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    Wednesday
    Jan042012

    Will Facebook Kill the Car?

    When we think about disruptive technologies over the years, whether it is electrical power, fast and safe air travel, or even more modern inventions like personal computers or smartphones, we often assess and value these inventions in the context of what prior tools or processes they have impacted. Widespread availability of electrical power replaced steam power in more modern factories, air travel transformed commerce and leisure activities while getting most of us off of transcontinental trains, and each successive iteration or improvement in computer and smartphone technology moves the functionality and capability needle just a little bit further than last year's device. Sure, every so often a new breakthrough device like the iPad comes along that while not really having a natural predecessor, is mostly used to do the same types of things, (read news, send email, watch movies), that were done on other, existing devices, (primarily laptops). I'll bet even the most ardent iPad users only spend ten or twenty percent of their time actually doing something that is only made possible by the new technology alone.Cutlass

    Truly transformative and disruptive technologies do more than just offer a better version of an older tool or allow us to do the same things we were already doing before in a new, more efficient, or more powerful manner. Transformations allow us to create entirely new things, define new categories, and most importantly - change the way we lead our lives in ways that have nothing at all, (at least on the surface), to do with the technology itself. 

    I was thinking about this while reading the following piece from the BBC - 'Why are US teenagers driving less?'. It turns out American teenagers are driving less than their predecessors, and the article offers some interesting speculation on why that may be the case.  From the BBC piece:

    Recent research suggests many young Americans prefer to spend their money and time chatting to their friends online, as opposed to the more traditional pastime of cruising around in cars.

    Ok, so maybe not that transformative or disruptive. Kids like to text and Facebook. Move along, nothing to see here, right?

    Here's more from the BBC:

    In a survey to be published later this year by Gartner, 46% of 18 to 24-year-olds said they would choose internet access over owning their own car. The figure is 15% among the baby boom generation, the people that grew up in the 1950s and 60s - seen as the golden age of American motoring.

    Now that is indeed more interesting, and telling. The internet, and by implication the social connections and activities the internet empowers, (mostly via Facebook), is the gateway to freedom, mobility, coolness - all the things that the car used to represent to the teenager or young adult. A car can only take me, and maybe a couple of friends somewhere. The open web can take me anywhere. But isn't that a kind of sad, lonely tradeoff? Give up a car for Facebook? Isn't that anti-social?

    Well let's look at one example of the motivations behind, well, leaving the car behind from Wally Neil, a 25-year-old quoted in the piece:

    But it was a decision made easier by the fact that he could speak to his friends online and play games with them over the internet so did not feel he was missing out.

    "We were all pretty closely connected, even before Facebook.

    "So we were not driving to our friends' houses, there was the gaming network and all that. We were putting the car on the back burner.

    "There is a lot to be said for the video game killing the need for a car for a lot of kids."

    Really interesting, and I will bet a view on networking, connection, and even technology that most of us don't think about too often. This isn't 'gamification' as it is being tossed around in the HR Technology space fast and furious right now, but rather the social, collaborative, and disruptive power of social gaming to change a myriad of offline and seemingly unrelated behaviors. No Dad, I don't need to borrow the keys to the '94 Cutlass, we are going to play World of Warcraft this weekend.

    So the statistics say that teen driving is down in the US, and certainly gas prices and limited job opportunities have something to do with that, but looking at the data, (and the stories), a little deeper suggests that there is more to the story than a simple economic argument. If indeed a generation, the next generation of the workforce, has a set of radically different attitudes towards socializing, mobility, and connecting, then it is something we should be aware of and ready for.

    What do you think? Can Facebook really kill the car? Are your kids or colleagues exhibiting some of these same attitudes?

    Tuesday
    Jan032012

    Volkswagen to BlackBerry Addicted Workers: We Know What's Good For You

    A couple of weeks back this story, about Volkswagen's decision to disable company servers from pushing email out to certain employee's BlackBerry smart phones outside of 'normal' working hours, made the rounds in the tech press and blogosphere. The reaction from analysts and commenters was decidedly mixed, with probably somewhat more observers coming down on the side of 'Good for the workers, they deserve a break from email when they are home at night, and on the weekends.'I am pretty sure it runs at night and on the weekends

    Leaving aside the practical exigencies of German labor law or union and work council regulations or contracts for the moment, (which certainly did have a role in the Volkswagen situation and that I can't be bothered to try and sort out), to me this decision by Volkswagen smacks of typical, classic, and old-fashioned thinking. The kind of mindset that leads organizations, (and more often individual managers), to issue edicts about where, when, and how work will actually get accomplished. The attitude that workers are generally not to be trusted, in this case not in that the employees can't be trusted to get their work done, but rather that they can't be trusted to know when to take a break, to decompress, and to disconnect. And this kind of decision or policy also can actually negatively impact so-called 'work/life' balance while trying to protect it - workers that have the need for more flexibility or have personal circumstances that don't lend themselves well to the 9 to 5 grind are hurt by such a policy.

    Interestingly, the reports of the BlackBerry email quiet periods have noted that the new rules do not apply to senior management, ostensibly because they are too important to be disconnected from corporate email when on the go after hours, but also subtly indicating that senior management can handle the tremendous responsibility of actually knowing when they need to read and respond to company email and when they should be resting, being with family, or actually having a social life.

    The great promise of advances in workplace technology is that the new technologies will enable us to be better at our jobs - to make better decisions, to develop better processes, to dream up and execute more fantastic ideas to progress our organization's mission and our own careers while simultaneously supporting making our non-work lives better as well. Smartphones, tablets, video conferencing, wifi pretty much in every coffee shop, bar, and airport in the world - all of these should be incredibly empowering and enabling. These tools and capabilities are different than the copy machine, the fax, and the employee workstation, and all the other workplace technology breakthroughs that came before. They were all about doing more while remaining in one place, on one schedule, and in lock step with everyone else. What will not work and will not be sustainable, is to apply to old ways of thinking to the new technologies.

    If employees can't be trusted, then they can't be trusted. That has been true for hundreds of years, the BlackBerry did not create that problem.

     

    Monday
    Jan022012

    Bundling, choice, and basketball

    It is a new year, and time for the latest version of what seems like an annual public fight between a big Cable TV company and a high-profile content provider. In the latest example, Cable TV provider Time Warner Cable and the MSG (short for Madison Square Garden), Network are in a pitched battle over the rights fees that Time Warner has to pay to MSG for the rights to distribute MSG programming on its cable systems. As a deal could not be reached by December 31, as 2012 begins the MSG feeds have been blacked out on Time Warner systems. Blah, blah, blah

    From a purely selfish point of view, the current dispute hits close to home for me - my cable provider is Time Warner, and the MSG Network carries most of the games for my beloved New York Knicks. I admit, the prospect of not having easy access to Knicks games has harshed my Happy New Year mellow.

    However, these Cable TV contract disputes provide additional insight to how a combination of escalating programming costs, (mainly in the form of ever-increasing fees paid by networks for the rights to carry professional sports broadcasts); traditional and arcane packaging or 'bundling', and near-monopoly competitive enviroments in many localities have conspired to drive up the costs of basic and enhanced cable rates over the last decade. When ESPN agrees to pay the NFL just over $15 billion over 8 years for the right to show 'Monday Night Football', rest assured the viewers, (and in many cases the non-viewers), of ESPN end up having to pay more to watch Jaws and Gruden gush over how great a job every coach in the NFL is doing. 

    The end result is a simple and classic pass on the costs gimmick - ESPN and other content providers pay more for their programming, they in turn squeeze the Time Warners and other cable systems for higher per-subscriber fees, and finally the cable systems themselves pass the increased costs down to their customers by jacking up cable rates. Traditionally the cable systems try to mask this process somewhat by their practice of packaging or bundling groups of channels into programming tiers, (Basic, Super Basic, Colossal Super Mega, etc.), that ostensibly provide some consumer choice as to the networks they'd like to subscribe to, and how much they are willing to pay for them. But even the most discrete set of packages or bundles that are generally offered still do not come close to most consumers actual viewing patterns, and likely the set of networks they would order if true a la carte pricing was available in the cable TV industry.

    There has been tons written about a la carte pricing for cable TV, and speculation on whether or not it would actually decrease average cable rates. I've seen pretty compelling arguments on both sides, so it is hard to say what the outcome would be. Additionally, any system of individual pricing and ordering of cable networks is generally seen as a death knell for a slew of less popular, niche channels that simply would not have enough viewers willing to pay for them individually to keep them afloat.

    Thinking about this entire situation as I have the last few days, (again as it effects my ability to easily watch the Knicks games), I can't help but wonder if this cable TV model is just a refection of a waning and outdated set of assumptions about how content should be created, distributed, and consumed. In an environment where attention, activity, and engagement with content is increasingly shifting to mobile phones and tablets, which themselves are primarily single-purpose application driven, then the idea of consumers choosing to pay monthly fees for 500 channel cable bundles in order to access the 17 channels they are interested in seems like a dying distribution model. 

    Why can't the MSG network or the History Channel or the hundreds of other channels out there simply create their own an iPad application that would allow consumers to make individual choices about what content they'd like to access and pay for? And to take it a step further, why can't the individual entertainment producers simply skip the traditional networks, cable systems, and satellite providers completely, and market their shows, movies, sporting events, etc. directly to the end user, either with applications or direct streaming or download?

    The answer is of course they can, and many are already moving in that direction.

    But sadly for me, the era of direct, low friction, and discrete consumption of New York Knicks games has not started as yet. So until then, I get to listen to Time Warner and MSG call each other names.

    Friday
    Dec302011

    2011 Rewind - Slaves to the Machine

    Note: This week I am taking a look back on some of the 2011 posts that were either popular, interesting, (at least to me), or that might warrant a re-visit for some reason before the year is officially in the books. And also after about 200 or so posts this year, I am more or less tapped out of original ideas and want to recharge a bit. So that said, I hope you enjoy this little look back at 2011 here on my tiny corner of the internets.

    I am not sure if the post from June titled 'Let's Pass on That, (The Hamster Wheel), was my best post of the year, (lack of comments and shares surely indicate that it was not), or even my favorite post of the year, (something about robots or sports would probably claim that spot), but in many ways I think the point of the piece is likely the most resonant, (at least to me), of all the big themes in the world of work in 2011.

    Ridiculous amounts of content being created, shared,  and consumed every day. Social networks and connections on these social networks keep growing exponentially. Going to bed with the iPhone, waking up with the iPad is now not that unusual. Then later in the year Facebook launches 'frictionless sharing', making push notifications of the songs you listen to and the articles you scan out to the network an afterthought. All of it adds up to a dense, deep, and limitless sea of data that many of us try, (in vain), to stay on top of.  

    In 2012 I think one of the major themes is going to be how, as individuals and organizations, we improve our ability to adapt, control, and make the technology, the deluge of information, and the power of connections and social networks serve our needs, and the needs of our organizations and communities, rather than the other way around.

    So I will leave you in 2011 with a re-rerun of 'The Hamster Wheel', and say many, many thanks for spending a little of your time this year here on the site. 

    Happy New Year!

    --------------------------------------------------------------

    Really late to the story on this, (about nine months late to be more precise), but I recently found and read an incredible piece by Dean Starkman for the Columbia Journalism Review site titled 'The Hamster Wheel'.

    In the article, Starkman compares the changes in journalistic approaches, and the increasing demands on journalists to create tons of consumable content for a myriad of platforms, (TV, radio, Web, Social Networks, blogs, live blogs,and on and on), to the proverbial caged hamster running on an exercise wheel. Lots of activity, lots of energy being expended, but no real progress, and of course the hamster ends up in exactly the same place when exhaustion sets in as it was before the running started, and theoretically it still had some options.

    In the context of the news business, Starkman describes the Hamster Wheel psyche like this:

    The Hamster Wheel isn’t speed; it’s motion for motion’s sake. The Hamster Wheel is volume without thought. It is news panic, a lack of discipline, an inability to say no. It is copy produced to meet arbitrary productivity metrics. But it’s more than just mindless volume. It’s a recalibration of the news calculus. Of the factors that affect the reporting of news, an underappreciated one is the risk/reward calculation that all professional reporters make when confronted with a story idea: How much time versus how much impact? This informal vetting system is surprisingly ruthless and ultimately efficient for one and all. The more time invested, the bigger the risk, but also the greater potential glory for the reporter, and the greater value to the public (can’t forget them!). Do you fly to Chicago to talk to that guy about that thing? Do you read that bankruptcy examiner’s report? Or do you do three things that are easier?

    It is perhaps difficult to find another industry than news and information services that has been disrupted more massively in the last 15 years or so by the rapid development of the web, the birth of so-called 'citizen journalism', and the perfect storm of cheap data plans, incredibly powerful smartphones and other mobile devices, and hundred of millions of social network platform users ready and eager to report and comment on the news - all in real-time. In the CJR piece, Starkman paints a vivid picture of increasing activity with possibly dubious benefit, and that underscores more endemic tensions in workplaces today - we are all asked to do more, or at least the same, with far less people and resources.

    The article contains an example of the Hamster Wheel in action using the illustrative chart on the right - over the last ten or so years, story production in the printed Wall Street Journal has increased substantially, with corresponding reductions in headcount leading Starkman to conclude the average WSJ reporter is now 69% more productive that in 2000. 

    In the race for web traffic, more views of a networks' or news organizations' YouTube videos, 'likes' on Facebook, or Twitter followers; Starkman makes the argument that the traditional values and importance of deeply reported and in-depth investigative pieces (the ones that can't really be tweeted), are suffering. And not only are news organizations steering away from the investment of time and resources to produce these pieces, the long-term financial benefits of the current 'Hamster Wheel' strategy are dubious at best. Some estimated claim the popular and 'Web 3.0' model of journalism The Huffington Post only creates about one dollar of revenue per reader per year.

    Is that a large, more applicable to the workplace take on all of this?  In other words, why did I just spend 45 minutes and 600 or so words writing about a nine-month old article on the news business?

    Well here goes - I think many of us of running on our own personal or organizational Hamster Wheels. We too have to be everywhere. We have to connect and communicate with colleagues and staff on many more platforms than ever before. We have to engage potential job candidates all over the social web, and create compelling engagement strategies for the conversation, (that will work on all kinds of mobile devices including ones that have not been invented yet). We have to stay on top of news, information, coming and goings in our industry in a 24/7 global context.

    In short, we kind of have convinced ourselves, just like the execs at many of the news organizations that Starkman discusses in the CJR piece, that we can't take a breath, miss a tweet, an update, follow the hashtag from a conference we could not get to, or let someone else beat us to the punch.  It is a hard way to live without any kinds of filters to know what is truly important and meaningful and what isn't.

    I'll leave you with a final nugget of insight from the the piece:

    The most underused words in the news business today: let’s pass on that.

    They might be the most underused words in your business too.

    Thursday
    Dec292011

    2011 Rewind - My Favorite Sports Post of the Year

    Note: This week I am taking a look back on some of the 2011 posts that were either popular, interesting, (at least to me), or that might warrant a re-visit for some reason before the year is officially in the books. And also after about 200 or so posts this year, I am more or less tapped out of original ideas and want to recharge a bit. So that said, I hope you enjoy this little look back at 2011 here on my tiny corner of the internets.

    Sure I like to write about sports. Maybe, just maybe a little too much, (debatable). Of all the sports-themed posts on the blog in 2011, this one from May, a look at talent assessment methodologies and titled 'Bench Pressing and Basketball' was my favorite.

    --------------------------------------------------------------------------

    With the National Basketball Association player draft fast approaching, fans, observers, and pundits alike love to speculate and predict the player draft order, and imagine the glorious future for their favorite team once this years' version of young Timmy 'The Flint Assasin' Sackett, or some other such prospect joins the squad.

    Readers of this site, along with my pieces on Fistful of Talent, know that sports, and in particular how the talent evaluation and assessment processes that professional sports teams undertake as they consider which players to draft, recruit as free agents, trade, and compensate; make for some compelling stories and often illuminate applicable lessons for those of us with concerned with more mundane but similar workplace conundrums. None of the 'Sports and HR' parallels are more clearly illustrated than annual player drafts that all the major USA professional sports leagues conduct.

    The purpose of these drafts is to help 're-stock' the talent pools in the league with new players, ones that have the capability and potential to raise the overall talent profile of the league and the individual teams. Essentially each season, younger, more talented players (or at least ones judged to have potential to be good players), enter the league while older and/or less skilled/more expensive players exit. It is a kind of a cool, virtuous 'Lion King' style circle of life, but will louder music and more tattoos.

    The trick for talent evaluators and people in charge of player personnel decisions in the draft is how to assess the complex combination of a prospect's performance on the court to date (usually in college basketball, but sometimes just high school, or international play), the player's physical attributes, their personality and character, and finally whether or not that elusive 'fit' between style, physical traits, and mental make-up exists between the prospect and the team.

    You will often see quotes from NBA or other sports execs talking about players they select as being 'Our kind of player', or 'His style fits how we like to play'. These quotes are as much about cultural and organizational fit as they are about hitting jump shots or ability to rebound the basketball. The rules of the game are the same for every team, but how they go about assembling the team and their philosophies about how to best accomplish the universal goal of winning the championship are all unique.

    So in sports, like in most every other line of business, talent assessment and selection is really hard. So NBA teams have come to increase or expand the variables they assess and measure when it comes to the talent evaluation process for potential draftees. One of these variables is the number of times the prospect can successfully bench press 185 lbs, a moderate amount of weight for a well-conditioned athlete, certainly not a power lifter or bodybuilder burden, but also a weight that could present a challenge. The 185 pound bench press is meant to give a generalized assessment of the player's upper body strength, that at least in theory could translate to effectiveness on the court. But bench pressing isn't really basketball, they don't roll out a bench and some barbells in the 4th quarter of a close game. The other advantage to teams in using the bench press test, (and a myriad of other fitness and strength tests they use), is that every prospect takes the same assessments, thereby giving the teams a common data set across the entire talent pool from which to make comparative judgments.

    But the data itself offers a team no competitive advantage - every team in the league has access to the same information. The trick is knowing how to interpret the 'measurables' (bench press, vertical jump, etc.), with the 'intangibles', (character, coachability, likeability), and finally a frank assessment of 'Can this guy actually play?'; in order to make the best talent selections. 

    But back to the bench press, which is the reason I wrote this piece. Yesterday I noticed a tweet from Chad Ford, one of ESPN's basketball writers and analysts commenting on the bench press test results from a few of this year's current NBA draft prospects.  The tweet is below:

    The implication of the tweet is a kind of red flag or warning about those few players unable to successfully bench press 185 pounds. That teams considering drafting these players may pause, and fans of teams that eventually do take these players might need to be concerned that their lack of demonstrable upper body strength (doing something that isn't actually playing basketball), portends poorly for their future performance as NBA players.

    It is hard to say for sure if this poor performance on the test will actually hurt these players draft position, it certainly won't help it, but I think the larger point is about data collection in general. Whether it is an NBA team evaluating a power forward, or a software company assessing the background and skills of a candidate for a development job, our abiliity to collect reams of data about background, capability, demonstrable skills, and even mental make up has never been greater. We have access to powerful analytics tools to crunch the data and perhaps eventually to construct detailed and predictive 'success' models.

    It could very well be the success on the bench press test does suggest future success on an NBA team. Or failure on the test predicts failure on the court.

    But even if we can create those kinds of models, for basketball players or software developers, they will never be fool proof, as people and performance are ultimately likely too unpredictable to ever understand absolutely. We have to be open-minded enough to ignore our own models from time to time.

    You may, even if you are not a basketball fan, have heard of a player called Kevin Durant. He is a star player for the Oklahoma City Thunder, has led the league in scoring, led the USA team to the Gold Medal in the World Basketball Championship last summer.

    In 2007, when Durant declared himself eligible for the NBA draft, he was unable to bench press 185 a single time

    And we know how Durant has worked out. 

    Sure collect, assess, analyze, correlate, model - it's important. But don't forget, bench pressing is not basketball.