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    The next step in virtual work - part Robot, part Segway, part iPad

    I am a little late to the party on this, (apparently this launched back in August), but since we are getting pretty deep into the holiday season and there is the slight chance that you, dear reader, have not yet determined what type of gift to bestow upon your favorite blogger, (that's me, by the way), I had to call your attention to the Double, probably one of the coolest, awesome, and most potential-filled workplace tools I have seen this year.

    The Double is a kind of 'teleprescence on a budget' tool - part robot, part Segway, and part iPad - the clever device allows a remote colleague to 'drive' an iPad topped wheeled robot around the office, 'see' and be seen via a video conferencing application running on the iPad, and participate virtually in meetings, snack breaks, and probably even hallway chair races.

    Check out the embedded video below to see the Double in action, (email and RSS subscribers will need to click through)


    I told you that was awesome.

    Some details on how the Double manages to be so cool: It uses a dual-wheel base, enabling the robot to navigate corners and make its way around rooms and other workplace facilities. It is controlled via any other iOS device, or through a web interface, which lets you travel throughout the environment, decide which height at which to place its iPad 'head', and of course, to converse with anyone (I suppose including other people's Doubles) in the room.

    So while you probably want to drop what you are doing and order one of these beauties for me straight away, sadly the initial run of Doubles is sold out, according to their website. But fear not, the next batch will be shipping in early 2013 at a price of $1,999.

    Don't worry, I will let you slide with the gift being late, it is really the thought that counts anyway!


    Step stone or destination? If you are not sure, the talent will let you know

    In my continued examination of the intersections between Sports and HR, Talent, and Recruiting, there may be no better spectacle and opportunity for examination than the Winter 'silly season' where American college football teams and coaching talent undergo their annual period of firing, resigning, and hiring to re-set the (rarified) talent pool for head football coaching positions.

    There are generally three reasons that a head football coaching position becomes available, and they are pretty similar to the reasons any executive, well-paid, position opens up in any organization:

    Performance - There are always a handful of these each season. Whether the football team under performed, or there is a true mis-alignment between management expectations and the reasonable likelihood of those expectations being met - either way the 'performance' termination is a common and generally straightforward situation.

    Retirement - Head college football coach is an outstanding job. Heck, if you can have any degree of success and tenure in a position, it is a multi-million dollar while enjoying the love and adoration of the fan base and community life.  So naturally, the men (and that is not a sexist take, these jobs are ONLY held by men), that have these jobs tend to hold on to them for a really long time.  But once they hit 75 or 80 or so, (not entirely kidding), they often have to hang up the whistle.

    Better gig somewhere else - This one, where the coach, (or for your shop, the Director of Marketing, or the VP of Sales), leaves to take the same or similar job elsewhere, is the most interesting scenario at least in the college football talent pool. Because in football, the 'job' itself is the same one everywhere, so the evaluation of whether or not the next opportunity is a step up, a step down, or a lateral move is completely reliant on other criteria.  Some of these are objective - like salary and bonuses, others are subjective - the 'prestige' of the job mostly driving this.

    And the tough part of situation three, when your coach or executive ditches you for what you think is at best a lateral move, is often it takes this kind of high profile resignation and move to make you and your leadership realize where you stand on the industry desirability pecking order.  Make no mistake - the talent, their choices, and the decisions your competitors make do more to 'place' you on the attractiveness scale than most of the things you can do, at least in the short term.

    Net-net of this?  It helps to understand where you 'rank' in the eyes of the talent, particularly for those key positions that do not have an enormously deep talent pool.  Your gig can be a starter job, you can be a step along the way for a high-flier, or you (sometimes) can be a true destination.

    It's better to know what you are than have the talent surprise you.

    Have a great week!


    Work, play, and hiring for cultural fit

    A few weeks ago I attended and presented at a fantastic local SHRM affiliate event in Northern Virginia, and I wanted to share an observation from a presentation I saw there about modern approaches to recruiting and hiring. During the session an interesting question was posed by a member of the audience, and the question, and a recent study on hiring published in the American Sociological Review ties the thoughts together.

    At the event, the presenter spent some time emphasizing the importance of determining a candidate's cultural 'fit' during the screening and interviewing process, and generally espoused an approach or philosophy to hiring that we see more and more these days.Gran Cairo - F. Stella

    Namely - that while a candidate's skills and previous experience are, and will remain essential criteria in the evaluation process, that the more ambiguous assessment of the cultural 'fit' of a candidate might be just as, if not more important that demonstrable skills and verifiable experience. At one point during the talk, a member of the audience asked the following question of the presenter:

    'Isn't hiring for cultural 'fit, simply just code words for hiring more people that are just like us?'

    I loved the question, and even tweeted it out to see what folks online had to say - most of the replies I received were similar to the presenter's comments - that cultural fit is really truly very, very important, and no, I am not talking about anti-diversity initiatives, but rather a process to ensure the best chance of success for the candidate and the organization.

    A few Twitter replies were even more strident - almost as if even suggesting that expressing doubt about hiring for something as hard to measure and calibrate precisely as 'fit' was an irrational thought, and that in the new, fast-moving, and ever-changing workplace that 'skills' morph so quickly that they ultimately matter less than 'fit', which at least theoretically will endure.

    I was reminded of that dialogue when taking a look at a recent paper on the subject titled 'Hiring as Cultural Matching: The Case of Elite Professional Services Firms', by Professor Lauren Rivera of Northwestern University. In the study, Rivera examined the hiring practices of investment banks, law firms, and management consulting firms over an extended period spanning from 2006-2008. 

    According to the study, hiring professionals at firms often valued their personal feelings of comfort, validation, and excitement over identifying candidates with superior cognitive or technical skills.

    In fact, more than half of the evaluators in the study ranked cultural fit—the perceived similarity to a firm's existing employee base in leisure pursuits, background, and self-presentation—as the most important criterion at the job interview stage. 

    You can take a look at the entire (long) paper here, but this quote from Professor Rivera sums up her findings as well as echoes the concerns and trepidation raised by the attendee I referenced above.

    "It is important to note that this does not mean employers are hiring unqualified people," Rivera said.

    "But, my findings demonstrate that—in many respects—employers hire in a manner more closely resembling the choice of friends or romantic partners than how one might expect employers to select new workers. When you look at the decision to date or marry someone what you think about is commonalities. Do you have a similar level of education? Did you go to a similar caliber school? Do you enjoy similar activities? Are you excited to talk to each other? Do you feel the spark? These types of things are salient at least to the employers I've studied."

    The study also found that the cultural similarities valued at elite professional service firms have important socioeconomic dimensions. "Evaluators are predominately white, Ivy League-educated, upper-middle or upper class men and women who tend to have more stereotypically masculine leisure pursuits and favor extracurricular activities associated with people of their background," Rivera said.
    "Given that less affluent students are more likely to believe that achievement in the classroom rather than on the field or in the concert hall matters most for future success and focus their energies accordingly, the types of cultural similarities valued in elite firms' hiring processes has the potential to create inequalities in access to elite jobs based on parental socioeconomic status.

    Hiring for cultural 'fit' is probably somewhat important, I am not trying to deny that or convince you otherwise. But as the astute attendee in Virginia noted, and this recent study illustrates, that this approach is not without its potential shortcomings.

    What do you think - is hiring for 'fit' a potential trap and at times a convenient way to screen out those folks that seem just a little bit different?


    A Critical Look at Telework

    If you are at all interested in the role of telework for your organization, for your team, or even for yourself, I recommend taking a little bit of time to read over a recent research piece titled, 'The hard truth about telecommuting', published in the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), Monthly Labor Review June 2012 issue.

    In the piece, authors Mary C. Noonan and Jennifer L. Glass review the results of their recently completed research that examined the prevalence of telecommuting in the US workforce, the trends in adoption of telecommuting over time, and most interesting to me at least, how telecommuting arrangements tend over time to increase the total amount of hours worked, rather than simply substitute 'home' hours for 'office' hours. Mr. Brady - Working from home

    If you are someone that currently or in the past has done at least some remote work for your organization, the study's most damning conclusion about telework probably will not be very surprising - that between half and two thirds of telework arrangements simply serve to add working hours to the work week, and doe not simply trade hours worked at home for hours that are normally spent working in the office.  Details from the BLS piece:

    Fully 67 percent of telecommuting hours in the NLSY (data) and almost 50 percent in the CPS (data) push respondents’ work hours above 40 per week and essentially occur as overtime work. This dynamic suggests that telecommuting in practice expands to meet workers’ needs for additional worktime beyond the standard workweek.

    As a strategy of resistance to longer work hours at the office, telecommuting appears to be somewhat successful in relocating those hours but not eliminating them. A less sanguine interpretation is that the ability of employees to work at home may actually allow employers to raise expectations for work availability during evenings and weekends and foster longer workdays and workweek.

    These findings, while not terribly surprising, particularly when considering how the rapid advances in mobile technology have made 'working from anywhere' a possibility and reality for so many of us, also raise some important issues for organizations or leaders that are supporting or offering telework to their teams. Namely, any telework program that promises or at least suggests the promise of how telework will be a simple 'shift' of work from one location to another is an outcome that is unlikely at best and misleading at worst.

    A more honest and realistic approach and pitch to telework is one that more of less frames it as 'This job carries high demands and expectations AND we know you have a busy life outside of work too,' Here's how telework fits - that 'extra' 5 or 10 or 20 hours we need from you? Take them as and when you need them - the office, your house, at Starbucks -whatever.'

    And the thing of it is - when framed in that manner, telework stops sounding much like telework and more like just plain old 'work.'

    Here's the last observation I have about telework, and this is largely from my personal experience - the irony of telework is people at work think you are more or less free to 'work' all the time or at any time, while your family and friends at home see you working from home and think you are 'free' all the time.

    What do you think - has telework simply become 'work more from home in your previously free time?'


    Protecting what isn't damaged

    It's World War II and your job is to help the military devise a strategy for reducing the shockingly high loss rate of planes in battle. Dozens and dozens of planes are being lost due to ground-based enemy anti-aircraft weapons, as well as in air combat.

    And of the planes that do make it back to their air bases safely, most have received at least some damage, with many of the damaged planes requiring substantial repairs to make them air-worthy again.

    You show up to the air base, and as you begin examining the damaged planes you make an interesting observation - most of the planes that made it back have sustained damage to the wings, fuselage, and fuel systems, but most do not exhibit signs of damage in the engines or front of the cockpits.

    A bunch of shot-up planes but a fairly consistent of measurable and repeatable characteristic - damaged fuselages but not engines. Wings that have sustained hits but with clean and intact cockpits.

    Your recommendation to the military brass to reduce the rate and number of lost planes?

    Well it seems intuitive that better armor and protection on the parts that have sustained the most damage would be the best strategy. I mean, you have evidence all around you - blown apart wings, fuel systems, etc. These parts are obviously sustaining heavy damage in battle, and need shoring up.

    Makes sense, right?

    Except that it is almost completely wrong, and due to the research and conclusions made in WWII by Abraham Wald, the opposite of the best strategy.

    Wald concluded that the Air Force shouldn't arm or add protection to the areas of the planes that sustained the most damage on the ones that came back. By virtue of the fact that they planes came back at all, those parts of the planes could sustain damage.

    Wald's insight, that the holes from flak and bullets on the bombers that did return represented the areas where they were able to take damage led him to conclude that these patches were the weak spots that led to the loss of a plane if hit, and that they must be the parts to be reinforced. 

    Wald's suggestion an recommendation seemed unconventional, but only if you could get past what you could 'see', a bunch of blown apart wings and fuselages; and think about what you couldn't see, the planes that crashed as a result of the damage they sustained.

    The big lesson or takeaway from this tale?  As usual, probably not much of one, with the possible exception is that it serves as a compelling reminder not to always focus on the obvious, the apparent, and what seems like the easy explanation.

    Note - some of Wald's notes on this research can be found here.