn sessions in their companies and have one day a month, for example, when they share what they have learned at ada as applicable to their organization. This demands a lot of initiative, of course.

Sebastian: There are three learning objectives on three levels for each module; we call them Be – Know – Do, that is, heart, brain, and hand. There is a wonderful model of the 21st century learner that describes what knowledge you must have (Know) as well as certain character traits (Be) that you should work on. Examples might be leadership topics or mindfulness, for example. And then there is the Do element, your skills, the way you apply what you have learned.

The learning objective for the element of knowledge could be, for example, that you have recognized at the concept level that in machine learning the entered data and the desired result are defined and the machine seeks the solution. This is a contrast to classic programming in which I determine the entered data and the solution path and the machine gives me the solution. At the Be level, the goal might be your ability and capacity to promote diversity as an innovation driver in your organization. Or to allay the fear of coding among colleagues and to challenge beliefs such as “I don't understand all this, it’s much too complicated for me.”

In addition to the modules with their specific learning objectives, there is an innovation project in which a common challenge is defined and dealt with in the groups. Over a period of six months, we are joined by design thinking coaches in guiding the groups in the development of a prototype that is the solution to a real problem in their own organization.

As part of the self-assessment, you set development goals for yourself, either alone or together on a team, which you document and regularly review.

So you have the online section, the project-based section, and the self-assessment. And then there is the so-called live section comprising the major conferences and networking events. These are the strands that are interwoven.

How are the ada program and the participants regarded within their companies? As a team of pioneers that cannot really be taken seriously? Or as a fresh breeze that brings new ideas into the company?

Sebastian: In general, of course, any company that is prepared to send a certain number of people to a program of this nature is open to the results. As a rule, these are organizations that are interested in making changes, and so they make sure the participants have an opportunity to be a part of these changes. This year, we have organizations that have developed prototypes and have begun talking to their development departments about implementation.

The companies know that we are not a substitute for computer science studies, for example, just because we offer a module on AI and algorithms. But that has also never been our intention. As Milena has already mentioned, we want to change mindsets, attitudes; when I open my mind to an idea, I will later act differently, make different decisions, and ultimately make a big difference. We often have feedback to the effect that ada Fellows are open to bringing about change. We are interested in what people need so that they choose better courses of action. And if enough people choose better actions , there is an impact.

What is the process for the selection of participants in your partner companies? Do you work closely with HR departments?

Sebastian: Yes. We start by giving our partners tips on conducting an effective selection process. It is usually a mixture of choosing specific employees and accepting applications from interested persons. The tendency is towards the latter as these people are often more highly motivated of their own accord. There are regular partner calls and meetings when we invite partners to join us. At these times, we create transparency about the offers and respond to criticism and requests from our partners.

Will programs like ada replace the traditional learning programs in companies in the future?

Sebastian: It always depends on the setup of personnel development in the specific case. Many organizations rely on the classic course system, which is to some extent limited by its specifications. But since there are countless possibilities, scenarios, and formats that people can use for learning, we try to create in collaboration with our partners a general structure in which the participants share knowledge and stimulate one another.

You named your program after Ada Lovelace, the first female programmer in the mid-19th century, Why did you choose her name? Do you address a specific target group? Have you noticed any differences, for examples that women learn in a different way than men?

Milena: Ada Lovelace was not just the first female programmer, but the first programmer of either sex in history; she wrote a program for the analytical engine developed by Charles Babbage. She recognized that his machine – a computer – had applications beyond mere calculation and would later be able to do all kinds of tasks, from composing music to writing texts. When we were looking for a name for our “baby,” the Ada Lovelace Festival, which we always celebrated on Ada Lovelace’s name day in autumn, had already been around for two years. So it seemed only logical to name the Fellowship after Ada Lovelace. She was courageous and a far-sighted thinker. This is the spirit in which we want to encourage people to think well outside existing boxes. Are you asking if we chose a woman’s name with the objective of addressing women specifically? We don’t think so. We have a high proportion of women on our team, and it is important to us that more women and voices of diversity have a greater say in the digital industry. That's why it is great that our namesake is a woman. However, we do not address only women – that would not be in keeping with a goal of diversity. We are interested in a multitude of varying perspectives, backgrounds, genders, and identities.

When the magazine was published under the name ada, many thought of it as a women's tech magazine. There was an immediate need to slap a label on it, and we want to get away from that kind of thinking. We take great care to offer different voices an opportunity to have their say in the Fellowship. And in our presentation we are as cliché-free as possible and try to avoid using typical stock photos.

Sebastian: As to whether women learn differently than men – I wouldn’t express that at all in terms of women or men; it is simply a fact that I can put the same content in front of 20 people and be certain that every single one of these 20 people will do something different with it. Perhaps there are differences between men and women. In general, we try to create an environment where it is possible to delve deeper into the content, where the participants realize that it helps them. There are no differences in the content provided to women or men, older or younger people. Everyone initially receives the same content. But it is important to allow people the space to take their very own path to learning, and we do not mark out the path beforehand and we do not distinguish according to gender.

Let's think ahead by ten years: How will we learn? Will we still need programs like ada?

Milena: I hope that by then learning will no longer mean that people, facing the teacher at the front, are taught in a room under cold neon light and with bad coffee. I imagine a situation in which there is much more interaction and interdisciplinary cooperation. It is totally fascinating, for example, when people from the federal government and from Lanxess come together, bringing with them their different cultures. This should be the standard in ten years.

Sebastian: My dream is that in ten years’ time there will no longer be any classic subjects that are essentially no more than derivatives of scientific disciplines. I would like to think that our learning and working will be much more project-based and interdisciplinary, aimed at resolving real, not fictitious, problems, and that we will have the opportunity to develop as individuals. Everyone should take responsibility for what he or she does.

Milena: The Finnish school system for everyone!

In conclusion: How would you describe ada in three hashtags?

Sebastian: We would say #courageous, #optimistic, #open.

Thank you for this interview and your frank answers. We wish you continued success in the future.



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