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    Everything Zen #1 - The obstacle is the path

    Way back when I wrote about one of my favorite books that I've ever read called Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership, a collection of Zen stories about leading people, organizations, and personal development. I've carried that little book around with me for ages, and even after all this time still occasionally leaf through the lessons and am usually surprised both by how simple and on-point most of the ancient lessons remain today.

    So on a sluggish Wednesday where I'm still shaking off the after-effects of the SHRM Annual Conference, I figured I needed a little inspiration to dive into the Inbox and voice mail, so of course I turned to a little Zen. And then I figured since I dig these Zen sayings and stories so much, (and I need some more 'theme' series around here for these kinds of days), let's call today's post the first in the Everything Zen series, a semi-occasional look at how these lessons can help us to get over on what seem like modern problems, but mostly are pretty much the same ones the ancients wrestled with themselves.

    So here goes, Zen Lesson #1 is simple - 'The obstacle is the path'.

    The obstacle isn't something standing in the way, it is the way itself.

    That's it. 

    I know, not very profound. But if you think about it a little, and open up to the concept that the barriers that exist between you and where you are going or what you are trying to accomplish aren't distinct from the task or journey itself, that they actually are the task and journey too, then it kind of frees you and empowers you to approach and attack them differently.

    They become less daunting, less intimidating, and maybe your attitude towards them can subtly shift from fighting with them, (and getting angry or frustrated or bitter), towards seeing and dealing with them as just another part of the path you're already on.

    I know, deep thoughts.

    So that's it from me today, time to face the unread messages in the Inbox, (takes a deep cleansing breath).

    The obstacle is the path...


    VIDEO: The robot would like a sidebar, please

    How do you balance the demands of the modern workforce for flexibility around schedules, locations, and desire to not cut back on that white-knuckle ride on the daily commute, with many organizations desire to foster a collabortive and innovative environment that to many leaders only comes from workers 'physically being together?'

    Meet your future colleague Ava 500, or rather, the robot that your future colleagues will be driving around the office or plant or store if the vision of the folks at iRobot and Cisco comes to pass.  Ava 500 combines the mobility and navigation capability from iRobot, with Cisco's teleprescence technology into a robot technology that can be used to teleport anyone in the organization regardless of their physical location to any other location that is equipped with an Ava 500.

    Check the video below from iRobot to see Ava in action (Email and RSS subscribers may need to click through)

    Pretty nifty, right? And did you catch that little feature with the 'robot' drags a couple of the meeting participants out of the room for a little private time? 

    I think the long-term key for these kinds of telepresence robots to actually move past novelty and into more widespread use is that they have to seem less, well robotic, and more natural. They need to be able to move fluidly, be aware of their environment, and maybe have a little personality. 

    The workers that teleport into Ava have to come across to their colleagues as close to 'normal' as is possible, and using the high-end Cisco telepresence tech is one way to try and achieve that. No one is going to want to interact with a person piloting an Ava 500 if the video feed resembles a dodgy Google Hangout from someone's dreary basement home office.

    One thing the video didn't show, perhaps purposefully, is depict two different Ava 500's interacting with each other. In a way, if using a technology like Ava would be so fantastic for connecting one remote worker with their colleagues, then why not 2 or 3 or 20? 

    Maybe the workplace of the future will be one that ends up being largely uninhabited by any people, but rather a fleet of telepresence robots that move from meeting to meeting while different workers take turns teleporting in from all over the world.

    What do you think - is the Ava 500 coming soon to a workplace near you?


    Past performance is not indicative of...

    Quick shot for a Wednesday that feels like a Tuesday in the middle of what I promise you will feel like a really long week instead of a short one come Friday.

    Recently Business Insider ran a piece on the retirement and parting thoughts of Gerard Minack, formerly at Morgan Stanley. In Minack's last investment note, the long time investment pro offered his take on why professional investors and advisers usually do better at 'beating the market' than do amateur, or retail investors - also kind of unusual when careful investing in broad market index funds offer the amateurs among us a pretty decent alternative that will generally at least match market returns.Triangles

    Here's Minack on why the pros possess an advantage over the amateurs:

    The good news for the professionals is that many amateurs persist in trying to beat the market and, in aggregate, they seem to do a significantly worse job than the professionals.

    The biggest problem appears to be that – despite all the disclaimers – retail flows assume that past performance is a good guide to future outcomes. Consequently money tends to flow to investments that have done well, rather than investments that will do well. The net result is that the actual returns to investors fall well short not just of benchmark returns, but the returns generated by professional investors.

    In the investing context that's was of interest to Minack, amateurs tend to overweight funds and stocks that have been doing well, and underweight, (or even miss entirely), those funds and stocks that are poised to do well in the future. And to him, the mantra of past performance being a good indicator of future performance, (or even the best indicator), was the main reason.

    It makes sense in this context. Just because Apple stock kept going up and up and up seemed to indicate it couldn't go down. Until it did. And took a lot of investors with it on the way down, (admittedly many of the same ones who rode it up as well).

    But outside of finance and investments, I wonder too, if lots of us fall victim to the 'past performance --> future outcomes' bias too often as well. It's easy to feel that way I suppose. It feels safe. It's hard to argue against usually. When you don't know what will happen next, or know what a person will do next the easiest thing, (and sometimes the only information you have), is too examine what just happened and assume it will continue.

    I once wrote something about being a true visionary or innovator means imagining the future as something wildly and incredibly different and not just an incremental shift of the past. But that is really hard to do, as Minack's observations about investing remind us.


    Virtual HR, or, 'Did you ask the HR chatbot?'

    While I and many, many others have blogged, talked, and pontificated about how the ongoing advances in technology, automation, robotics, and artificial intelligence continue to 'hollow-out' or eliminate wide ranges of jobs formerly and traditionally that are done by humans, I also often think that many folks don't see these trends as all that interesting or potentially threatening. Most of the people who read this blog, I imagine, see themselves as knowledge workers that bring imagination, creativity, and perhaps most essentially, an understanding of subtle things like culture and attitude to their jobs and careers. Most of us, (admittedly me too), say of think things like 'My job is just too complex and ever-changing for it to even be outsourced to a less-expensive human (much less a robot).'

    Possibly. But it also seems likely that given enough time, access to ever-improving technologies, and the right economic incentives, there are enterprising people and organizations that even if they couldn't completely automate or robot-icize everything you do, chances are a fair amount of even what we creative types do is already routine enough that the robots could do a passable, if not better (and cheaper and will less of a bad attitude), than we do.

    But again, I know you don't really believe me, as you are (probably) and HR person that is reading this, and automation in HR has only meant changing how the transactional work of HR, (forms, time-tracking, payroll, etc), from paper-driven processes to computer-driven ones, (and often, initiated by employees and completed by managers with little direct involvement from HR). The important work in HR and in many other organizational functions still, and perhaps for a long time yet, remains the exclusive domain of humans - which humans (see the self-service HR example above), matters less today than it used to. 

    But automation is coming - not just to manufacturing lines or driverless cars or better algorithms and assessments that can screen candidates much faster and more efficiently than you can. Perhaps in HR automation will have to look a little different than what we expect, since so much of the profession is about people - talking to them, understanding them, evaluating them, and motivating them - and ultimately helping, (or concluding that we can't), help them.

    Those kind of interactions, even at a basic level, can't be automated yet. Right?

    Well, maybe not yet, but that doesn't mean they won't be one day soon.

    Don't believe me? Then ask Ivy her opinion.

    Who is Ivy? The latest in automation - this time form one of the country's largest employers, and right in your area of interest - the delivery of HR services.  Check the details from the Jobs at Intel blog.

    Okay, the newest thing we’ve launched is a “virtual HR agent”. What’s that, you ask? You know when you shop online, whether it’s for new gadgets or it’s for a plane ticket to go somewhere or maybe it’s just for odds and ends, some websites have a virtual agent that will answer FAQs for you and guide you through the process. Our new virtual HR agent, we named her Ivy, is set up to do the same thing, but for our employees at Intel (so this is an internal tool.) If employees have questions about their pay, stock, benefits, or other HR programs, they simply bring Ivy up on the intranet and type in a question. Ivy uses a combination of natural language processing, artificial intelligence and optimized search to find the answer to the question. Also, magic. Okay, well, it’s like magic to me, so…  As of today, Ivy has 4,331 possible responses. How do I know that number so exactly? I led the team that wrote all the responses. You can bet we’re excited for the launch after all that work!

     Catch all that?

    Ivy, or the virtual HR chat agent, has over 4,000 possible responses to any employee question about pay or benefits or other HR programs, and using the same kind of intelligence we've seen in a consumer or retail environment, provides HR services to Intel employees. As it is an internal-only tool, I'm not able to test it out, but it stands to reason that with over 4K responses, and the ability to 'learn' and adapt, that over time a tool like Ivy would be able to do more that respond to simple questions, and provide more complex answers to more difficult questions.

    Yes, Intel's HR team has to provide the 'intelligence' for Ivy to work, and that, as yet, is still a human job, but what if employees at Intel begin to prefer dealing with virtual HR over real HR? 

    I'll leave you with more from the Jobs at Intel blog about Ivy:

    Ivy’s no chatbot and she’s not backed by a human “behind the curtain”. She’s all software. We’ve got lots of metrics in place to monitor her performance and our employees can give a star rating to each interaction. Using the performance data and star ratings, we can tune Ivy to make her even better. Beyond that, what’s weird is that she learns. Seriously. Her artificial intelligence gets better as employees ask her questions. Amazing.

    The money line in that?

    We can tune Ivy to make her even better. Beyond that, what’s weird is that she learns.

    Can you say the same about the people in your HR organization?

    Happy Tuesday.


    #HRHappyHour 163 PODCAST - 'Bullying and the Workplace'

    This week the HR Happy Hour Show/Podcast is back with a fresh episode recorded earlier this week -'Bullying and the Workplace' with guest Jennifer Hancock. Jennifer is the author of The Bully Vaccine, and a frequent speaker and expert on the increasingly important issue of bullying - both in and out of the workplace. You can follow Jennifer on Twitter as well -@jenthehumanist).

    You can listen to the show on the show page here, using the widget player below, and of course on iTunes - just search the podcasts area for 'HR Happy Hour'.

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    It was a fascinating conversation with Jennifer - bullying has become such an area of focus for parents, schools, and certainly even leaders and HR professionals in the workplace. You'd never guess just how prevalent bullying behaviors have become.

    Jennifer shared ideas on how to define and identify bullying, insights behind the root causes of these behaviors, and some specific and relevant ideas about how the victims of bullying can deal with bullies.

    Chances are someone you know, maybe even your own child, or a colleague at work is facing these kinds of challenges. Or you are an HR professional that has to make sure your workplace is free from these behaviors. Either way I think you will find some great ideas and tips for how to address these situations from the show.

    It was an interesting and enlightening conversation, and I hope you will find it valuable as well.

    Also, in June and July Jennifer is offering a 6-hour course titled 'Workplace Bullying for HR Professionals' and you can learn more about that program here.

    Thanks to Jennifer for a great conversation. 


    Finally, for listeners of the show a quick reminder. For the next little while anyway, co-host Trish McFarlane and I will be doing the HR Happy Hour Shows more as a traditional podcast - recorded in advance, perhaps a little shorter than the live shows were, and hopefully posted to the site every other week. With our schedules and lots of travel on the horizon this year, doing the shows 'live' on Thursday nights has become increasingly challenging. Trish and I hope that by changing how the shows are produced it will allow us the opportunity to continue doing the show/podcast in a way that will work with our schedules as well as our future guests.

    Have a great weekend!