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    Monday
    Apr232018

    Best practices are not always what they seem: Amazon meeting edition

    If Amazon isn't the world's most closely watched mega-organization, (due to all their data security drama, I think Facebook might tip them here), it is certainly in the top three or four. From their massive growth, increasing market share and market cap, dominance over such differing businesses as retail e-commerce and enterprise cloud computing, their massive lead in voice assistant technology - every day Amazon provides something about which to opine on for bloggers and podcasters and reporters.

    And I didn't even mention their incredibly covered and public search for their new headquarters location, HQ2, and their founder Jeff Bezos' side projects like reusable rocket ships, drone-based delivery, and even the Washington Post.

    So with any giant, powerful, and influential organization like Amazon, HR and workplace types like me, also like to look at the principles, culture, and approaches to human capital management and even the day-to-day practices of companies like Amazon, to see if there is some kind of 'secret sauce' that can be understood and perhaps even copied. Since Amazon is so successful, they must be doing something right, in terms of how work is organized, how people are managed, and how their culture translates into innovation and productivity. This kind of examination isn't new to Amazon of course. Companies like Google, Netflix, even Jack Welch's GE back in the day have all been scrutinized and dissected by outsiders in order to try and cherry pick HCM programs and strategies to be used in other firms.

    But I think the problem with this kind of approach, the modern spin on the 'best practices' method of improving workplaces and business outcomes is that outsiders often miss the real purpose, goals, and intent of another organization's strategies and practices. After all, the nature of being on the outside suggests that we can't really know everything about how an another organization operates, and how their internal programs support their culture and business strategies. We can guess, sometimes make an educated guess, but usually we can't know for sure.

    Which brings us back to our pals at Amazon, and one of their peculiar and unique workplace practices that has been reported before, and made the rounds again last week as a result of some comments Jeff Bezos made in an interview.

    Amazon, it seems, starts internal meetings with everyone in the group reading a 6-page memo about the subject of the meeting that has been prepared in advance, and sets the tone for the impending discussion. Here is some of what Bezos had to say about this practice, taken from a piece on Business Insider:

    "For every meeting, someone from the meeting has prepared a six-page, narratively structured memo that has real sentences and topic sentences and verbs. It's not just bullet points. It's supposed to create the context for the discussion we're about to have."

    Everyone then sits and reads the memo silently, which often takes a good half-hour. And then they discuss the memo.

    Think about that for a second - first, when was the last time you sat down and wrote 6 pages worth of anything? That is a lot of words. A standard memo, using a normal font size, margins, and spacing will run about 500 words per page. So 6 pages gives you about 3,000 words give or take. Trust me, as a blogger who has written probably too many words over the last decade, crafting 3,000 words is not easy.

    And Amazon seems to understand that too. According to Bezos, "A great memo probably should take a week or more to write". Think about that - a week for someone to prep for a meeting. When was the last time you spent more than 15 minutes prior to a meeting going back through an email chain or searching for some PowerPoint presentation on the file server to make sure you knew what the meeting was really about and you were prepped.

    But the reason I was interested in this approach to meetings was not just because it (seems) to be an interesting and novel way to make sure that everyone in the meeting is prepared to have a productive discussion, each armed with at least a common, baseline understanding of the subject. It is also interesting to me because their is, I think, another, more subtle takeaway from reviewing this 'best' practice.

    And it is this:

    Amazon is not successful because they hold better meetings, my guess is that they are successful because they likely hold fewer meetings than other comparable organizations. When the barrier to having a meeting, a week of effort to craft a 3,000 memo, is high enough, then I suspect that Amazon finds better, and more productive ways to avoid meetings in the first place. Maybe it is a phone call to the right person. Maybe it is more clear lines of accountability and decision making. Or maybe it is just, 'Gosh, who wants to spend a week writing about this before we can decide, let's just decide and move on.'

    My takeaway from this 'best practice' isn't 'Let's have better meetings.' It's 'Let's have fewer meeetings.'

    And while the 6-page memo idea probably wouldn't fly in most workplaces, having fewer meetings overall is probably something just about everyone would embrace.

    Have a great day!

    Note - this post is about 885 words by the way.

    Friday
    Apr202018

    CHART OF THE DAY: Mount Stupid

    Really quick shot for the end of a busy week, where despite it being nearly May, it is still snowing as I write this.

    Today's CHART OF THE DAY does not cover one of the normal themes I usually like to hit with these posts - employment, the labor force, the aging population, how terrible the Knicks have been, etc.

    No, today's chart, courtesy of SMBC Comics, is meant to elicit a chuckle and perhaps make you think, even just a little, before you feel the urge to chime in on a topic, issue, person, or event that you really don't have all that much information about.

    Here's the chart, the one last comment from me after that:

    Knowing just about nothing about a subject generally doesn't get you into trouble. Neither does being incredibly well-versed. In the former case, we usually have enough sense to keep out of the conversation and debate. And in the latter case, even if we run into a disagreement, we can usually have facts, data, or even just plain old experience to back up our opinions.

    But when we know just about enough to simultaneously not seem like a complete fool but not enough to avoid becoming that fool?

    That my friends is 'Mount Stupid.'

    And you don't ever want to be up there. Besides being unpleasant, it's way, way too crowded.

    Have a great weekend!

    Wednesday
    Apr182018

    Job Titles of the Future: Technology Ambassador

    Traditionally the institutions that have wielded power and influence and have amassed significant wealth and made an impact on people's lives were governments, (and to some extent religions). When a country's government enacts a policy or issues some new set of rules and regulations, this tends to have an outsize impact and effect on the people of that country, and if the country is big and influential enough, can even impact people all over the world. Just one recent example - the US/China trade and tariff disputes have sent global equity markets on a kind of wild, roller coaster ride lately - effecting markets and wealth of people all over the world.

    To a less direct, but by no means insignificant degree, changes in direction or policy from important religious organizations can effect people all over the world. The major world religions are not confined within one country or even two or three - they have followers all across the globe. If tomorrow the Pope issued a decree that, say, women are not allowed to become priests, that news would stir congregations in two hundred countries.

    But increasingly there is another set of globe spanning institutions that have perhaps even more worldwide influence and importance in people's lives and in commerce than say do most individual countries or single religions - the world's largest technology companies. Think Facebook with its 2 billion users. Google with its incredible reach and dominance in web search and mobile phone operating systems. Amazon with its seemingly inexorable march to dominate e-commerce and cloud computing. Apple, with more cash on hand than many small countries. And we haven't even mentioned the Chinese tech giants like Alibaba and Tencent. In China, Tencent's WeChat impacts everything - news, communication, shopping, banking, and more.

    The world's largest tech companies are in some ways like countries or religions themselves. Their users are like citizens, their terms of service, methods of interaction, rules of engagement, codes of conduct, and unique cultures and sub-cultures offer similarities to the framework of large, religous organizations. Their influence on global economics and societies cannot be underestimated. Just like global trade disputes have roiled financial markets in recent days, so has the Facebook data security drama and fallout. At this stage, who would argue that Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg isn't one of the world's most important people?

    So all that leads back to the title of the piece, the latest installment of the often imitated, but never surpassed 'Job Titles of the Future' series. The job title is Technology Ambassador and the details of this job come to us from the country of Denmark, who, as far as I can tell, are the first and only nation to create and name an official 'Technology Ambassador' for the country. 

    What does a Technology Ambassador do? Some details from a piece on Wired UK:

    Ambassadors are traditionally staid public officials, holed up in grand embassies in the farthest-flung corners of the world. Their job? Schmoozing the powerful, smoothing over tricky arguments and promoting their country. "Diplomacy has always been about putting people in outposts where there have been new activities and events - be it in conflict areas, or where innovation, creativity and new technology is influencing our ways of life," explains Casper Klynge, who has just taken up the role as the first ever ambassador to Silicon Valley.

    The job came about when Denmark's Foreign Office decided to create the post of what was then called a "Google ambassador", who would interact with the tech giants. The role was officially created in February; Klynge was appointed a few months later. In late August, he moved to California and into his Palo Alto embassy, where he plans to build a team of more than a dozen staff, supported by a back-office secretary and a number of tech attachés around the world - the first of which will be based in Klynge's old stomping ground, Asia.

    The most important role he has as ambassador shows just how much the world has changed in recent years: he's there to meet Silicon Valley's biggest companies in exactly the same way he has previously met with prime ministers and presidents. "We need to build those relationships because of the key influence these companies have over our daily lives," he says, "and, at the end of the day, over foreign policy and international affairs."

    This appointment of a Technology Ambassador show Denmark's really progressive, prescient, and probably soon to be copied approach to their nation's relationships with 'Big Tech' by other countries in the near future.

    These companies seem to only be growing in influence - signing on more and more of the world's population, developing ever more and more convenient capabilities and features to keep users engaged, and expanding into more areas of daily life. Think about it this way - what institution or entity is more influential on a macro basis, Facebook or a country like Denmark?

    These are certainly interesting times, tech companies have more users than most countries have citizens or religions have adherents. And unlike most counties and religions, their size and influence seems to still be trending higher. Denmark's decision to think about and treat Big Tech like nations have traditionally considered other nations is also incredibly interesting too. And a one of the most interesting 'Job Titles of the Future' we have came across yet.

    Have a great day!

     

     

     

    Monday
    Apr162018

    PODCAST: #HRHappyHour 319 - HR is About Making Predictions: Understanding AI for HR

    HR Happy Hour 319 - Understanding Artificial Intelligence for Business and HR

    Sponsored by Virgin Pulse - www.virginpulse.com

    Host: Steve Boese

    Guest: Joshua Gans, University of Toronto

    Listen HERE

    This week on the HR Happy Hour Show, Steve is joined by Joshua Gans, Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Toronto, and co-author of the new book, Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence.

    On the show, Joshua gives his easy to grasp definition of Artificial Intelligence, how AI is really about lowering the costs of and increasing the availability and ability to create more predictions about outcomes. These outcomes could be about predicting tomorrow's weather, teaching a self-driving car how to react to changing conditions, or even helping HR and Talent leaders predict who might be the best candidate for a job, or who might be a better fit on the team.

    Joshua breaks down how HR and business leaders should think about AI, how and where to see and understand its impact on business, the need for human judgment, and how to assess and be aware of the hidden dangers and potential biases in AI technology. This was the most lively and engaging (and accessible) conversation about AI I have ever had, and I think any HR or business leader will appreciate the easy, casual way Joshua explains complex topics.

    We also talked 'War Games', (the movie), Moneyball, the pain of teaching a teenager how to drive.

    Listen to the show on the show page HERE, on your favorite podcast app, or by using the widget player below:

    Thanks to Joshua for joining us!

    Subscribe to the HR Happy Hour Show wherever you get your podcasts - just search for 'HR Happy Hour'.

    And here is the link to Joshua's new book, Prediction Machines: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence.

    Have a great day!

    Friday
    Apr132018

    No more philosophy majors?

    For a 'I can't believe it's mid-April and my flight is probably going to get canceled because it is STILL snowing Friday', an interesting piece of news from a couple of weeks ago on how one university is seeking to re-align many of its programs of study with its assessment of labor market changes and trends.

    The TL;DR version?

    No one wants to hire History, English, or Philosophy majors. (I am not sure that this is actually true by the way, but that seems to be the conclusion). Here's some details from a recent piece in Fortune on what the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point is proposing:

    One university doesn’t think its students need to pursue English as a major anymore. Or philosophy, history, or Spanish.

    The University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point has proposed dropping more than a dozen majors currently offered through its humanities and social sciences departments. The university would instead offer programs with “clear career pathways.".

    Included in the list of majors to be dropped are the above mentioned history, English, and philosophy as well as programs in geography, (who needs that when we have GPS?), political science, (that seems like it would be in demand these days), and American studies, (that actually sounds really interesting to me).

    Other programs to be expanded or created in this effort to better align the University's programs with what is or at least seems to be happening in the job market include chemical engineering, finance, marketing, (Is there really a shortage of marketers?), and geographic information science, (sounds like geography).

    While this is not really a remarkable or surprising bit of news, I do find it interesting when thinking about what many smart folks seem to say about how work is changing, how automation and AI are replacing (or augmenting), many kinds of labor and roles, and what are the true skills all workers will need to be successful and employable in the robot future.

    And by that I am talking about the kinds of human skills and traits that can't easily or perhaps shouldn't be replaced by machines or algorithms - creativity, empathy, emotional understanding, appreciation of (yes I am saying it), history and philosophy. Sure, the kinds of 'hard skills' and technical programs that this university wants to emphasize are currently in demand, but like many (or all) kinds of technology and science roles, the likelihood of automation and more advanced AI tools replacing them (or at least reducing the need for some human labor) in them is pretty high.

    I am not totally sure what 'Geographic information science' is, but I would be willing to bet that technology will be able to perform lots of what that role requires much sooner than any kind of technology would be able to think, reason, assess, and communicate like a talented philosophy graduate.

    And by the way, if I was looking for new marketing talent, I might prefer a philosophy major or a sociology major anyway.

    Figuring out what kinds of skills are going to be needed and in demand in a changing and dynamic labor market is certainly not easy, and I understand that universities also have practical challenges and have to produce and offer programs that will attract students, (and parents).

    But while there is a lot of data and science that shows where the (current) jobs are there is also some art to producing the kinds of talent that will best be able to help the economy thrive.

    And we probably can't do art, at least not well,  if we stop teaching art.

    Have a great weekend!