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    Big Data, coming to a staff meeting near you

    Big Data is probably the latest buzzworthy term to enter into the discussions amongst technology solution providers, pundits, and enterprise information technology types, all of whom are jockeying to variously understand, explain, and offer insights as to all the fantastic opportunities, (and challenges) that Big Data presents. In case you may be late to the Big Data party, (maybe you've been goofing off too long on Pinterest to keep up), let's take a look at a basic definition of the concept from Wikipedia:

    In information technologybig data consists of datasets that grow so large that they become awkward to work with using on-hand database management tools. Difficulties include capture, storage, search, sharing, analytics, and visualizing. This trend continues because of the benefits of working with larger and larger datasets allowing analysts to "spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime."

     Scientists regularly encounter this problem in meteorology,genomics, connectomics, complex physics simulations, biological and environmental research, Internet searchfinance and business informatics. Data sets also grow in size because they are increasingly being gathered by ubiquitous information-sensing mobile devices, aerial sensory technologies (remote sensing), software logs, cameras, microphones, Radio-frequency identificationreaders, and wireless sensor networks.

    Got all that?

    Essentially, our ability to generate and store massive amounts of data, from disparate, always-on, and almost unlimited sources, is surpassing our ability to understand, analyze, interpret, and take actions based on said data.

    Where there is an identified problem with data, (massive amounts of it that don't fit traditional tools and methods of interpretation), we can expect more and better technology solutions to continue to be developed to help organizations and institutions. Doing a quick search on 'Big Data tools' already yields thousands of results, ranging from technologies and processes from some of the largest information technology companies in the world, to new ideas from start-ups trying to innovate and get a toe-hold in this emerging domain.

    But like any other new technology trend, the trouble that Human Resources professionals could fall victim to is thinking that the problem of 'Big Data' is fundamentally a technical one, and that with the right or new or more powerful computing resources that suddenly 'Big Data' will start spitting out all kinds of actionable insights into their business and talent.  Data has always been just that, data, and possessing more and more of it just makes it more apparent that without the ability to ask the right questions, propose the right theories, and the capability to implement the strategies suggested by all this data, then all the Big Data in the world won't mean all that much to the HR professional.

    I was thinking about this after reading a recent piece titled 'Can Big Data Replace Domain Expertise?', a review of some recent articles and discussions among leading academics and data scientists debating whether or not if one possessed the data, the needed technology, and some core 'data science' skills, that actual domain experiences, (e.g. for HR or Talent data, actual experience in HR or Recruiting), would not be necessary to extract insight and actionable information from the data. In other words, "given the right data set, a data scientist with no domain expertise can out-perform experts that have been working in the field for decades."

    For domain experts, this kind of a conclusion would certainly be disputed, after all, how can a techie or a statistician know more about my business, or more pointedly, my people, than I do? How can simply crunching the data take the place of the knowledge I can bring to the table?

    Personally, I tend to side with the domain experts on this one, perhaps it stems from watching so many NBA games and seeing the increasing importance statistical analysis is playing in the sport and in how coaches, teams, and players are managed and evaluated. Often when I read detailed statistical analysis of a player or team that seems to be at odds with my unscientific (and likely biased) views, I often want to ask, 'But did you actually watch the games?'

    But eventually the data will get to be too much, too universally known, understood, and accepted, and some of my opinions and biases might have to change if I want to continue to be seen as a relevant, or even astute judge of the NBA and its talent.

    Eventually just watching the games won't be enough.

    And I suspect the same thing is going to happen for managers and judges of talent inside organizations as well.


    Off Topic - In the 1990s, an amazing future awaits

    Back in the late 1960s, an amazingly accurate, (and unintentionally hilarious) video titled 'Telecommunications Services for the 1990s' was produced in the UK by its Post Office Research Station at a place called Dollis Hill. The eight-minute video, (go ahead and watch, you can spare the time), offers a vision of a future world where every house is connected to a central data service, video calling is simple, easy, and inexpensive, businesses and consumers will access things like bank statements from their own computers.

    And the nature of work, with all these advances in technology, will change dramatically, In fact, 'Given all these facilities, the businessman will scarcely need to go to his office at all. He can do all his work in the comfort of his own home.'

    Check out the video below, (email and RSS subscribers will need to click through), then come back to see the list of everything the post office folks got right:

    So what did they correctly predict would be coming?

    High-speed internet connections to every home and business

    Worldwide video calling, (essentially Skype)


    Fax machines

    A crude form of Web Conferencing/Screen Sharing

    Online banking

    Online mortgage calculators

    Widespread remote working enabled by technology.

    Pretty amazing, wouldn't you say?

    Hope you had a laugh with this one, and have a great weekend!


    Choice and Cookies: Why are Oreos so popular?

    This week marked the 100th Birthday of the venerable Oreo Cookie, that most familiar staple of cookie jars and milk-and-cookie breaks all over the world. The simple chocolate and cream filled cookie continues to grow in popularity, despite having not changed much in its 100 years of existence, managing to weather a century of constant changes in attitudes and preferences about food. Chances are pretty good if you are reading this post, you have yourself had many an Oreo over the years, your parents likely had them in the house at least sometimes, and if you are a parent, you have bribed provided them to your own kids from time to time. Go ahead, take two

    I find it interesting sometimes to think about what makes products and companies so enduringly popular, especially in a time where companies and products can rapidly rise into public consciousness and success, and at times, crash, burn, and disappear almost as quickly. Ten years ago there was no Facebook, iPhone, and 'live Tweeting' would have been a term you might have been to get away with using among your bird watching buddies, (if they didn't banish you from the group for being too dorky). But here we are, 100 years later, and the Oreo is the world's most popular cookie. How did they manage that?

    Certainly it is at least partially a marketing and branding story. Nabisco, the owner and manufacturer of the Oreo brand has long been a powerhouse in the consumer goods space. They know design, messaging, and how to continually reinforce the emotional connection that many consumers have with the Oreo cookie. But where does this emotional connection and attachment come from in the first place? Marketing is powerful, but is it that powerful to actually create and sustain consumer attachment for 100 years?

    There is another theory about the success of the Oreo that is more interesting than advertising, it is about, for lack of a better word, user experience. As anyone who has ever eaten an Oreo knows that despite the cookie's simplicity, there are a few different ways to actually eat an Oreo. There is the dunk, the split, the split and lick, and more. All the while taking a stance and defending your preferred method of consumption with your fellow Oreo connoisseurs.  The emotional attachment to the product derives at least in part from this creative freedom to consume the treat in the way you prefer. In fact, a 1981 article titled “Creative Eating: The Oreo Syndrome,” by folk historian Elizabeth Mosby Adler contends that part of the Oreo's appeal is that it allows people to bring their own personal style to experience. I suppose one could argue that Oreo was doing DIY and embracing to a small extent the 'maker' mindset that has grown in popularity in recent years.

    Why is any of this important, (yes, here is the 'what can we learn' part of the post).

    It is really easy when we design technology systems or new work processes to want to force, coach, or guide people to use the new tools or interact with the new system in a specific way, or in a certain, proscribed manner. We apply best practices, we do surveys, we do A/B studies, all to arrive at the 'right' way to use the system - optimized for efficiency, productivity, and utility. And truly if our users do follow these rules they probably will become more efficient and productive. But it is also likely, if they have not been offered the ability and permission to explore a little, to seek out ways of interacting with the tools or processes in a more personal way, or to find a solution that resonates with them as individuals, then an emotional connection will never be made.

    And that might be perfectly fine. After all, who needs an emotional connection to be made between users and a system designed for work, not for fun? I suppose no one.

    But who really needs a specific brand of chocolate and cream filled cookies either? After all, they are all pretty much the same.

    Just don't tell that to a committed Oreo fan.


    Book Review : The American Way of Eating

    "What would it take for us all to eat well?”

    A simple enough question on the surface. But think a little bit longer about the question and how in America should we go about improving the quality and variety of our diets, expand the access to good, fresh food for people living in decaying inner cities, and somehow begin to understand why and how that the problem of obesity and its associated health concerns continue to escalate, well all of a sudden you will realize that finding an answer is a much larger and more complex proposition.

    "What would it take for us all to eat well? "

    That is the question that author The American Way of Eating author Tracie McMillan sets out to answer when she begins her year-long sojourn along the front lines of the food industy - as a farmworker in the grape vineyards and garlic fields of the Central Valley of California, at two different stops working grocery and later produce in Detroit-area Walmarts, (did you know that Walmart is the nations' largest food retailer?), and finally inside the kitchen at a Brooklyn Applebee's, where in America's most popular sit-down restaurant, meals are more assembled from pre-made components, than actually cooked.

    Along the way, Ms. McMillan alternates the story of her experiences as a bottom of the labor food chain with a deeply researched and revealing look at the rights, (or lack thereof), of the farmworkers, the development of and eventual power over the nation's food supply of the supermarket industry in the United States, and the growing share of restaurant eating that has come to claim in the average American's diet.  And what we learn, via her first-hand experiences and her in-depth reporting makes us uncomfortable. Ms. McMillan plainly states the rights of the typical farmworker coolly and succinctly -

    "Under federal labor laws, I have no rights to days off; I have no right to overtime pay; I have no right to collective bargaining."

    The farmwork is as we'd expect  - exceedingly hard, mundane, dangerous,and incredibly poorly paid. And similar to the Apple/Foxconn situation that has been so widely reported recently, the labor costs of farmworkers contribute a tiny fraction, about 6%, of the product's eventual retail price. But unlike one of the 'protests' consumers can bring to bear over the Apple situation, simply withholding the purchase of new gadgets until Apple improves working conditions, won't work when the product is real apples, (or lettuce or garlic or peaches). 

    From the fields of California and the front lines of production,  Ms. McMillan ventures into the front lines of food retailing, and recounts two separate stints as a stock person at Walmart supercenters. Here we learn about Walmart's incredible power and influence over the local produce supply and quality in markets where it dominates, the lengths to which Walmart will go to save the salability of its produce, (hint, don't buy any lettuce that is visibly smaller than the rest of the lot), and the challenges faced by the generally good-natured and well-intentioned workers.  The key metric about Walmart, stated plainly on p. 138 -

    Walmart's share of our food supply grew at an unparalleled pace; at 22 percent, it now sells more than twice as much as the next three largest stores combined.

    McMillan accurately compares Walmart's rise as a mega-retailer is analogous to the rise of the mega-farms. As in retail where many towns have few choices about where to shop for fresh produce, chances are good that produce was grown on one of the 6% of farms that supply 75% of farm sales in the United States. Larger farms, feeding larger distribution networks, stocking supercenter stores, most located in the suburbs, where space for stores, parking, and affluent shoppers determine retail location choices.

    From Walmart, Ms. McMillan joins the kitchen staff as a food expediter at a busy Applebee's location in Brooklyn. Here we learn that 'cooking' is not what really happens at Applebee's, rather it's a controlled chaos of food assembly, from mostly pre-cooked, pre-measured, and frozen component parts. And while the staff and management come off as mostly friendly and supportive an end of the book McMillan is sexually assaulted while sleeping and after being drugged during a farewell party with fellow Applebee’s workers.

    The American Way of Eating is certainly a book about food, but just as much it is a book about economics, corporate America, and the kind of work that millions of people do every day, and that many of us are more comfortable not thinking about too much. Farmwork, life as a minimum wage, part-time, no benefits retail worker, as an exhausted and overworked kitchen assistant - these jobs are not only hard to do, they are hard to survive doing. McMillan repeatedly faces struggles making ends meet, and often it is only the kindness of newly made friends on the food front lines that help see her through.

    By the end of the book, you are forced to think about all the ways we need to do better. Farmworkers should be treated better. Walmart and other mega-stores should open locations in the food deserts of places like Detroit, and we should do more as a society to think of food like we think about electricity or clean water - as a social good, not a luxury item.

    "What would it take for us all to eat well?”

    The determination and commitment to re-think how food is grown, harvested, marketed, and sold.

    Easy and incredibly hard at the same time.

    The American Way of Eating is a fascinating, challenging, and important book, that I strongly recommend.


    Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

    By Tracie McMillan

    319 pages. Scribner. $25


    More on the Talent-Strategy-Culture triangle

    A few weeks ago I posted about the ongoing discussions on the relative importance of three distinct, but interrelated aspects of organizations (Talent/Strategy/Culture) that combine to define, set the direction, and ultimately determine the success or failure of the enterprise. In that piece, I proposed it might be that Talent, or perhaps worded differently, people capability, might actually trump both Culture and Strategy as being the primary determinant or most accurate predictor of ongoing success.Throw it to Jordan on the block

    The theory, (it probably actually doesn't deserve to labelled a 'theory', perhaps 'notion' is a better term), is that without the raw talent, the right people with the right skills in place, that even the best company cultures can't progress from being 'fun' or 'happy' into truly successful, and also that the sharpest most on-point business strategies can't be executed.  Why I think I like this idea so much is due all the time I spend watching sports, specifically the NBA, where perhaps more so than many other team sports, sheer talent more often than not plays a disproportionate role in driving wins and championships.

    In the NBA, teams that win titles almost always have one (or more), of the league's most talented players, the kinds of players that can essentially take over in close games, can rally the team by setting an example for effort and dedication, and help to make the other players around them better, by virtue of their sheer ability. Essentially to win in the NBA, you need superior talent. It doesn't mean you will win of course, (see Heat, Miami - 2011 NBA Finals), but without it, the best team spirit, (culture), and coaching, (strategy), will only take you as far as the talent can carry you.

    While culture is critical, and strategy is essential, having the talent makes it all work, makes the culture rise to more than a 'oh look how cure, there's a foosball table in the break room', and elevates the strategy from just words on a PowerPoint or a tagline on a website.  

    So how do you go about landing that essential, superstar talent you need? Dang, that's a problem.

    Well, having a fantastic company culture helps. Great talent wants to be in a place that they feel will challenge them, where they sense a greater purpose, and can learn from and engage with great colleagues. And it really helps to actually be a successful company already, or to have a story, (a strategy even), that resonates and can be envisioned, and that great talent can see themselves as a part of. Yep, it is kind of hard to attract and retain great talent without a great culture and a winning strategy.

    Which I think is the reason why all these Culture vs. Strategy vs. Talent type arguments persist, because no matter what position on the triangle you take you are right.

    And also wrong.