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    Tuesday
    Aug112015

    Enterprise Robots

    Most 'Robots are coming to take away all of our jobs' stories usually read something like this one - 'Chinese factory replaces 90% of humans with robots, production soars' - a recent recounting of the now getting familiar tale of automation becoming more and more of a threat to workers and employment.

    You can check out the entire piece on Tech Republic, but here is the essential takeaway:

    The Changying Precision Technology Company factory in Dongguan has automated production lines that use robotic arms to produce parts for cell phones. The factory also has automated machining equipment, autonomous transport trucks, and other automated equipment in the warehouse.

    There are still people working at the factory, though. Three workers check and monitor each production line and there are other employees who monitor a computer control system. Previously, there were 650 employees at the factory. With the new robots, there's now only 60. Luo Weiqiang, general manager of the company, told the People's Daily that the number of employees could drop to 20 in the future.

    The robots have produced almost three times as many pieces as were produced before. According to the People's Daily, production per person has increased from 8,000 pieces to 21,000 pieces. That's a 162.5% increase.

    The increased production rate hasn't come at the cost of quality either. In fact, quality has improved. Before the robots, the product defect rate was 25%, now it is below 5%

    Ooh - that's is the technology double, (really triple), whammy at the expense of workers - cost savings, increased productivity, and better quality. At least in this specific manufacturing example, there just seems to be no way for workers to compete with the robots in this scenario.

    So that is the scary, and kind of obvious aspect of the robot takeover, and perhaps for most of the folks reading this blog not one that feels particularly relevant, at least personally. Most of the audience here (and me too), are not manufacturing workers, or even on the 'front-lines' of our businesses for that matter. We work in the more complex, subtle, nuanced, and emotionally tuned-in parts of the business. We have to understand and deal with people, not rigid manufacturing processes. We need to be able to read people, their language, their facial expressions, their tone, and their mood. We need to be able to connect with people. Robots can't do that.

    Well, not yet anyway.

    Recently Japanese mobile phone operator SoftBank announced the enterprise availability of Pepper - a humanoid robot designed to be a companion able to communicate with people through the most intuitive interface we know: voice, touch and emotions. Launched first as a personal, and in-home companion, the makers of Pepper envision deployment of the robot in many business scenarios - dealing with customer in a retail setting, educating customers on products and services, and perhaps even entertaining them while they wait for service. 

    But the interesting part of this is not just what this particular robot can or can't do today, it is what Pepper (and surely others to follow), is designed to be able to do in general. This is from SoftBank's 'Who is Pepper?' website:

    To be a true social companion Pepper needs to be able to understand your emotions. If you burst out laughing, he will know you are in a good mood. If you frown, Pepper will understand that something is bothering you.

    Pepper can translate what state you are in using his knowledge of universal emotions (joy, surprise, anger, doubt and sadness) and his ability to analyze your facial expression, body language and the words you use. He will guess your mood, and will even adapt to it. For example, he will try to cheer you up by playing your favorite song!

    Pepper also can express emotions, and this is what makes him so cute! We can say he has a real personality conveyed by his body language, his funny gestures and his voice.

    Reading expressions, gauging your mood from analyzing a complex set of human cues, adapting to you as necessary, and finally, learning from these interactions. Let's suspend (natural) disbelief for a minute and assume Pepper can actually do these things, and is likely to get better and better at all of them over time. If that is the case, what might these developments mean for the rest of us, those of us who don't worry about robots taking over Chinese factories, since we, you know, don't work in Chinese factories?

    Robots taking over low-skill manufacturing jobs is only part of the larger automation story, and probably not the most interesting or important part. It is really just replacing one human in a human-process/machine interaction.

    Robots like Pepper substituting for human-human interactions? Now that is a story. One that hits much closer to the mark.

    Monday
    Aug102015

    Guess what teens' least favorite communication technology is?

    I may as well rename this blog 'All the ways I hate Email' since that is what I am going on and on about lately.

    Well, I ask your indulgence one more time and I swear I will get off of this soapbox for a while because I am sure you are sick of it, and also because no matter how much I moan about email, it isn't going anywhere soon.

    Unless it might be.

    Take a look at the chart below from some recent research from Pew on teens' (also known as your future candidates, employees, customers), preferred mediums for communicating with their friends. Drink in the dta on this fine Monday morning and then some FREE commentary from me after the chart.

    A quick look at the data reveals a few interesting pieces of information:

    1. The obvious: Text or SMS messaging is still the 'killer app' for teens, with 55% of those surveyed reporting they use SMS every day to connect with friends. Despite the proliferation of 'messaging' apps like SnapChat and WhatsApp, the lowly SMS message still dominates teens' daily use. The lesson here for the rest of us: Interoperability often can trump features when people make decisions about technology. SMS just works, no matter what kind of a phone one has, no matter the version of the operating system, and more importantly, comes 'enabled' and ready to use on every device - no special app downloads and 'friending' required.

    2. In-person is not dead, at least not totally. If you combine 'In-person' along with talking on the phone, then you can see that these 'real life' interaction methods have not been completely replaced by electronic an impersonal communication modes. There are a few possible reasons for this - it could be information overload with teens' likely feeling somewhat overwhelmed with all the communication choices and formats available to them. Or it could be that teens' are actually, you know, somewhat normal people, and enjoy the in-person interactions with friends just like you do too. I guess the main takeaway is to not undersestimate the value and importance of the in-person interaction, even when it is so, so much easier just to send an email.

    3. And since I just had to bring it up, we see teens' least preferred method of communication with friends is email. At only 6% claiming to use it daily, it trails all other forms of communication, including really niche methods like video game chatting. There is no indication from any source I have seen that suggests this trend and preference will reverse any time soon, resulting in essentially a generation of future workers and customers that simply rank email at the bottom of their preferred methods of interaction. We (people who make decisions about workplace technology and are charged with reaching and influencing this audience), have to start taking these changes more seriously, or risk not being able to effectively engage the next generation of folks.

    What do you think? Are you considering making any changes to your communication tech mix?

    When was the last time you emailed someone under 20?

    Did they respond?

    Have a great week!

    Friday
    Aug072015

    HRE Column: How Can We Make Email Less Terrible?

    Here is my semi-frequent reminder and pointer for blog readers that I also write a monthly column at Human Resource Executive Online called Inside HR Tech that can be found here.

    This month, with a nod to it being the middle of summer when we are/should be taking a little bit of a respite from 'normal' work, I decided to take a look not at HR technology specifically, but at the most ingrained and ubiquitous workplace technology of them all - Email.

    If you have followed this blog for any amount of time you will recognize some of the themes - email is terrible, it keeps us from doing more creative and fun work, and yet we can't seem to lessen email's grip on our work lives. But as I examine in the HR Exec column, there are plenty of opportunities to make email better, and many of the world's largest tech companies, (Google, Microsoft), are investing in improving email. 

    Here is an excerpt from the HRE column, Rethinking Email:

    Email is likely the first and last workplace tool that HR and employees open every day (not to mention the 395 other times during the day you are either reading, managing or composing messages). It is, without question, the most important employee communication technology in the vast majority of modern workplaces.

    So why doesn’t HR think more about how to make email better?

    Well, some technology companies are thinking about and doing exactly that. Take the following three examples; in at least one case, the technology is has the potential to dramatically reduce the importance of email as a workplace tool. All of these examples are instructive and—even if you, as an HR leader, don’t have direct authority to change or update your enterprise email technology and strategy—all of them offer HR insights into how employee communication preferences are changing, and how your communication strategies can adapt.

    Get better management of your workflow inside email.

    If you are a user of Gmail, you might be familiar with Google’s newest smartphone app for Gmail called Inbox. Inbox transforms email management in several ways, chief among them by “learning” about how you use email, and then helping to better triage incoming emails into relevant categories based on your usage patterns, relationship with contacts and message-management preferences. It takes a little getting used to, but Inbox devotees claim it saves hours each week in the time it typically used to take them to manage, sort and classify incoming messages. That said, I think the best feature of Inbox is the “Snooze” feature, which resurfaces a message you’ve opened but don’t have time to properly respond to at that moment. In fact, Inbox even looks for clues in the message (references to due dates, event dates, etc.) to auto-suggest the optimal time to resend you the message so that you won’t miss an important deadline. For HR leaders, a simple takeaway here might be to be sure to include relevant due dates or deadlines in the subject lines of emails, rather than buried in the email body. So “Benefits Open Enrollment” gets replaced with “Benefits Enrollment Open from Oct. 1 through Oct. 15,” allowing employees to better manage their workflow and to-do lists....

    Read the rest over at HRE Online 

    Good stuff, right? Humor me...

    If you liked the piece you can sign up over at HRE to get the Inside HR Tech Column emailed to you each month. There is no cost to subscribe, in fact, I may even come over and wash your car or cut the grass for you if you do sign up for the monthly email.

    Have a great weekend!

    Thursday
    Aug062015

    This is why we can't have nice things (HR and Talent Edition)

    If you follow the news, particularly the news relevant to the workplace, HR, and Talent Management, you probably caught a couple of recent stories that have been pretty widely reported, circulated, and dissected.

    One having to do with compensation - Gravity Payments Raising Minimum Salary to $70,000

    And the second, a straight up benefits story - Netflix To Offer Unlimited Parental Leave

    Both of these stories, one about how one company is raising its minimum salary to a pretty high level compared to local and national statutory minimum wage requirements, and the next, about how another large US company is extending and enhancing a much-needed employee benefit (parental leave), were initially met with positive or at least neutral reactions.

    But then, predictably, the backlash and criticism of both of these policy changes, and from a wide assortment of commentators began.

    The decision by the Gravity Payments CEO to raise his company's minimum annual salary to $70,000 was the easier mark. Outlets from the New York Times all the way to the site I contribute to Fistful of Talent, took apart the Gravity plans. Unworkable, unaffordable, unfair to top performers - the list of holes that were poked in the Gravity plan are too long to recount. 

    Netflix' decision to extend parental leave to an unlimited amount for an entire year has been met with relatively less criticism, but at least one major publication, the Washington Post wasted little time in alerting the rest of us that in fact Netfilx' innovative policy was likely "a bad idea for your company."

    Whether it is these recent stories from Gravity and Netflix, or older and more familiar stories about novel, innovative, and worker-friendly policies from companies like Zappos or Google, there is always one element they have in common. No matter what the specific issue is, (increases in pay, enhanced benefits, more worker autonomy, etc.), once the news makes the rounds almost immediately thereafter commences the chorus of commentary that strikes a familiar, and tired, refrain. 

    And these critiques are always the same. They are always some combination of 'This is a terrible idea/bad Talent Management' along with its corollary 'Sure, this might work in Silicon Valley, but it will never work for you'.

    And I have to say I find that pretty depressing. 

    Why do we have to immediately and forcefully look to take down or at least diminish the significance and importance of new ideas that are clearly intended to improve work, workplaces, and the lives of workers?

    Why do we instinctively look to marginalize the significance of any employee welfare improvement initiative that comes out of some Silicon Valley tech firm as something that could only work in that progressive environment, and not at any 'grown up' company?

    Why do so many HR and Talent folks immediately look to identify why they can't look to follow some of these leading organizations like Netflix and Google and the like, instead of admitting that they might be able to learn/steal from their ideas?

    Look, I understand the arguments knocking the compensation plan that Gravity is trying to implement, and the realities of costs and budgets that make offering up to a year of paid parental leave hard if not impossible for many companies to copy. The criticisms are often valid and well-reasoned.

    But the problem is that they usually just try to shut down the conversation, and don't offer any insights into how these modern, innovative, (and certainly outlier) ideas can be adapted to work in a more mainstream and widespread way. Instead of saying something like 'You can never copy what Netflix is doing', how about we try 'You may not be able to do exactly what Netflix is doing, but here are some ideas on how you can leverage these ideas in your shop'.

    But instead we almost overwhelmingly react negatively. As if raising the minimum salary in an organization to $70,000 is an abomination, and giving new parents unlimited leave for a year are concepts that if adopted in the mainstream would somehow crack the foundations of modern business, and of HR/Talent Management. As if somehow these ideas threaten us.

    What are we afraid of, really?

    Tuesday
    Aug042015

    CHART OF THE DAY: Surging Investments in HR Tech

    Really a simple and self-explanatory Chart of the Day for a busy Tuesday, this one courtesy of the Wall St. Journal. Take a look at the chart of venture capital investment in the HR and Recruiting technology market from 1998 to the present, and as you expect and demand, some FREE commentary from me after the data.

    Some quick takes:

    1. First, to level set, the first half of 2015 with investment of about $811M is almost greater than the highest-ever yearly total of $859M back in 2000. Ah, 2000. The 'dot-com' era.  Good times.  But looking at the data you could argue that the HR tech market for VC investment really did not recover from the dot-com crash until very recently, like last year. So it could be that a prolonged period of under-investment is partially to account for the dramatic increases in 2014 and so far in 2015.

    2. Let's go ahead and assume that most VCs have plenty of options and opportunities for investment. If that is the case, then this windfall of money flowing into the HR tech space is good news for a large array of industry players - folks who can sell HR tech solutions, marketers, analyst firms, HR conferences, and even little 'ol bloggers like me, who have lots of products to see, think about, and potentially write about.  It is a sure sign of an industry that is primed for growth when the investment levels are surging upwards as we see in the WSJ. It's like the dot-com years all over again. At least let's hope we don't crash like we did from '02 - '04.

    3. What does this mean for the really important players in the HR tech market - the actual customers? Well in the broadest strokes it is mostly positive. More investment creates more competition which leads to better products and more customer choices. And while sometimes it seems like in HR tech that the bigger, more established players have gobbled up via acquisition many of the new entrants, I can assure you that judging from the number of HR tech startup demos I have been doing that there is no shortage of new ideas and innovation in the space.  This is a great time to be a customer of HR Tech, even if the market can be a little tricky to navigate.

    But like I said, good times all around - for the VCs, for the startups, and most importantly, for the customers and HR leaders who have access to an ever-expanding set of tools and technologies to help them improve results in their organizations.