Getting Perspective: Executive Tech School
By Carol Posthumus, Fri Feb 08 00:00:00 GMT 2002

It's back to school for busy executives in today's rush-rush society.

Executives from South Africa and other countries are increasingly enrolling for class at an elite technology school, with bases in both St Francis Bay and Cape Town. Class is cool and the playground rocks - as executives, "chilling out with technology," learn how to make their mobile devices, computers and gadgetry truly work for them.

A lawyer, marketing directors from a corporate group and a London-based entrepreneur are deep sea fishing in the Indian Ocean off the Eastern coast of South Africa. There's definitely no gone-fishin' note on their office doors, or on their e-mail out-of-office auto-responders, though. Only (and truthfully) a "gone back to school" message for their closest colleagues' information. As they will a marlin to bite, this group, while it might look otherwise, is actually in a classroom of the Executive Technology School.

Navigator of the trip, and head of the School, South African mobile and IT media entrepreneur Gregg Baxter shares some tips, as people do on any fishing expedition, and directs and guides executives to the latest in mobile devices, tools and technologies. In this crew's tackle box is not only some serious fishing gear: but mobile equipment, too. Some executives respond there and then - from waters they share with schools of dolphins, as this zone is the beings' breeding grounds - to business calling. They are using mobile in a style that is a new experience for most of them.

Learning the art (and technologies) of sending signals, from wherever one is and harnessing the latest middleware and software, and using time to its maximum potential, is what this part of the School's curriculum, held outdoors, is all about.

Chilling out with mobile technology

Comments Baxter: "Going fishing, taking a 4X4 nature trail or spending an afternoon in a wildlife sanctuary are all experiences forming part of the Executive Technology School. These trips are about encouraging people to really relax, to chill, with mobile equipment - and responding, without stressing, to those important signals from their business worlds. Our basic philosophy is that if you get technology to work well for you, then you free up and make more time for yourself and all areas of your life. At the end of the day, at the top of every executive's wish list for is a need for more time, and that's what we are helping people to create in their lives. Discovering that you can manage, answer or set a chain of events in motion, around an important e-mail - easily and rapidly - from your mobile phone on a fishing trip, many miles from land, can give an executive, who has never experienced this before, new perspectives."

The Executive Technology School offers a personalized learning experience. Classes are made up of a maximum of eight people, who spend four days at the School. Not all classes are held on boats, in the surf or on Land Rovers, though.

Baxter, formerly a systems engineer and programmer, takes executives through the theoretical aspects of the digital age in more formal sessions. These include areas such as the history of computers, communications technologies and the Internet. Then, executives learn how to apply the knowledge. For instance, the students are shown how to interconnect and link their PDAs, with their cellular phones, notebooks and desktops. The School is not focussed on one brand: so executives can bring or choose whatever equipment they want to play with and learn about.

Says Baxter: "Today there is a lot of interaction that can be set in motion automatically via software and communication technologies. We enable executives to test-drive and experiment with different kinds of options for themselves."

Mother Nature provides great classrooms for the mobile era

Fishing trips and nature walks on the wild side tend to stimulate creativity and lateral thinking - and Baxter feels this is vital part of a digital era Technology School.

"After sitting and learning about computing, mobile and a whole lot of new technology - requiring you use your logic and scientific thinking in a big way - it is so important that people experience colors, scenery and nature. When you are on the sea or in the bush, a lot of the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle just tend to fall into place. Creativity is stimulated and you see how things work together."

Baxter, a multimedia communication entrepreneur, surfer, fisherman, passionate environmentalist - also a musician in a band (bass guitar and drums) and technology radio show host - started the novel school in February last year. Now they have two campuses: one in tranquil St Francis Bay and another in Cape Town. "The School was purposefully established away from the hustle and bustle of pressurized city environments. Executives attending our School at St Francis are people who want to experience a totally natural environment - they are looking for that 'extra-chill' as their setting for learning about technology."

He adds, "Cape Town has city attributes but is a tremendously beautiful natural setting too. Executives from Johannesburg tend to choose Cape Town for their time at school, while executives from Cape Town often opt for St Francis Bay. We also have overseas guests from all over our world. South Africa is known as a testing ground for new technologies, and many people feel this is a good place to tap into knowledge about new trends and tools."

Need for executives to contemplate technology

The school was established when Baxter took a sabbatical from his publishing business, choosing St Francis Bay to contemplate on technology - and in particular the era of interoperability and its potentials.

Also the Chairman for the South African Communication Industry Association (SACIA), Baxter, reflecting on his own personal experiences in the sector, saw there was definite need for a new kind of learning experience especially tailored for executives' requirements.

Part of Picasso Headline, the school is becoming popular with a variety of folk. Time at school is increasingly being given by organisations as a reward to sales teams. Sometimes organisations have specific requests for a curriculum- they ask for the learning experience to focus on a specific technology, such as an Intranet. Entrepreneurs - perhaps tired of being teased by their teenagers for using them as their personal mobile technology-teachers - also are attending more.

Interestingly, Baxter has a natural tendency to focus on how to spread knowledge and learning about technology. He changed direction from being a programmer to a publisher in technology, when he realized there was an enormous, insatiable need for information - how-to and what-to - in the digital world. Indeed, at a time when he started selling cellular equipment to his circle of friends in South Africa, he realized that he was consistently enjoying sharing ideas and explaining to people how to get the best out of new technologies. So, changing course, and in entrepreneurial fashion, Baxter created an enterprise out of this role.

It's one that fits him well. People seem to love Baxter's approach to technology learning. He is a fundi with the technical details - but is not a "I'm a superior techy" teacher-preacher and gives people confidence to use their technologies to their utmost. It's kind of like having a combination of a cool techy-surfer-musician being your technology teacher, people feel.

Creative lifestyles work with mobility

On a personal level, and ironically, Baxter says what is his "biggest problem in life" also helped to become an avid and informed user of mobile technologies and devices. "I am color blind and dyslexic. Technology has helped me make up for those disadvantages. If I don't jot down things on my palmtop, they tend to go straight out of my head, I forget. I've had a intensely personal need to learn how to use technology to its maximum."

He attended an art, music and ballet school, and today Baxter plays in a band and has a very creative lifestyle. "I think a creative way of living works well with my business focussed in the ever changing mobile and IT world. I play music, fish, surf and enjoy nature - really, at the end of the day, I work hard and play hard."

Mobile technology that enables mental telepathy as a reality in the future and truly environmentally friendly computers (working with other energy forms - "we will be able to put them anywhere, in our fish tanks if we like") are things Baxter sees in the future. "I survived a very bad accident in 1987, and that was a major turning point for me. After this, I realized that I always wanted to experience life in its fullest in every moment."

He continues: "We live on a very beautiful earth; we need to savor that while we are here. If you are open to beauty and realize that you control your destiny through your thoughts, the world is a magic place."

Carol Posthumus is a freelance author, analyzing how mobile technology impacts our lives. She lives in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.