OPINION: At the risk of sounding old, I remember a time when the highlight of the week was checking out the kids’ page in the Sunday Times. Back then it was considered the kids’ version of a knighthood to have a poem or letter published on the page and would ensure a glow of pride in the author for at least a month.

My slight claim to fame at that time was that the editor of the Kids’ Page, Val Aldridge, also happened to be a close family friend who, in the absence of extended family in this country, would often stand in to be a surrogate aunty to my siblings and me. Val continues to hold me to account – no easy task!

Anyway, now retired and with an enduring strong interest in the written word, Val despairs at what she sees as the slipping standard in the Fourth Estate. A degradation that I, ironically, am part of.

Recently, however, Val contacted me with some views on literacy and numeracy in education. Or, more specifically, the fact that literacy especially seems to no longer be de rigueur.

She pointed me to an opinion piece that bemoaned the lack of focus on handwriting and spelling in school. The author of the said piece was concerned that these two basics were the fundamental building blocks on which literacy, and the ability to communicate with the written word, were based.

Now, I can already hear the cries of protest from those who would suggest that modern technology means writing is an unnecessary skill. Indeed, it isn’t often that I get out a pad and pen and jot things down, but, given my advanced age, I enjoyed the benefit of a relatively broad-based education.

Back in those days, reading, writing and arithmetic were non-negotiables and before the education system (cue the grumpy reckons of a sad old man) was diluted and we grew allergic to any student actually failing a subject.

Anyway … I’ve been thinking about this in the context of the roles I have across multiple organisations. I’ve been privy to the entry into the workforce of a new generation of employees, one who has grown up typing on devices rather than writing on paper. One who has embraced text-speak, and its attendant degradation of basic grammar. Val’s words are ringing in my ears.

As she said: “Not that I am decrying advances in communication technology, but there is a need for proper foundations. Now we seem to be into a third generation who have gone through experimental systems and lack of basics. Even many teachers don’t know correct spelling or grammar or simple basic rote maths.”

My friends in the technology world, or at least some of them who think in binary terms, will shout at me (in all capital letters or course, and limited to arguments not extending beyond 140 characters) that all of this flowery grammar stuff is no longer necessary and the advent of instant messaging services in business have obviated the need for anyone to actually form a coherent sentence, let alone a coherent paragraph.

But for those who make decisions for organisations, often based on the well-structured (or otherwise) arguments of other leaders within those organisations, grammar (as well as basic maths) does matter.

The acceptance of an idea or proposal from above is strongly correlated with the clarity of language within that proposal. It’s perhaps unfortunate, but nevertheless a fact, that a recommendation or opinion poorly articulated calls into question the value of the idea itself.

Now, informed readers will be quick to point out that one of the more celebrated entrepreneurs of our time, Richard Branson, is highly dyslexic and has never been strong on either written English or the maths within the proposals he presents.

But having heard Branson in person, I’m well aware that he is a highly charismatic individual with a real ability to verbally sell a vision. He’s also been lucky (or smart) enough to surround himself with people who fill the gaps he has, such that all his ideas can be pitched in a professional way. Thus, Branson can be seen as an outlier and not in any way the norm.

I’m not saying for a moment that one needs to be a walking thesaurus, or know Pi to 15 decimal places (I’ll admit, a weird capability I developed at school), to be credible in business. But, as Val sagely pointed out, a foundation in literacy and numeracy is important and will go a long way to ensuring success in other aspects of life. Bring back the “Three Rs,” I say.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. His sons get really sick of him pointing out when they mix up there, their and they’re.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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