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    Monday
    Aug132012

    We do serve your kind in here: The Robot-Only Workplace

    In the classic 'Cantina' scene from the first Star Wars film, the barkeep barks a testy 'We don't serve their kind in here' to our hero Luke Skywalker, instructing him that he has to leave his trusty droids R2D2 and C3PO outside, as they were not welcome in the bar. Luke complies, as the unwelcome presence of the droids would have certainly added to the trouble he was about to find in the Cantina, which culminated in the legendary and controversial Han Solo - Greedo altercation.

    But this post is not about Star Wars or Droids, it is to highlight yet another interesting development in what some see as an inexorable march towards total robot domination of work and workplaces. Since the economic and manufacturing capability value play for the basic application of robot technologies for work can no longer be argued, the next set of questions are more about the future.  What will the next stage of robot-work and as we will see in the example below, robot-workplaces look like? That's correct, not just robots at work, or robots replacing some of the work that people used to do, but could we see one day entire workplaces, (factories, warehouses, maybe farms), where humans only enter and engage to swap out broken or failed components, or possibly as the clean-up crew to salvage parts once a particular solution or capability is no longer needed.

    Seem crazy? Well, some technical leaders at none other than social-networking leader Facebook are already thinking about this, envisioning the Data Center of the future, (you know where all the hardware sits that makes up 'The Cloud'), might be one where we hardly ever see an actual person. From a recent piece on ZDNet:

    "I've always envisioned what could we do with a datacentre if humans never needed to go into the datacentre," (Facebook VP of Hardware Design) Frank Frankovsky says. "What would a datacentre look like if it wasn't classified as a working space? What if it looked more like a Costco warehouse?"

    (Facebook) hopes its ability to manage its infrastructure mostly via software could cut the amount of time people spend on the IT floor of the datacentre — eventually, it might be possible to have no one there at all, Frankovsky says. This holds a number of intriguing possibilities for datacentres.

    If people did not need to go into a datacentre, then you could deploy devices floor to ceiling and run them at a much higher heat, allowing the processors inside them to perform more efficiently, Frankovsky says.

    Looking further ahead, the datacentre could be treated as a "degrade and replace" model, Frankovsky says. "Essentially, you fill up a datacentre, put it into production and weld the door shut." If a company did this, it would only need to send someone into the facility every six months to perform processor upgrade and swap out failed storage, he says.

    Realistically, or perhaps unrealistically depending on your general level of pessimism/optimism, the kinds of robotic, computer, and server technology changes needed to support this kind of 'no humans inside' data center is perhaps a decade away, maybe less. But there seems to be little doubt that increased robot and automated technology and less human interaction with the technology in these workplaces is likely. If you have a 10-year old kid that you have any influence over, I recommend having him/her start preparing for a a future where 'gets along well with robots' is going to be a key professional competency.

    Let's just hope when the skeleton crew of people show up at the door of the data center to perform their twice-a-year inspections and maintenance that the robot in charge will be a little more friendly to the people than the Cantina bartender was to R2 and C3PO.

    Happy Monday!

    Friday
    Aug102012

    Off Topic - The Highlights of the Olympics

    I am on record as not caring about the Olympic. I much prefer traditional American team sport where we crown the our champions as 'World Champions', even though all the teams are based in the USA, (or Canada, which I think technically is a part of Michigan).

    So that said, and while still trying to remove from my scarred corneas the few minutes of team synchronized swimming I stumbled upon last wee - here are my two (video) highlights from the recently concluded, (are they still going on), Summer Olympics.

    In category one, advertising, hands down the winner has to be this Nike spot, reminding us that there just might be greatness in all of us. (email and RSS subscribers click through to check the video).

    I dig that kid and the message, (call me a sucker if you like).

    And in category two, and just about the coolest thing you'll see this weekend, a dramatic re-enactment of World's Fastest Man Usain Bolt's victory in the 100m dash, rendered in that most evocative and emotional medium - LEGO stop motion, (email and RSS subscribers click through to check the video)

    Amazing right?

    Anyway, farewell Olympics for now, I can't wait, (kidding), to see you again for the Winter games in a couple of years and pretend I care about Nordic Combined.

    Have a fantastic weekend!

    Thursday
    Aug092012

    Your 735 Facebook friends? They're probably not.

    I've written before on the blog about the famous 'Dunbar's Number', from the seminal piece of research by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar that theorized that the number of stable, close social relationships, (typically what we'd call 'friendship'), that humans can sustain at any given time is about 150.

    In the old post I referenced some additional academic research that suggested that even with the ubiquity, popularity, and increasing familiarity with the concepts of online social networking, that Dunbar's number still more of less holds.  Or said differently, no matter how many 'friends' you make on social networking sites, unalterable things like brain size and the human capacity to form and maintain relationships have not changed, even though your 903 Instagram followers suggest otherwise.

    But better than taking my word for it, or reading through a tedious academic research paper, check a recent, short interview with Robin Dunbar himself, that plainly re-states what I know you know is true - no matter how large our social connections grow, we can't truly expand significantly the number of stable relationships that can be maintained.

    From the interview on the Technology Review blog:

    Q. You famously posited that humans have the cognitive capacity to maintain about 150 stable social relationships. How have tools such as Facebook changed our capacity to handle social connections?

    Dunbar: Apparently not at all. It is important to remember that the 150 is just one layer in a series of layers of acquaintanceship within which we sit. Beyond the 150 are at least two further layers (one at 500 and one at 1,500), which correspond to acquaintances (people we have a nodding acquaintance with) and faces we recognize.

    All that seems to be happening when people add more than 150 friends on Facebook is that they simply dip into these normal higher layers. If you like, Facebook has muddied the waters by calling them all friends, but really they are not. (emphasis mine).

    This isn't to say that social-networking services don't serve a useful function in facilitating our interactions with our "friends," but what they don't seem to do is allow us to increase the number of true friends.

    So what, you might be thinking. We inherently know, no matter how many hundreds or thousands of social connections we make, with whom we want to or even have the capacity to maintain close, stable relationships with, the kind of relationships that Dunbar's number suggests max out at about 150.

    And that may be entirely true. But as the lines between personal and professional networking and relationships are almost completely gone for many people in their use of social networks like Facebook, I wonder if we are slowly starting to lose the capacity to distinguish the differences. 

    Google+, and to a lesser extent Facebook, do offer tools to help us sort and categorize these relationships into buckets or groups, but for the few people that seem to bother to attempt this kind of stratification of potentially thousands of contacts, the effort almost seems overwhelming. So, eventually everyone ends up in the same bucket, something that we continue to erroneously call 'friends'.

    Will there be, eventually, a kind of kickback effect, i.e., will we start seeing more people actively looking to reduce the number of their connections and even the time they spend cultivating and maintaining these ever-growing, (and demanding) networks?

    So far the answer to that seems like no, but if more people come to conclude that all the time, effort, and energy spent online doesn't actually add to your capacity to form and maintain additional meaningful relationships, then perhaps we will one day arrive at a place where one's Klout score begins to diminish with each 'friend' added over 150. 

    If that were to happen, then maybe 150 would become the new 10,000.

    Wednesday
    Aug082012

    Pass it on: Connecting Engagement, Community, and Results

    Earlier in the week I co-presented along with Trish McFarlane on how HR and leaders can use social tools and technologies to empower their organizations and engage employees, (because you know 'empowerment' and 'engagement' are important buzzwords). Kidding aside, we do have continuing evidence, even if it is mostly observational and anecdotal, that connecting people to each other, creating environments where they are free and also challenged to collaborate, and linking these efforts to greater organizational and/or personal goals are likely to lead to increased capability, engagement, and (trust me), operational results.

    One of the examples we used in the presentation, and that I'd like to highlight here, is global financial giant Aon's 'Pass it On' program. The program, (home page screen shot below), is described in Aon's words as:

    A multi-faceted, global program that combines elements of employee engagement, community service and client partnerships to demonstrate to the world how Aon's 60,000 colleagues in over 120 countries focus every day on empowering results for their clients and communities.

    The program also leveraged Aon's jersey sponsorship and relationship with world famous football power Manchester United, in an interesting 'pass it on' project, where three Man United footballs were 'passed' around the world amongst Aon's offices and where local Aon employees recorded videos documenting the ball's journeys throughout the world, (one example is below, email and RSS subscribers need to click through)

    Sure, Aon is a huge corporation, and has obviously poured pretty significant resources into the Pass it On project, but I think there are some simple and repeatable lessons that smaller companies can learn from this project.  One, is to connect an employee engagement initiative to the organization's external and perhaps better known market persona. Next, the introduction of a contest across the Aon regions played into the competitive nature of Aon employees and drove participation. Last, the awarding of the winner's prize of $10,000 to be donated to a charity of the winning team's choice further enhanced the value of the program and better connected local Aon offices to their local communities.

    Finally, I was just glad we found an example to talk about in our session that wasn't Zappos or Google or LinkedIn.

    Finally, finally - the link to Trish and my presentation is here.

    Tuesday
    Aug072012

    How's your network with talented middle school kids?

    The most interesting piece of news from the most cutthroat, vicious, win-at-all-costs recruiting niche in the world - no I'm not talking about the market for hotshot Silicon Valley techies, but rather top-flight scholastic football players that just like the rockstar coders, typically have their choice of fantastic options to pursue, will probably surprise and maybe disgust you.

    Here it is:

    Lousiana State University offers scholarship to promising 8th grader. From the ESPN piece:

    Last week, a hopeful prospect showed up at LSU's July football camp. He posted an impressive 4.46 40-yard dash, and he earned a scholarship offer from the Tigers' coaching staff for his efforts.

    It's a scene that plays out on college campuses every single summer, although this offer was different for one main reason -- Dylan Moses has yet to start eighth grade.
    Considering the Tigers are only just starting to hand out offers to members of the Class of 2014, it came as a bit surprise for a 2017 prospect to get one.

    Nice. Or a little unsettling depending on your point of view. LSU is a consisent national title contender, and plays in the most competitive and most talented football league in the country. They're one of the top organizations in an incredibly challenging market, and one where the difference between exceptional and average is often decided by the outcomes of one or two games. An environment where finding, recruiting, acquiring, and developing talent is the most important differentiator between success and failure.

    Perhaps, at some level, similar to the environment in which your organization operates and competes.

    The question I think the LSU recruiting the 8th grade athlete story raises for the rest of us isn't if is it proper or ethical for LSU to start the hard sell in middle schools, but rather one that challenges our own commitment to acquiring the best talent possible in our organizations.

    LSU is willing, for better or worse, to compete for talent at the highest levels, with the highest stakes, and for them, at least in this example, that means doing things that seem out of the ordinary, and taking actions that many of their competitors might shy away from.

    Is it wrong? Does it cross some kind of line? 

    Maybe.

    But ask yourself - if you are one of the many companies that is having trouble finding that rare talent you need, are you doing whatever it takes to land the talent you seek?

    Are you?