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    Weekend Update: Soccer and Robots

    I spent the weekend on two things, (really three if you add in making some BBQ) - watching way too much soccer (it is awesome to have the EPL back and to watch my Liverpool Reds open with a win) and reading about robots and automation.

    I want to call out two longish pieces on automation and its potential impact on work, workplaces, and society that are definitely worth your time to check out. The first, and useful to set some historical context, is an essay from Daniel Askt titled, 'What Can We Learn From Past Anxiety Over Automation?', a really interesting look at what many leading scientists, economists, and other wonky types were thinking and predicting about the 'threat' of automation in the middle part of the 20th century.

    It turns out that in the 50s and 60s the worries over the increasing pace of technological advancements and the potential disruptions to many forms of work and workers sound much like those same concerns about modern innovations and increased automation. Check out this passage from the piece, and ask if this exact same argument made in 1966 could be reasonably accurate today:

    In 1966, the Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress issued a sensible report rejecting the argument that technology was to blame for a great deal of unemployment, although, with the wisdom of Leopold Bloom, it recognized technological change as “a major factor in the displacement and temporary unemployment of particular workers.”

    And who were those workers? The answer will be all too familiar: “Unemployment has been concentrated among those with little education or skill, while employment has been rising most rapidly in those occupations generally considered to be the most skilled and to require the most education. This conjunction raises the question whether technological progress may induce a demand for very skilled and highly educated people in numbers our society cannot yet provide, while at the same time leaving stranded many of the unskilled and poorly educated with no future opportunities for employment.”

    It all sounds pretty familiar, right? Technological advances tend to reduce the demand for unskilled or relatively lower-skilled forms of labor, as better, faster, cheaper forms of capital are introduced as replacements for human labor. The macro-education system is called upon to adapt and adjust, as the aggregate skills of the workforce need to shift towards those higher order and more technical skills that employers are demanding.

    Fast forward from the 1960s to the present day where the disruptive nature of technological progress on the workforce remains a subject of intense debate, interest, and importance. And that leads me to the second longer form piece I'd like to highlight which comes from the Pew Research Internet Project and is titled AI, Robotics, and the Future of Jobs.

    Pew conducted a survey and produced a detailed report that covers numerous experts’ views about advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, and their impact on jobs and employment. And interestingly enough, these experts were split almost down the middle on whether or not the inevitable continued advances in AI and robotics would displace 'significant' numbers of both lower skilled as well as higher skilled, or 'white collar' workers. Here is an excerpt from the Pew report:

    Half of these experts (48%) envision a future in which robots and digital agents have displaced significant numbers of both blue- and white-collar workers—with many expressing concern that this will lead to vast increases in income inequality, masses of people who are effectively unemployable, and breakdowns in the social order.

    The other half of the experts who responded to this survey (52%) expect that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025. To be sure, this group anticipates that many jobs currently performed by humans will be substantially taken over by robots or digital agents by 2025. But they have faith that human ingenuity will create new jobs, industries, and ways to make a living, just as it has been doing since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

    Similarly to the divided opinions of 'experts' in the 50s and 60s, there is simply not a consensus leading technology thinkers today about the ultimate effects of technological progress on work and the workplace - at least in an overall, society-wide sense.

    There is however, general agreement, (and there was back in the day as well), of the micro or individual likely impacts of increased automation, AI, and robotics on workers. Perhaps these comments from Robert Cannon  in the Pew report sum up these predictions the best:

    Non-skilled jobs lacking in ‘human contribution’ will be replaced by automation when the economics are favorable. At the hardware store, the guy who used to cut keys has been replaced by a robot. In the law office, the clerks who used to prepare discovery have been replaced by software. IBM Watson is replacing researchers by reading every report ever written anywhere. This begs the question: What can the human contribute? The short answer is that if the job is one where that question cannot be answered positively, that job is not likely to exist.”

    So again, the way we describe the types of effects and the nature of the impact of technological change on work and workers hasn't really changed all the much in the last 50 or 60 years. Machines disrupt work, particularly work that is process-defined, repetitive, and where words like initiative and creativity are missing.

    But was has changed, and some modern commentators argue that the pace of this change is accelerating, is that the definition of jobs that are process-defined, repetitive, and non-creative is getting closer and closer to home for many folks that have always considered themselves 'knowledge workers' or 'professionals.' 

    In the 50s and 60s, automation (mostly) threatened manual laborers and lower skilled manufacturing workers. The advances in technology hadn't yet infiltrated the professional offices of that time. Watch a few episodes of the TV series Mad Men and you will see lots of office workers typing up notes, filing things, preparing correspondence for other people, and more of less passing around papers. Today's offices? Well not so much. 

    The difference today, and to some the more profound worry, is best summarized in this observation from the piece from Akst:

    Instead of automating repetitive tasks, technology today is climbing the cognitive ladder, using artificial intelligence and brute processing power to automate (however imperfectly) the functions of travel agents, secretaries, tax preparers, even teachers — while threatening the jobs of some lawyers, university professors, and other professionals who once thought their sheepskins were a bulwark against this sort of thing. Maybe this time, things really are different.

    So while we have been as a society collectively worried (and changed) by advances in technology and in the automation of some kinds of work for at least 100 or maybe 150 years, we still struggle in predicting what these changes might mean.

    It seems comforting to fall back on the 'Technology always changes work, but it always creates lots of new opportunities as well' argument and try to cling to the notion that after the turbulence of change, things will turn out all right in the end. After all, proponents of this line of thinking say, technology has displaced millions of farmers and factory workers in the past, and the overall economy did not implode.  

    In the past, the former agricultural workers were able to (largely) migrate to manufacturing jobs. When the manufacturing jobs began to get displaced, many of these workers ended up in service jobs, lower paid and less secure kinds of jobs. Now that automation is threatening these service jobs, (have you seen the burger-making robot?), where can these workers go? Especially when more and more of the 'white collar' jobs that might have been reasonable landing places, (clerks, claims processors, customer service agents), are themselves increasingly becoming the realm of technology, algorithms, and machines. Every displaced worker can't suddenly become a coder.

    What if, indeed, this time things really are different?

    I might hit some of the possibly answers to that question in a follow-up post later in the week if I can.

    Have a great week everyone, and definitely read the two pieces that I linked to and cited in the post, I think you will find them both incredibly interesting.


    OFF TOPIC: Classic toys, ranked

    You know you have a favorite toy from the past, from your childhood, but is your favorite toy the BEST toy of all-time/forever? Read on and find out...

    100 - 26 - (in no particular order) Wooden blocks, the duck that you pulled with a string thing, the vacuum-like toy that had a round plastic bubble full of little balls, Magic 8-ball, Erector Sets, frisbee, Lincoln Logs, and about 60 other fun for a few minutes but otherwise not that awesome toys

    25. NERF football

    24. Rock'em Sock'em Robots

    23. Ken

    22. Silly Putty

    21. Slinky

    20. Mr. Potato Head

    19. Play-doh

    18. Lite-Brite

    17. Mattel Electronic Football, (the small, hand-held one where the players were just tiny green lines)

    16. Transformers

    15. G.I. Joe

    14. Yo-Yo

    13. View-Master

    12. Etch-a-Sketch

    11. Tonka (props to the classic yellow dump truck, but they were all pretty cool)

    10. Barbie

    9. SuperBall

    8. Wiffle Ball

    7. Rubik's Cube

    6. Simon (original one with the red, blue, yellow, green lights)

    5. Hot Wheels

    4. Little plastic green Army Men

    3. LEGOS

    2. Star Wars Action Figures

    1. Crayola Crayons


    The best 'Out of the Office' message might be this one from Germany

    Regular readers (and people who have the occasion to want to get in touch with me) probably know that I have a troubled, difficult, and often non-productive relationship with email. Honestly, email and I should have broken up a long time ago, as clearly it is just not working out for either of us.

    So it is from that point of view that I offer up what I think might be the best (partial) solution to one of the biggest problems with email today for the busy professional - just how much of it piles up when you are away from it for some time, like when you are out on holiday or if you are traveling for business, or even if you just need to turn off the email incoming fire hose for a while and actually do some work.


    Check out what the German automaker Daimler is offering up to its 100,000 or so employees to help stem the tide of email when they are out of the office on holiday. Note: these excerpts are taken from a piece on FT.com, it is free to read but requires registration to get access to the article.


    The Stuttgart-based car and truckmaker said about 100,000 German employees can now choose to have all their incoming emails automatically deleted when they are on holiday so they do not return to a bulging in-box.


    The sender is notified by the “Mail on Holiday” assistant that the email has not been received and is invited to contact a nominated substitute instead. Employees can therefore return from their summer vacation to an empty inbox.


    “Our employees should relax on holiday and not read work-related emails,” said Wilfried Porth, board member for human resources. “With ‘Mail on Holiday’ they start back after the holidays with a clean desk. There is no traffic jam in their inbox. That is an emotional relief.”
    An 'Out of the Office' that not only lets the person know that the intended recipient is actually out, but also deletes the incoming email entirely? 


    Sign me up for that right now!


    Email and the never ending battle to not allow email to sap productivity, destroy morale, and turn into your job instead of a tool you use to help you do your job is likely to continue to be a contentious subject as long as email remains the primary tool for business communication and collaboration.


    And that kind of stinks, because in 2014 when we have robot butlers, self-driving cars, drones that can make package delivery, and digital assistants that can guide us and help us navigate our days that most of us have to stare at and wade through hundreds of seemingly random messages every day before we actually get to 'do' anything.


    I am going to be on vacation/holiday for a few days in a week or so, I wonder if the good people at Daimler would be willing to license out their little 'Out of the Office' auto-delete tool to me.

    I definitely would use it.

    Have a great day! (And if you are waiting for an email from me, be patient a little longer....) 


    LIVE Tomorrow - #HRHappyHour Show - 'Heartland HR'

    HR Happy Hour 189 - 'Heartland HR'

    LIVE Thursday August 14, 2014 at 8:00PM ET

    Call in 646-378-1086

    Hosts: Steve BoeseTrish McFarlane

    Guest : Dwane Lay

    This week the HR Happy Hour Show returns with a special LIVE show on Thursday August 14, 2014 at 8:00PM EDT. Steve and Trish will welcome guest Dwane Lay, Head of HR Process Design for Dovetail Software, author, speaker, and excellent karaoke singer to talk about his and our experiences and observations from a summer hitting up the HR circuit and talking to lots and lots of HR pros across America. Talent management, a tightening recruiting market, and even HR professionals looking to further their own personal professional development were just some of things we've heard this summer and we will hit up those topics and more in what should be a fun and lively conversation.

    We will also open up the lines for you to share what is on your mind as an HR pro for the balance of 2014 and beyond.

    You can listen to the show on the show page here, or using the widget player below.

    Listen To Business Internet Radio Stations with Steve Boese Trish McFarlane on BlogTalkRadio


    And of course you can always catch the replay on the show page, on iTunes for Apple devices, or for Android using an app called Stitcher Radio. Just search for 'HR Happy Hour' and add the show to your podcast subscriptions to be sure not to miss an episode.

    It should be a fun show and we hope you can join us LIVE this Thursday August 14, 2014 at 8:00PM.


    CHART OF THE DAY: Hoping it doesn't rain

    Today's Chart Of The Day comes courtesy of the Federal Reserve Board's recent and definitely interesting Report on the Economic Well-Being of U.S. Households in 2013.

    The report, an in-depth look at the state of the American consumer/citizen in 2013 across a wide range of topics (debt, savings, job readiness, confidence in the economy, etc.), has a plethora of great insights and data sets about the economy and I probably could have picked about 15 different charts/tables to call out here.

    But the one I was most interested in is below, having to do with American's readiness or ability to withstand economic hardship like a job loss or a major (and costly) health crisis. Turns out, many of us are not at all prepared for those situations. Here is the data, then some comments as per usual from me:

    Wow, well over half of the survey respondents, (survey group and methodology here), report that they have not saved or set aside a 3-month emergency fund as a hedge against a sudden or unexpected loss of income. That is pretty bad, and even worse still when you think that many financial planner/advisor types will push their clients to have a 6-month rainy day fund at all times.

    While many of the macro-economic indicators have begun to show an improving economy, (unemployment rate, ratio of unemployed to job openings, even most of the major stock market indices), this kind of a statistic on the relative lack of preparedness for unexpected financial distress reminds us that the effects of the recession are much longer lasting than we perhaps like to think.

    If your employees are at all closely aligned with these results, then that means that perhaps half of them are much closer to personal financial crisis than they should be. And that is kind of a drag, and kind of a heavy burden to be carrying around. It also can make people 'play it safe' a little too much, over-compensating against any perceived risk in their decision making, as they get consumed with fear of losing their income if they were to get sacked for making the 'wrong' decision.

    I think people probably perform better when they are excited at their jobs, not when they are afraid to lose them.

    Have a great week!