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    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.

    Wednesday
    Dec282011

    2011 Rewind - My Most Shared 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.

    Figuring out what posts will be popular is just about impossible, and is something I have about given up on. This little piece from April, about a six year-old's cover letter to the Director of a Train Museum, really resonated and was tweeted and re-tweeted for what seemed like the better part of a week. Here it is again, 'A Six Year-Old's Kick Butt Cover Letter' .

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

    Yesterday the always entertaining and informative Letters of Note site ran the following letter - essentially a job application cover letter for the position of Director of the National Railway Museum in York, England.

    Why this letter was deemed 'notable', is that is was written by a 6-year old. Check the image of the letter, with the full text (with my commentary in parentheses) reprinted below:

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

    26 July

    Dear Mr. Tucker (kid is networked or informed enough to directly address the hiring manager, nice)

    Application for director (hiring manager gets what this letter is about)

    I am writing to apply to be the new Director of the National Railway Museum. I am only 6 but I think I can do this job. (Acknowledge surface limitation, but immediately discount it, and boldly assert competence and confidence)

    I have an electrick train track. I am good on my train track. I can control 2 trains at once. (Demonstrable and relevant skills. Indicates passion for the work as well. Two trains at once in not easy)

    [PHOTO]

    I have been on lots of trains including Eurostar and some trains in France. (Interest and expertise in the field) I have visited the museum before. (Familiarity with the business) I loved watching the trains go round on the turntable. (Humanizes and connects at an emotional level)

    On the other side is a picture of me.

    Hopefully I can come and meet you for an interview. (Asks for the interview)

    From

    Sam Pointon

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

    To me, this letter is money all the way around.  I will be more than happy to give the 6-year old the interview based on this letter alone. And additionally, the pattern that young Sam followed to describe himself, assert what we was capable of doing, offer some insight to his passion for the work, and to plainly state his case is one that really anyone out there trying to make a similar pitch could do well to learn from.

    Sure, you can drop two or three bills with your local resume writer/cover letter coach/career guru to help you wordsmith that just right message, and it might be worth your time.

    Or you could take a lesson from a 6-year old that just made a pitch that quite frankly is better than 3/4 of the bilge that crosses most recruiter's desks every day.

    Oh and by the way, young Sam did not actually land the job as Director of the Museum. But, he was named 'Director of Fun', a post that sounds in some ways, way cooler that Director could ever be.

    Tuesday
    Dec272011

    2011 Rewind - My Favorite Robot 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.

    I wrote several pieces about how increasing industrial automation and rapid advancements in robot technology continue to impact the workplace, and ask several important questions about what the future of work will look like, and how companies and individuals can best prepare for this digital future. This post, titled 'In Which I Admit to my Robot Obesession'  from September, was my favorite of the group.

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

    Just a quick one today, and yes just like yesterday's post the subject is robots, and their slow, steady, inexorable march to world domination. And quite frankly I don't have a problem with all the robot posts, since my favorite source of inspiration and content, the National Basketball Association, seems intent on remaining in a labor impasse for who knows how long, and I have to write about something.How are you feeling? That will be a $50 co-pay.

    So for a busy Friday, the day before getaway day to Las Vegas and HRevolution (tickets still available), and the HR Technology Conference, another dispatch from the Robots vs. Humans front lines, this time from Slate.com:

    Will Robots Steal Your Job? - Why the highest-paid doctors are the most vulnerable to automation

    Yep, another take on the upcoming, heck already started process of further automation and supplementation of traditional careers and functions by complex and dedicated robot technology. But like yesterday's post where I featured robot technology beginning to make inroads into farming, the piece from Slate shows us even highly specialized, highly paid, and highly complex tasks like the evaluation of medical samples for signs of cancer can and are beginning to be encroached by robot labor.

    I don't keep reading and posting about these 'robot stories' here because I find them to be surprising, or that most readers might not be aware that automation in all facets of industry, from low-tech to high-tech is an unstoppable boulder rolling down hill. It can't and won't be stopped.

    But why I like to read these pieces, and think about them, is more about our reaction and response to these developments.  And on that note, I'd like to end this post with the most compelling point from the Slate.com piece:

    By definition, specialists focus on narrow slices of medicine. They spend their days worrying over a single region of the body, and the most specialized doctors will dedicate themselves to just one or two types of procedures. Robots, too, are great specialists. They excel at doing one thing repeatedly, and when they focus, they can achieve near perfection. At some point—and probably faster than we expect—they won't need any human supervision at all.

    There's a message here for people far beyond medicine: If you do a single thing—and especially if there's a lot of money in that single thing—you should put a Welcome, Robots!doormat outside your office. They're coming for you.

    Boom. Specialization, even high-touch, highly complex, valuable specialization that requires spending years training, developing, and perfecting, still that is no guarantee or security against a robot that van do it better, cheaper, and faster. Even if those skills are ones that society needs and highly values, that's no protection in the long term.

    The message? Invent something new, stay one step ahead of the robot masters? You'd better be prepared to keep inventing.

    Or possibly the message is to continuously explore, challenge, and differentiate yourself as being more than a highly trained, highly skilled one-trick pony. Because if all you are only bringing one thing to the table, no matter how wonderful and complex that one thing is, chances are, eventually, someone else, maybe ever a robot, can do it better.

    I promise no more posts about robots for a while, unless the NBA season gets canceled!

    Friday
    Dec232011

    Christmas Past: Smokes, Guns, Chicken, and Beer

    Just a quick note to wish everyone a fantastic Christmas, Happy Holidays, and to simply take a well-deserved break from the hamster wheel.

    Like many folks, sometimes I like to look back over the years and reflect on special occasions and holidays and think about what is different about them today, when compared to the sometimes sketchy recollections of wonderful and idyllic holidays of yore. Sometimes our memories deceive us, certainly, and we often color our memories to fit our pre-determined conclusion, whatever that conclusion might be.

    After thinking about this carefully for some time, and trying hard to be as clear and unbiased as I could, I came to a conclusion: Christmas used to be WAY more fun. And here is the evidence that I submit in my argument that Christmases of year's past were much more of a white-knuckle ride of guns, booze, smokes, and chaos compared to the kind of tame celebrations of today.

    Exhibit A - Nothing says Christmas like some unfiltered goodness. Ron Reagan would not steer you wrong!

    Exhibit B - You know what is great to wake up to on Christmas morning? Guns!


    Exhibit C - And after the gifts are unwrapped it's time to eat! Pass the bucket of chicken.


    Exhibit D - Nothing like a cold drink to wash everything down. You know what would go perfectly with that bracelet? A cold Bud!

    I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea.

    Anyway, I hope you have a fantastic holiday, even if your holiday doesn't include smokes, guns, greasy food and booze.

    Happy Holidays!