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    New Geographies

    I am a huge fan of maps.  I used to spend hours reading maps, studying the pages in my Atlas, yet ironically I get lost all the time, and most people that know me well say I have a terrible sense of direction.

    And they would be right, I do have a terrible sense of direction.

    Map making and map reading are sadly becoming kind of a lost art I think, particularly since the rise of online services like Mapquest and Google Maps, and more recently with the widespread availability decreasing cost of GPS technology.  No need to really understand the environment all that much when you can easily get turn by turn directions from the internet, and dashboard GPS systems can soothingly talk you through your journeys. It is my hope that these 'talking' GPS systems can get smarter though, offering up some insight along the way.  'This is the last Dunkin' Donuts you will pass before your highway entrance in 1.3 miles, so if you want a coffee, you better stop now'.

    It is an improvement I suppose, and a comfort for the many of us that are geographically challenged.  These capabilities save time, provide assurance, and largely take the risk out of getting from Point A to Point B.

    But on the odd occasion when the Google Map is wrong, or the GPS can't grab a signal and we are back to having to resort to 'old' methods of navigating often are the most interesting and potentially valuable. I think we underestimate the benefit of finding our own way.

    Shannon Rankin - see note below

    I recently heard a very sound piece of advice that was given in the context of the introduction of a new workplace technology that would significantly impact the methods and work processes of a large number of employees. The advice was essentially:

    'Don't tell the employees all of the detailed and wonderful new features of the technology, but rather get them started, give them a guide, and allow them to discover all of the potential and real benefits of the new tools.'

    I think that was great advice, when a major change effort is underway or a new technology will force people to find a new direction from Point A to Point B, simply handing them the step by step directions and navigating for them will only be partially successful. Sure, most all of them will arrive at Point B, but will any of them have an opportunity for exploration? Will anyone drive off the main road and poke around a bit?  Will anyone be encouraged enough to chart a new path, one that may get them to Point B faster or having discovered some interesting and possibly valuable sights along the way?

    And perhaps Point B is not the only, or best destination at all?  Sticking to the 'script' would almost never allow that kind of insight to be gained.

    Whenever I have to go to an unfamiliar place I usually print off the Google Maps directions marking the way. I follow them step by step and almost always arrive where I need to be.  But the Google Map never encourages me to take a detour, stop and look around, or even to reevaluate if I should be going to my destination in the first place.

    I think the next time I have to go somewhere new, I think I will try old fashioned way, grab a map from the gas station and have a go.  Of course if I get very badly lost I will have to fire up the GPS.  I could never ask someone for directions, I am a man after all.


    Image Note: I came across the artwork of Shannon Rankin from a post on the Junkculture blog. This piece is from the 'Maps' series where the artist deconstructs maps to create new geographies, suggesting the potential for a broader landscape.

    Find out more about Shannon's work here.


    Unidentifed nuts (possibly filberts)

    She sat next to me on the short flight from Boston back to Rochester, an impeccably dressed, serious looking business person.

    Power all the way. Dark suit, leather bag, expensive watch.  Perhaps a very senior executive chasing a deal, catching up with a customer, or otherwise making things happen.

    From the moment she sat down she pounded away furiously on her BlackBerry. The BlackBerry is a serious business tool unlike the iPhone or Droid which to her must seem like fancy toys and not real instruments of commerce.  As she tapped away rapid fire I thought it may have been the most impressive display of double thumb dexterity I have ever witnessed. 

    'Ladies and gentlemen, please turn off and stow all portable electronic devices at this time'.  It was, mercifully time to go.  Good weather and an efficient boarding process would have us on our way right on time. 

    But just one last email to send out for my new friend.  It would only be about 55 minutes of flight time, but still this last message (or three) were still trying to make there way out, racing against the line of other planes waiting for takeoff.  'Ma'am, please turn off your phone now, we are ready for takeoff' admonished the solo flight attendant. 

    A few minutes into the flight she removed the BlackBerry from her bag, glanced at it for a moment, then returned it to its holding place.  Perhaps some separation issues? It is understandable. The BlackBerry is a fantastic device. It allows its owner to quite effectively ignore everything around them in the real world, especially slightly odd seatmates on commuter planes.

    I stop myself from my concern for her and return to my reading. I have copies of GQ and Men's Health. Odd choices for sure since I am not particularly fashionable or all that interested in healthy living. 

    My new friend cracked out the SkyMall catalog. 

    After a few minutes, she reached back into her leather power bag and out came a small metallic tin filled with an assortment of nuts; peanuts, cashews, and an unidentified third nut (possibly filberts).  The nuts are in such a perfect ratio that they could not have been bought already mixed.  For a minute I picture my seatmate at home with three separate containers of nuts, (peanuts, cashews, and unidentified (possibly filberts), carefully filling her fancy tin with just the perfect mix, keeping the proportion just so. I think there is likely some classical music playing and an exotic cat saunters on the counter giving her a look that says, 'So, going away again, are you?'

    As she samples a few of the nuts, and peruses the SkyMall catalog (what is she thinking of getting - the inflatable floating chaise lounge for her pool, a set of Rosetta Stone CDs to learn French, maybe an ergonomically correct pet food dish?), I am oddly fascinated.  I kind of want to know more.  Am I right about the carefully constructed mixed nut preparation? Is there really a condescending cat?

    I returned to my reading, a nice mix of informative content ranging from just exactly the type of belt my new summer khakis require and strategies to put more power in my breakfasts. Buying belts is depressing and unless Captain Crunch decides to change his recipe, I think my breakfasts will continue to be underpowered.

    Final descent now, and I stow my magazines and glance at my seatmate.  SkyMall catalog and mixed nuts nowher in sight, and BlackBerry in hand, at the ready.  The instant the wheels hit the ground the device is powered on, a (sadly) familiar 'ding,ding,ding' ensues as all the messages from the last 55 minutes are released from their temporary in-flight purgatory.  In less than 30 seconds her bionic thumbs are in action, replying, forwarding, deleting.

    In 45 seconds I forget about the carefully assembled tin of nuts, the exotic and dismissive cat, the music, all of it. She is so interested in the little device that she is no longer interesting to me, (not that she cared in the least).

    I know we saw more before we became attached to our little devices. We miss a lot in our quest to make sure we never miss anything.

    I bet she never realized my belt was all wrong for the khakis I had on.



    Anyone have a power strip? A spare iPhone Charger?

    Have you ever asked or heard those questions asked at an event or conference lately? 

    I know I have scrambled around trying to inject some life into a dying BlackBerry on more than one occasion.  It is not that big a deal for most of us, a minor annoyance at worst,  after thirty minutes or so plugged back into the grid we are back in business.

    Electricity is everywhere, it is such a critical part of our day to day personal and professional lives, we take it for granted, get spoiled by it, and mostly are incapable if dealing like adults in the occasional power outage.

    I was thinking about this when I heard about the latest tragedy in an American coal mine, this one in West Virginia.

    The demand for energy in the United States is astounding.  From the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) we learn that total U.S. energy use in 2008 was nearly 100 quadrillion (=1015, or one thousand trillion) British Thermal Units (Btu). One quadrillion Btu, often referred to as a “quad,” therefore represents about 1% of total U.S. energy use.

    The chart form the EIA shows the primary energy sources in the US for 2008:

    Coal, supplies about the quarter of all the country's primary energy supply. That may come as

    a surprise to many of us, (it was to me), as our most common interaction with 'primary' energy sources is when we fill up our car's gas tanks, and run over to the local Jiffy Lube every few months.

    We are constantly aware of and informed about the ebbs and flows in the crude oil market, since the fluctuating prices of a barrel of oil seems to be reflected in the price at the pump almost instantly.

    We hear and think much less about coal mining, (mainly only when there is an accident and tragedy).  Since the predominant use of coal in the United States is used to supply electricity generation, we as consumers don't interact with the primary source of the energy at all.

    When we are out searching for an outlet for our iPhones no one I know of makes a kind of mental connection back to the coal mines in West Virginia or Wyoming.

    But the coal mines, or rather the coal miners of these states and others are the primary source of that electricity that we tap into every day.  Again from the EIA, when we look at the primary sources of energy in the US and how that energy is consumed, we see that 91% of the coal sourced in 2008 was used in the generation of electric power, making coal the largest primary source of electricity in the United States.

    Coal is not exciting, coal is not all that sexy.  Getting all jazzed up because you just got a new Prius and don't have to gas up as much is about as close as any of us will get to really impacting the use of primary energy sources.

    Although I have to believe it takes a heck of an amount of energy to manufacture all those Prius batteries, but that is another story.

    Today I am thinking about electricity, thinking about our never ending pursuit of more.  More gadgets, devices, ways to stay in touch, informed, connected 24x7.

    We so casually talk about getting unplugged once in a while, or going 'off the grid'. But we think about that only in terms of how it affects us, we brag in a way about having such remarkable mental ability to go off line for a weekend or on a vacation like it is some kind of achievement. Look, I think it is important to put down the phones, laptops, iPads more often,  I need to do more of it myself, but when we do, stop being so proud about it.

    How about this, the next time you do 'unplug', think for a minute about all the costs associated with providing us this incredible abiltiy to interact, connect, create, and build things.  Everytime we send an email, write a blog post, send a tweet, download or upload a video (and on and on) we are tapping in to the efforts of many brave men and women who are willing to put themselves in danger to extract resources from deep underground. We all fall over ourselves in praise of designers from Apple, or creators of the next 'killer' app for Twitter, we should try to at least have the same respect and admiration for the miners as well.


    The Story of Garrett Jones

    The Minnesota Twins have a well-deserved reputation as an organization that knows how to judge talent, to select, train, and consistently produce a steady stream of high quality players.  This organizational capability to find and develop so-called 'home-grown' talent is critical for a team like the Twins, who historically have had significantly lower salary budgets than many of their rivals like the Yankees and Red Sox.

    Some of the top players that have been brought through the Twins system past American league Most Valuable Players Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, as well as pitching great Johan Santana (now currently playing for the Mets).  By consistently making smart draft choices, having a consistent philosophical approach that is embedded throughout all levels of the organization, and by actually providing real opportunity for these home-grown players at the major league level, the Twins are contenders for the division and league title most years.  They are in a way a kind of baseball version of the NBA's Utah Jazz, my friend the HR Capitalist's favorite team.

    With that background, I want to share a bit of the story of Garrett Jones, an outfielder now playing in the major league for the Pittsburgh Pirates, ( a team I took a shot at recently). Fans of the Pirates certainly, know some of Jones' story.  A player with 10-plus seasons toiling at various levels of baseball's minor league system, never really getting much of a chance to see if he had what it took to succeed in the big leagues.  In fact, Jones was in the minor leagues for so long, a little known baseball rule called the 6-year free agent rule, granted him his release from the club that owned his contract late in 2008 and allowed him to sign with the Pirates organization.

    The club that 'owned' Jones for the 6-plus years?

    The Twins.

    One of the primary reasons Jones never got much of a chance with the Twins (about 30 games in 2007), was the presence of the star Morneau, who played the same position as Jones, as was one of the games best players. To be fair, Jones' minor league career did have some down points as well, so the Twins could also be forgiven for having some doubts about his upside.

    Jones began the 2009 season once again in the minor leagues, but about halfway through the season, he was called up to the Pirates and proceeded to have an outstanding second half.  Jones hit 21 home runs and batted nearly .300.  For a perennial losing team like the Pirates, this performance was likely the highlight of the (sorry) season.  This year in the new season's first three games, Jones has already hit three home runs. 

    The point of all this to me is that even organizations that pride themselves as great evaluators and developers of talent sometimes get one wrong.  Jones was plying his trade for the organization for many years, in fact for so long league rules allowed him to break away, and the Twins for whatever reason did not or could not give Jones the chance to prove himself at the highest level, helping both the team's fortunes, as well as improving Jones' career prospects. Professional sports, and the individual performance of the players themselves, are so closely monitored, scrutinized, and evaluated, that these kind of talent 'misses' are relatively rare.  Performance in sports is so measurable and public, that players possessing major league talent usually do end up in the major leagues.  Maybe Jones simply needed a change of scenery to really display his true ability, but in the end, at almost 30 years old, he is much the same player the Twins did not give much of a chance to.

    Think of it, someone spends more than six years working for the organization, their performance, development, and potential on display in the most visible manner possible, and yet the organization (universally regarded as great talent evaluators) allows the player to leave, only to see him star for another team.

    Maybe the Twins did not think Jones had the 'look' of a major leaguer or the talent ahead of him in the organization was clearly superior, whatever the reason his talents were not recognized.  But finally getting his chance with another team, he is turning in to a star.

    I wonder if you look at the people in your organization right now, could you find similar untapped potential?

    Are there people toiling away, solid performers, but not stars, maybe because they have not been given a big challenge, a lead role, or a big stage?

    Will they eventually leave and hit the big time with one of your competitors?

    Nah, you are a great talent evaluator, I am sure you have everyone pegged just right.


    Going Small

    Tonight at 8PM EDT on the HR Happy Hour show, we are talking 'HR On Your Own', a show about the HR function, and the HR professional in a small business environment.

    Lots of great HR people are out there, on there own as the sole HR professional in an organization, or as a part of a very small team.  We will talk to some of those people tonight, people like Franny Oxford, Paul Smith, and Kimberly Roden, and hopefully a more people will call in to share their stories as HR lone warriors.

    Listen in tonight on the caller/listener line 646-367-1086 or using the player below, or on the HR Happy Hour show page.

    When we announced the show topic and guests, I did see quite a few messages from folks, mostly along the lines of 'Yep, I have been there', and 'That is what I live every day', and 'I'll never go back to a giant company again.'

    Small is the new big, in business and in life.  Yesterday in the NBA, longtime coach Don Nelson broke the record for most career coaching wins, primarily by implementing a 'small ball' strategy.  The theory is in a fast-paced and unpredictable game like basketball, smaller, quicker, more agile players would have an advantage of seeming bigger and stronger teams.

    Sounds quite a bit like the modern business world as well.  Speed, agility, ability to adapt (the capabilities of many small firms), may well win the day over many of their large, plodding, established competitors.

    And these nimble small companies often have a sole 'HR hero' in the trenches, and those are the people we will be talking about tonight.

    I hope you can join us.