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    Thursday
    Sep222011

    What is the Future of Work? Good Question...

    Tonight on the HR Happy Hour Show, I will be joined by Human Resources Technology legend Naomi Bloom to talk about work, the future of work, and have an open and participatory conversation about how the massive changes in the nature and notion of work will affect us in our careers, and certainly our children and grandchildren in the coming years.

    You can listen to the show live tonight at 8:00 PM ET on the show page here, or by calling in to the listener/guest line - 646-378-1086

    There has been no shortage of attention and energy spent in the last few years by various experts, authors, corporate leaders, and lowly bloggers attempting to make sense of the massive changes in work and industry brought on by worldwide recession, the emergence of high-speed internet connectivity, the prevalence of super-powered smartphones, and rise of social networks. While there might not be consensus among the experts and pundits about what the true 'future of work' will look like; one thing seems certain - it won't look or feel like anything we have known before.

    No, with technology and robotics capable of automating and improving even more higher value functions and processes, with the rise of what is for many industries and professions a truly global competition for capital and opportunity, and the continuing 're-thinking' of the modern organization; it seems a given that work, the nature of 'employment', and the skills and capabilities required to remain relevant and successful simply have to change to meet these new challenges.

    But while it is easy to say that work is changing,and the old 'employer contract' is long dead, it is quite a bit more challenging to determine what strategies and actions should be pursued by workers today, and the ones to follow, to best prepare and brace themselves for these changing conditions.

    Is it the pursuit of entrepreneurship?

    The willingness to embrace a series of consecutive or even simultaneous short-term gigs?

    Acceptance of the fact that where you are now in your career is not at all likely to be a good predictor of where you will end up?

    Or realization that in today's do-more-with-less-always-connected-smartphone-enabled world that you had better be prepared to work ridiculous hours, be always available, and give up what passes for your pathetic social life in order to not just get ahead, but to fend off the robot that wants your job?

    Or something else entirely?

    Tonight on the HR Happy Hour Show we plan to have an open and honest discussion about work, and what work might look like in the future, and talk about some ideas around how best to prepare for and survive.

    Sure, we don't profess to have all the answers, but maybe you do, and I hope you will listen in and even consider offering some of your insight and advice as well.

    It should be a fun and lively show, and I hope you can join us tonight!

    Wednesday
    Sep212011

    Creative Destruction Coming Soon (or not so soon), To Your Mailbox

    My suspicion is when email was invented some thirty-odd years ago I suspect its invetor didn't think to him or herself - 'Wow! This is fantastic! I imagine this will render the post office largely useless, and put hundreds of thousands of postal workers out on the street!'

    Rather, once the usefulness of email began to be sensed, and it started to gain traction, eventually becoming the most incredible and powerful communications technology ever invented, its creators must have felt justifiably proud and encouraged by their brainchild. Email, and other web-powered technologies, have certainly helped to usher in the new, connected age. Email, as the first and still largest social network has enabled the type of connection, collaboration, and information sharing that would have been unfathomable only a few decades ago.

    And for the better part of its trajectory as a tool, email has generally been seen as beneficial and certainly today, necessary for the successful conduct of commerce, education, and even in the Facebook age, socialization. Don't argue with me on that last point, how many of you get your Facebook notifications as email messages?

    So while email has again generally been the 'killer app' of the last few decades, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph of this post, not all the changes brought about by email, (and more generally the connected, information age), have been so positive. And no, highly-paid professionals whining about the hundreds of unread messages in their Inbox is not what I'm talking about. If you're complainging about unopened emails to anyone, well then, you need to shut it. Talk to me when you have some real problems.

    Like, by manner of transition, the problems soon to be encountered by potentially tens if not hundreds of thousands of US Postal Workers. Certainly you've heard about the financial troubles facing the US Postal Service? Massive deficit, declining demand for their services, and a public seemingly not all that sympathetic to their plight. As this piece on CNN.com point out, people are sending 22% fewer pieces of mail than just four years ago, and according to the author, this drop in volume is largely due to email and other forms of electronic communication replacing traditional mail.

    The decrease in volume, (and for most of us customers), decline in importance of the traditional postal service is not all that surprising I guess. That's what 'progress' is after all, right? Smart men and women, (and in this modern age even kids), creating, combining, extending inventions and technologies that improve processes, create new and fantastic ways of generating value, and often, make our lives better, richer, and more fulfilling. And despite the whiny cries of spoiled adults, email has been one of those technologies. Most of us can't imagine a world without it. 

    But the demise of the post office and the postal service, and the likely redundancies of many, many thousands of good people still to come at least to me is really kind of sad.

    For untold millions of Americans, their connection to the world beyond their immediate neighborhoods and towns was solely facilitated by the postal service. Long before nervous parents could get an email or even a Skype call from a son or daughter away at college, or worse, off fighting in a war in some distant land, there was the letter home, and the anxious moments watching the postman approaching the door while thinking, 'Today's the day. I'm sure we'll hear something today'.

    That anticipation, and the disappointment that often accompanied a delivery of nothing but bills or junk mail is largely a fading memory, (or a 'never-experienced' memory if there is such a thing), for most.

    Soon, the postal service will stop Saturday delivery. Then maybe they will drop Fridays, and they'll consider raising the prices of first-class mail, and close lots of local offices and distribution centers - but some would say it is all, already too late. Email, and the nine million other ways people and organizations can communicate that usurp the postal service show no signs of loosening their collective death grip around the postal service's throat.

    But it has been a pretty amazing run. For a few cents really, even still today, you can drop a card or letter in a small blue metal box, anywhere in the country, and someone in a blue uniform will pick it up for you and after some under-the-covers magic happens, someone else in a blue uniform will hand deliver it  anywhere in the United States. In just a couple of days. For just a few cents.

    It is still, to me, a remarkable illustration of organization, process efficiency, and yes - even technology.

    Better take advantage of it while you still can. And start explaining to Grandma how she might not to be able to send the Grandkids their Hallmark Cards with the $10 bill in them for very much longer.

    Monday
    Sep192011

    Used as Delivered: Why Grandma's VCR was always blinking 12:00

    One of the best features of most modern technologies, whether designed for use inside the enterprise, or for consumer or leisure time pursuits, is the flexibility, adaptability, and personalization capability of these solutions or devices.

    Software programs are usually almost infinitely customizable - with a myriad of settings and options that users can manipulate and alter to suit their unique needs. Newer gadgets like smartphones and tablets are replete with their own sets of menu and option settings, and the applications and programs we load onto these devices typically come with their own options and opportunities for us the users to shape the behavior and functionality of these applications to meet our needs. Choice - and the ability to form, create, and adapt our computing and technological environments to our precise needs has never been more within our grasp.

    In fact, particularly in software solutions designed for and sold to enterprise and corporate users, this ability to 'shape' or personalize the technology to meet company, work function, and even individual needs is quite often touted as one of the most attractive and beneficial features of the solution.

    Certainly, enterprise software companies can't predict and thus design for all the potential differences and nuances in organizational processes, practices, and preferences; thus by building in the capability for end users to maintain some control of the operation and interface of said software solutions, they can offer the benefits of almost custom or bespoke applications, but still with the reliability, structure, and process discipline of good enterprise software.

    But does all this flexibility and personalization capability in both enterprise and consumer technologies and devices really get exploited by the majority of end users to tailor their experiences, and be extension, improve the utility of these solutions and gadgets? Well chances are, not so much. Check some of the observations about software users and default settings from a study of Microsoft Word users on the User Interface Engineering blog:

    We asked a ton of people to send us their settings file for Microsoft Word. At the time, MS Word stored all the settings in a file named something like config.ini, so we asked people to locate that file on their hard disk and email it to us. Several hundred folks did just that.

    We then wrote a program to analyze the files, counting up how many people had changed the 150+ settings in the applications and which settings they had changed.

    What we found was really interesting. Less than 5% of the users we surveyed had changed any settings at all. More than 95% had kept the settings in the exact configuration that the program installed in.

    This was particularly curious because some of the program’s defaults were notable. For example, the program had a feature that would automatically save your work as edited a document, to prevent losing anything in case of a system or program failure. In the default settings for the version we analyzed, this feature was disabled. Users had to explicitly turn it on to make it work.

    Of course, this mean that 95% of the users were running with autosave turned off. When we interviewed a sample of them, they all told us the same thing: They assumed Microsoft had delivered it turned off for a reason, therefore who were they to set it otherwise. “Microsoft must know what they are doing,” several of the participants told us.

    I think there is some really useful advice in this little experiment with MS Word users, while building in flexibility and options and choice is certainly important in any modern software solution or new device, those of us involved in building or deploying these kinds of technologies should keep in mind it is likely only a very small minority will leverage the flexibility and personalization features we tout so stridently and spend so much time developing.

    While choice, options, and freedom to adapt technology are all necessary components in the modern enterprise and consumer software age, let's not forget there is quite a lot to commend software and hardware solutions that simply work. Turn them on, activate them, answer a few questions in configuration sure - but the sooner solutions can start solving business problems and delivering positive impact to users, without asking users to morph into armchair software developers is really the hallmark of a great solution.

    So I'll toss the question out to the readers - how important is flexibililty and personalization in your technologies and how important is it to you for them to simply work right away?

    Friday
    Sep162011

    Are you important? How far away from the inmates do you live?

    I have to think of all the jobs in this fantastic country of ours that chief among them for stress, danger, and sheer 'Sunday night and I can't believe I have to go to work tomorrow insomnia', has to be working inside a jail, prison, or penitentiary. 

    On the plus side, since our nation doesn't seem at all on course for reducing or even slowing the growth of incarceration rates, career opportunities in the prison system could be one area in an otherwise downbeat job market that might offer job seekers some prospects, and corrections system staff some level of job security that is often hard to come by these days. Sure, you have to deal with the daily inconveniences of metal detectors and pat-downs when coming to work, and every once in a while there could be some kind of security crisis like an escape that might throw a little hiccup into your day. And there is always the chance, however remote, that a more significant incident like a widespread inmate riot could ensue, the kind of circumstance that might require a full and comprehensive response from all prison officials and staff members to respond rapidly, and in numbers.Can I use my FMLA for this?

    Since these occasions could potentially require rapid response from off-duty guards and other officals at a moment's notice, often the corrections officers and the other high ranking prison officials will be provided (mostly free), housing in neighborhoods quite near the prison itself, such that response times are reduced, and quick action can be taken in the event of a major security or safety incident. Essentially, if you have a role, either in prison leadership or in security, it makes sense to have you situated close enough to the prison such that you can respond quickly if called upon in a crisis. When the inmates decide they've had enough of the man keeping them down, you better be ready and able to respond quickly.

    So what kind of persons and job roles at the prison should receive free or otherwise subsidized housing near the facility in exchange for their ability to be rapid responders and to be able to provide their leadership in a time of crisis, with the expectation that their fast contributions could mean the difference in a minor incident turning into a major one?

    Certainly the warden and assistant warden. Probably the senior corrections officers and guards. And maybe some other mid-level guards too. Possibly the prison medical staff and maybe even some of the communications and other outward-facing individuals. 

    How about the prison's Head of Human Resources? 

    Would you rate the HR leader for the prison in that 'special' category of staff that needs to live in close proximity to the facility, and at taxpayer expense? 

    Well officials in the State of New Mexico are about to try and sort that question out. It seems that for at least 5 years, the head of HR for the State Department of Corrections, Elona Cruz,  has lived rent-free in a home situated a 'stone's throw' from the state penitentiary. And according to the comments from Acting Deputy Secretary of Corrections Gregg Marcantel, it look's like Elona's time in state provided housing is soon to end. When asked whether the department's head of HR should be living in corrections department provided housing  Mr. Marcantel said- "From HR to an air-conditioning repairman, the answer would be no.” 

    Nice. Comparing the Head of HR for the Department to the A/C guy. Thanks Gregg. Any chance you'll be signing off on the new Leadership Development program we've proposed for next year? Didn't think so.

    Kidding aside though, it is unlikely that the Head of HR would be called upon to thrust him or herself into a potentially volatile and dangerous situation alongside the prison's first responders in the event of a serious security incident. Those kinds of incidents are more about using force, strategy, tactics, and execution of trained and ingrained protocols to attempt to regain control of the situation, and minimize the risk of injury to staff and inmates, and the damage to facilities and property. Sparing the easy jokes about organizing the facility picnic when teargas is flying, real life danger and violence is not typically the strength of HR.

    But the comments from the Deputy Secretary are instructive - in his view the idea of HR being at all essential or important in times of crisis is sort of implausible, as evidenced by his comparison of HR to the A/C repairman.

    And while it is natural and unsurprising that he's take this position, one thing is pretty clear - the farther away from the inmates you live, the lower your status and relative importance at the prison.

    While it's great to accept a sweet set-up with free housing and a short commute, eventually you'll get called out. And if you're not someone needed to run into the prison in a crisis, well then, you can live 45 miles away with the maintenance staff.

    (Here's the part where you make the comparison to 'charging in to the prison riot' with whatever equates to that kind of drama in your organization, and think about whether your leaders want you right next to them at the ready, or off 100 miles away).

    Have a Great Weekend!

    Wednesday
    Sep142011

    Employee Recognition and Kid's Birthday Party Swag

    Ever since the last SHRM Annual Conference in June I seem to have had the good fortune to end up on some kind of Human Resources marketing mailing list, (thanks for sharing SHRM!), and have seen a decided uptick in the old mailbox (the snail mail one), in training course catalogs, vendor pitches, conference supplies, (I can get you a great deal on lanyards, provided you need a few thousand), and so on.I'd rather go with Spongebob

    This week an 100-plus page catalog from one of the better known employee recognition purveyors landed in the mailbox. Page after page of products like employee thank-you cards, pins, travel mugs, those cool acrylic or glass statue thingies you see in cubeland from time to time. You know the ones that the project team engraves and hands out after the system goes live or the merger is completed, kind of like miniature versions of the HR Emmys.

    No big deal, right? We all know, and have read articles and seen webcasts or conference sessions ad nauseum in the last few years of the importance of employee recognition, and the critical role that it plays in fostering employee engagement, happiness, and even commitment to the organization. These are all necessary and valid concepts, and I am in no way discounting their importance here. In fact, as my friend Paul Hebert will tell you, (well I am not actually sure he'd tell you this exactly, but bear with me), a well planned and executed employee recognition program can help drive increased revenue, productivity, heck, whatever it is you want to drive.

    So I was thinking about how powerful and effective the right recognition programs can be when I flipped to pages 26-27 in the above mentioned catalog (pictured above), and landed on the spread of swag from something called the 'Essential Piece' theme.  I get the idea, the company is having some kind of event, or meeting, or recognition ceremony; and they'd pass out assorted mugs, pens, tote bags, keychains, etc. all branded with some form of the message to employees that each one is an 'Essential Piece' on the team.

    But in only a second of looking at the swag laid out before me, I immediately thought that these pages could have been torn from your favorite party supplies catalog, you know the section where the kid's themed birthday party stuff is laid out. Where parents that really ought to know better end up selecting cups, plates, streamers, party hats, noisemakers, cake toppers, etc. - all with the same theme. Because we know every kid's party has to have a theme, and heaven help you if you try and pair a Star Wars cup with a Spongebob plate.

    Here's the section of the post where I'm supposed to drive to an epic conclusion or call to action. But this time I really don't have one other than to observe that I always felt like a doofus buying the full set of Toy Story or Pirates of the Caribbean party swag for my kid's parties over the years. None of the kids really cared whether the 'theme' was consistent from pinata to cake. But what the kids did care about was whether they had a good time, the games were fun, their friends were there, and the cake and ice cream was on the money. That's what created the memories. 

    So buy all the 'recognition' swag you want - no one will remember that either for very long. But the people, the relationships, the work experiences; those things that really matter - well SHRM has not sent me a catalog that stocks those items just yet.