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    Entries in work (73)


    "I'd rather be a cow manager than a people manager"

    I want, sometimes, to stop reading, writing, and thinking about robots, automation, and how technologies are changing the nature of work, workplaces, and people. I'd rather focus on the NBA.

    But every time I think I will take a break from the robots something too interesting pops up, and I have to share. From the New York Times this week, check out the piece titled, With Farm Robotics, the Cows Decide When It's Milking Time,   (a short excerpt of which is below):

    Something strange is happening at farms in upstate New York. The cows are milking themselves.

    Desperate for reliable labor and buoyed by soaring prices, dairy operations across the state are charging into a brave new world of udder care: robotic milkers, which feed and milk cow after cow without the help of a single farmhand.

    Scores of the machines have popped up across New York’s dairy belt and in other states in recent years, changing age-old patterns of daily farm life and reinvigorating the allure of agriculture for a younger, tech-savvy — and manure-averse — generation.

    “We’re used to computers and stuff, and it’s more in line with that,” said Mike Borden, 29, a seventh-generation dairyman, whose farm upgraded to robots, as others did, when disco-era milking parlors — the big, mechanized turntables that farmers use to milk many cows at once — started showing their age.

    “And,” Mr. Borden added, “it’s a lot more fun than doing manual labor.”

    Robotic milkers. Awesome. And in that one specific example of robot application we see borne out several of the most common drivers that are spearheading all kinds of automation efforts in all manner of settings and industries.

    Apply technology to improve a repetitive and manual task? Check.

    Make up for a labor shortage that makes the traditional approach to this work no longer possible? Check.

    Appeal to the next generation of workers and leaders that are familiar with and expecting technology to play a role in their workplaces? Check.

    Finally, and most importantly perhaps for readers in HR/Talent jobs - Technology and automation as a liberator - freeing up managers to focus on more important tasks and less on low-value, less appealing tasks? Check.

    In fact, the money quote in the Times piece underscores this last point completely:

    The Bordens say the machines allow them to do more of what they love: caring for animals.

    “I’d rather be a cow manager,” Tom Borden said, “than a people manager.”

    That quote from the dairy farmer is priceless and kind of telling as well. The cows might be hard to manage at times, but they are much easier than trying to manage people.

    And with the robots, Mr. Borden can focus on what really matters to his business - the cows.


    On Nobel Prizes and Email Responsiveness

    I have a 'hate-hate' relationship with email.

    No matter how much time I try to spend on email the 'task' is never completed, there is always another message that needs a response, (or the person who sent the message at least thinks it needs a response), and most responses just spawn even more messages, the digital version of the old myth of the Hydra, when cutting off one of the monster's many heads simply resulted in two more appearing in its place.

    Plus, I am bad at email. Bad in the sense that I actively try and manage the time I spend reading/sending emails so that I don't reach the end of the day with nothing really to show for it, except an endless, meandering trail of email threads. If sending/responding to email is all you do in a day, then you can never be really happy I don't think - you can never complete anything. Which is the reason, even when I am really, really busy, that I try to blog every weekday. No matter how insipid, irrelevant, and lacking in insight any given post might be, it is always done. And there is some satisfaction in that.

    Also, if you are someone reading this post that has been (persistently) trying to get my attention via email lately, you probably are nodding with understanding and also probably cursing me out under your breath. I will get back to you, I promise. I mean it. Really.

    It is from this place, that this piece caught my attention the other day. Titled, Richard Feynman Didn't Win a Nobel by Responding Promptly to E-mails, it shares some insight into how a great and successful scientist manages to stay productive and focused. One way, certainly, was by not getting bogged down or distracted by non-essential tasks, (like 90% of emails). Feynman also says 'No' a lot - basically to any request for his time and attention that takes away from his main goals - doing great science.

    From the piece:

    Feynman got away with this behavior because in research-oriented academia there’s a clear metric for judging merit: important publications. Feynman had a Nobel, so he didn’t have to be accessible.

    There’s a lot that’s scary about having success and failure in your professional life reduce down to a small number of unambiguous metrics (this is something that academics share, improbably enough, with professional athletes).

    But as Feynman’s example reminds us, there’s also something freeing about the clarity. If your professional value was objectively measured and clear, then you could more confidently sidestep actives that actively degrade your ability to do what you do well (think: constant connectivity, endless meetings, Power Point decks).

    That is a really interesting take, I think. Tying most jobs and workplaces inability to measure success unambiguously and objectively with the perceived need to spend time on those activities that 'degrade your ability to do what you do well.'

    You spend countless hours doing email and sitting in status meetings because that seems to be what you should be doing, but I bet that often it is because no one knows what it is you really should be doing.

    So the lesson from Feynman? Figure out what you do really well, and then focus on that as exclusively as you can. If you get good enough at it, and it is valuable enough to the organization, then you get to decide what other nonsense you can ignore.

    Until then, better get back to your email. Me too.


    CHART OF THE DAY: The Falling US Birth Rate

    For today's chart - take a look at the how the USA birth rate has been declining over the last several years, and after the chart, and for no additional costs, I will drop some comments about what, if anything, this might mean for you, the HR/Talent pro:

    What might this mean, or at least suggest?

    1. Your first reaction is that it means nothing. Who cares if there are relatively fewer kids being born right now? This won't impact labor markets for at least another 15 years or so and by then, who cares? A robot will be doing your job by then anyway, right?

    2. But it is not just the sources of candidates/employees that matter or should matter to you. If your business has anything to do with selling products or services to the baby/youth/teen markets, then this trend is going to impact you. And if you think, 'We make industrial products that go into new home construction so this does not affect us', you might want to think again. The declining birth rate shouldn't be considered in a vacuum - their are related trends in marriage rates and ages of first marriage, household formation, and related spending at play here as well. Long story short, Americans are getting married less, are older when and if they do get married, are having fewer children, and are having them at more advanced ages than in the past.

    3. This combination of a decline in birth rate and rise in the average age for both first marriages and having children will, if it has not already, influence your workforce planning processes in a few ways. You might be able to project a decrease or at least a reduction in the rate of increase in your benefits costs for covered dependents in the next few years, as your employees are covering fewer kids than in the past. Your succession planning processes may need to be re-emphasized if later career employees begin leaving (or simply taking leave) for child care reasons. These later career employees, say in their late 30s and up, are likely to have more senior and important roles in your company. Finally, if you are really and truly thinking long-term, say out 10-15 years, larger and wider demographic trends could effect things like expansion plans and ability of organization to move into new markets.

    Perhaps I am stretching credibility by suggesting that you should really be worried about a probably caused by the 2007-2008 recession down trend in the birth rate when you have much more immediate and pressing concerns.

    But I still find this kind of data fascinating, and even if you can't find an immediate or even medium-term impact of these bigger trends, I think they are worth recognizing. If nothing else you will at least know why the local school board wants to consolidate your elementary schools in the next few years.

    Happy Thursday.


    Even 'great' places to work never forget who is in charge, (Hint: It's not you)

    By now you've probably heard something about the several year Department of Justice investigation, corresponding civil class action lawsuit, and various reporting surrounding an almost decade-long series of unfair and anti-competitive labor practices alleged to have occurred among Apple, Google, Intel, Adobe, Intuit, and Pixar.

    To make a (very) long story short, the DOJ, and the claimants, (a group of people that worked for these companies from around 2005 - 2010), hold that these tech industry titans, with their C-level executives full backing, support, and as many, many emails reveal, the knowledge that what they were doing was likely illegal, colluded via a series of 'non-call' agreements to artificially reduce many currently employed staff the ability to seek opportunities at the other firms in the cartel.

    The bare bones of the cartel's structure was pretty simple - Company 'A', say Google, agreed not to cold-call employees from Company 'B', say Apple. Apple, supported from the late Steve Jobs on down, agreed to similar recruiting restrictions in kind. So for many employees at either of the two firms, their ability to fully and freely 'test the market' was constrained by one. If these 'non-call' agreements remained as limited in scope as in the example above, it might not have blown up in the fashion, (DoJ involvement), that is has. But these tech leaders didn't stop at these one-off kinds of reciprocal agreements that we all know are more common than we like to admit.

    No, as the original reporting (and legal documents back up) revealed, what seems to have started with Google getting on Steve Jobs' bad side, then extended to involve a series of other, mostly Silicon Valley tech companies, and as a weekend piece on Pando Daily reports, extended even wider than that - allegedly including companies and employees from dozens of companies all over the world.

    From the Pando Daily piece:

    Confidential internal Google and Apple memos, buried within piles of court dockets and reviewed by PandoDaily, clearly show that what began as a secret cartel agreement between Apple’s Steve Jobs and Google’s Eric Schmidt to illegally fix the labor market for hi-tech workers, expanded within a few years to include companies ranging from Dell, IBM, eBay and Microsoft, to Comcast, Clear Channel, Dreamworks, and London-based public relations behemoth WPP. All told, the combined workforces of the companies involved totals well over a million employees.

    Although the Department ultimately decided to focus its attention on just Adobe, Apple, Google, Intel, Intuit, Lucasfilm and Pixar, the emails and memos clearly name dozens more companies which, at least as far as Google and Apple executives were concerned, formed part of their wage-fixing cartel.

    A closer examination of the paper trail that set up and helped to define and enforce these agreements paints an incredibly unflattering picture of the actions and motivations of the executives involved, particularly revered business leaders and tech rock stars such as Jobs, Google's Eric Schmidt, and the then CEO of Ebay, Meg Whitman. A look at the documents reveals company recruiters being fired on the spot for violating these (likely illegal) deals.

    Back when these probably illegal 'non-call' agreements started, Google was on a expansion tear - snapping up talent from wherever it could, driving salary requirements up across the valley in the process. The other companies, naturally, did not like this, and rather than try to compete with Google on a level playing field, at least in the case of Apple, took to issuing threats of 'war', if the talent poaching continued. Google, probably sensing that the compensation acceleration that they themselves were driving must have figured it made more sense to try and play nice in the Valley, appease some of the other powerful industry companies, and maybe use that artificial constraint to keep some more of their own employees from jumping ship to a competitor for more money.

    You really should take the time to read the Pando Daily reporting on this case here and here, it helps to paint a different picture of what we normally get from those typical darlings of modern, progressive talent management.

    Even these companies, many of them regular winners of various 'Great Places to Work' lists never forget that at some point if employee compensation, (and relative power), shifts too far towards the side of the talent and away from management that they have a problem. Remember that when you read another fawning piece about how miraculous their talent management seem to be.

    They might have been, and still might be, 'Great Places to Work' but they didn't get that way by playing nice all the time. And at least some of the time, it seems, they got that way by illegally colluding to reduce the market for the very talent that makes them such a great place to work.

    Final thought, it might be easy to laugh this off as a first-world problem. Highly paid workers at these kinds of firms are doing just fine, so what that there were a few 'non-call' agreements going on. They are all making six-figure salaries so what is the harm?

    I will give you two reasons:

    1. For many tech workers, their careers are turning out to be not that much different that pro athletes - the length of time when their skills are in demand (and their compensation can be the highest), can be extremely short. Just do a search for 'technology ageism' some time. Tech workers have to maximize earnings over a shorter time horizon than the rest of us. Keeping wages artificially lower for them hurts just as much as the rookie scale hurts talented pro football players.

    2. If relatively well off, educated, talented, smart, and powerful employees like the ones at the firms that were in this cartel can be taken advantage of and have their wages depressed in this manner, then what does that say for the millions of workers that are not so powerful and advantaged? With union membership and influence at an all-time low, one of the few things that can at least try to protect workers is the free market for their services. If high-tech companies like Apple and Google can change that dynamic at the high-end, what would stop a few firms where you live getting together to do the same on the middle and low end for jobs in retail, service, or in back offices? That does not sound any crazier an idea to me than Steve Jobs and Eric Schmidt emailing each other angry messages about cold-calling.

    I'm going to stop here, (bless you if you have made it this far), and just say that no matter what accolades that any company receives, we'd all be wise to remember that their are always two kinds of people - people that work in the factory, and people that own the factory.

    Have a great week!


    The new rites of passage

    Dads and sons have always had some kind of rite of passage, when the son proved that he was ready to be more of an equal, more of a grown-up. The old rites of passage for little boys used to be mostly physical, i.e. the son would finally defeat the Dad in one-on-one basketball or in an arm wrestling contest. Now it seems more and more that these rites of passage, or at least these more casual acknowledgements of a son or daughter moving up closer towards adulthood involve technology. Now these rites are likely to have as much to do with a parent, (like me, for example), breaking down and having to ask my son to explain how to adjust and align the apps on my new iPhone.

    And it doesn't stop with the iPhone - I have asked my middle schooler to help me with sound editing the podcast and music files on the HR Happy Hour Show, to use photoshop to fix some images I needed for a presentation, and even as my 'one-kid-focus-group' in my totally unscientific attempts to think about where technology might be heading and what kinds of tools and interfaces the next generation of workers might prefer. These, at least to me, are pretty serious, and kind of important things.

    But when I look back, just one generation, I can't imagine a time when my dad would have asked a 13-year-old me to explain anything important or help him with anything that really mattered in his professional life. 

    I helped by cutting the grass, shoveling snow, and performing various and sundry menial labor kinds of tasks that certainly helped my Dad out, but were not really meaningful or important in the larger sense. Sure, you can go on about teaching kids the value of hard work, of the value of dignity in that kind of work, and I get that. But it's just that I for one never have looked longingly back at my childhood and thought, 'Man it was great training for life, all that grass cutting and weed pulling I did back then.'

    I thought about this last week when the area where I live was hit with about one foot of wind-driven snow.

    Snow drifts the next morning were up to 3 or 4 feet in places, (including much of my driveway), and I had to spend a few hours digging out. My son was out of town on a school trip (Convenient!), so was not available to enlist in forced labor be taught the lessons and values of hard work.

    The entire time I was working on clearing the driveway I noticed exactly zero other kids out and about in what is normally a busy neighborhood. No kids shoveling their own driveways or walks, no kids or teenagers working the neighborhood with their shovels trying to earn a few dollars by helping residents dig out, no kids even outside playing in the fresh foot of snow.

    Back in the day an enterprising kid or teenager could have and would have tried to earn $50 or even $100 if he/she busted it all day with a shovel. But those days are long gone, I think.

    Today I bet all the enterprising kids and teens decided to stay inside on that snowy day - making their videos, learning to code, building apps, working on the next generation of amazing stuff that we will have to ask their help with in learning how to use one day.

    Have a great week!