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    Entries in workplace (91)

    Wednesday
    May222013

    Thinking about what no one knows they're missing

    A couple of months ago I posted about the continuing advances in driverless vehicle technology, and the implications on work and worker's commutes to the office in an environment where essentially, everyone has a technological chauffeur to ferry them to their job. My point in the piece was, more or less, that driverless vehicle technology would potentially one day add hours of 'productive' time to a commuter's day - taking calls, reading documents, even creating and writing while on the go.  Freed from the task of actually driving the car, the driver becomes a passenger - and gains the benefits from reduced stress, (driverless cars probably won't pass on their road rage to you), and more flexibility. 

    Whether you think driverless cars, (and trucks, and eventually even planes), are dangerous, unreliable, or even scary, the truth seems like they are coming - and probably sooner than most of us think. 

    Similar could be said for some of the other latest advances in technology. Take Google Glass for example. Just a year or so ago the idea of a wearable, always-on, internet connected, and voice activated computing device seemed pretty far-fetched. Today the initial wave of beta-testers are using the device, developers are building new and purpose-built apps for the platform, and a slew of 'experts' (including me), have offered up advice and opinion about the implications and use of Glass in work and business. I saw another slightly different manifestation of wearable computing this week when my pal Lance Haun rocked a Pebble smartwatch at a recent event.

    What do driverless vehicle technology and wearable computing tech like Google Glass have in common?

    Probably a few things, but the one element I want to call out is this - they are technology breakthroughs that are not directly responding to some express need or desire on the part of either existing customers or the general public.  They are for the most part - green field, blue ocean, 'insert-your-favorite-hack-expression-for-something-brand-new-here'.

    This week I've been at the SilkRoad Connections event - a conference for the company's customers, partners, and some media and analysts.  At the event, keynoter Dan Pink, (famous for the book Drive), offered, almost as an aside from his speech on motivation, what he thought was going to be the most important skill in the future, (paraphrased in my tweet below)

     

     

    Glass, planes that fly themselves, the next incredible technological or business breakthrough - the common factor will be that none of them will be really based on listening to customers or conducting focus groups.

    They will spring from the imagination of innovators and from people savvy enough to 'discover' needs that today don't exist.

    It's wonderful and important to spend your day thinking about and helping to solve people's problems. But even there, advances in computing threaten to turn 'problem solving' into a game for the robots and super computers.

    If you want to be really memorable and outlast the rest, you have to solve problems that don't even seem to exist and to give people things that they never knew they needed.

    Friday
    May102013

    Human Resources when there are less humans around

    The below chart (or a version of it) has been making the rounds plenty in the last year or so as the American economy rebounds and seemingly continues to strengthen coming out of the financial crisis and ensuing recession of the late aughts.

    It shows how despite corporate profits, expressed as a percentage of GDP, continuing to set records, that those record profits have not (taken in aggregate), translated into lots of new jobs, as the labor participation rate shows.

    Source - FRED 

    As the chart pretty clearly shows, aggregate corporate profits (the red line), after plunging to a low at about the middle of the recession, late 2008, have rebounded considerably, and now are at all-time record levels as a percentage of GDP.

    The employment rate however, after taking an equally dramatic fall throughout the entire recession, finally stabilized at a far lower level than pre-recession, and despite, (or some might argue what has been the primary driver of), rising corporate profits is showing no signs of regaining its former levels of around 62%.

    Profits are up, way up even, yet corporations are achieving these profits with far fewer workers than before, (and paying them less, generally. We could also factor in wage growth or lack thereof to make that point at well).

    There are lots of reasons for this - technological progress, increased automation, continuing reliance on relatively cheaper foreign labor, diminishing influence of labor unions, the aging of the workforce, etc. but the bottom line seems to be an ever-growing bottom line with less and less actual people needed to make that happen.

    No doubt if you are one of the workers in the 'right' kind of job, you are probably doing pretty well or are on the way to doing pretty well. But if you are one of the people that might be in a field that has simply figured out to continue to drive profits without as many people, then things could be looking kind of grim.

    Where does all this leave you as an HR/Talent pro?

    A lot depend on the company/industry you are in. But in aggregate, certainly, when there are less and less 'humans' in the workforce, then corporations will figure out they need less and less Human Resources people to help look after them all. I have talked with a few HR leaders lately that are seeing both the size of their labor forces hold steady and their HR/EE ratios holding an extremely high levels.

    Advice?

    Make sure you are spending a decent chunk of your time and energy on things that are truly additive - technology that will help employees generate new ideas and innovations, marketing and recruiting strategies that will let you land more than your share of the best talent at the expense of your competitors, and even in an 'addition-by-subtraction' way, elimination of silly rules, policies, or processes that in any way get in the way of employee performance.

    And you could spend some time figuring out what kinds of planning, services, training, development, and team building activities that 'resources' like our pal Baxter needs and you might ride this out a little longer.

    Have a great weekend!

    Tuesday
    Mar192013

    Work, productivity, and driverless cars

    The last 30 years or so have seen the dramatic impact of technology upon the workplace - from the PC revolution, to email, to sophisticated ERP systems to better manage the flow of material and information, all the way to the present day, where social, mobile, and video technologies continue to disrupt how, where, and with whom work gets done. Certainly the workplaces and the methods of getting work done, almost to a job, look nothing today like they did just 15 or 20 years ago. And no doubt technology will continue to advance and impact work - what the future of wearable computing like Google Glass holds is of particular interest to me.

    But our friends at Google are at the forefront of another new technology development that also has the potential to dramatically alter work and productivity - perhaps just not in the ways we are accustomed to seeing how workplace technology changes our jobs, patterns, and behaviors. While Google Glass has enormous disruptive potential, in some ways the autonomous car, being developed at Google (and several other places as well), perhaps has the potential to have a more direct and sudden effect on work and how work gets done, (and how much more of it potentially gets done).

    According to recent statistics, workers in large US cities spend as much as 40 minutes each-way commuting to work, and just about 75% of them make the journey by themselves in their car.  In the worst cities for commuting, perhaps a city where your organization has facilities, as many as 3/4 of your workers are, on average, spending more than an hour each day in their cars, stressed, getting frustrated, and with the exception of the occasional business call, (taken 'hands-free' of course), getting almost nothing productive accomplished. 

    The driverless car - and don't think it is THAT far away from becoming a reality, Google's testing has logged well over 300K miles so far - would instantly transform that hour or hour and a half from empty time to potentially productive time. From the Google piece linked above:

    This is an important milestone, as it brings this technology one step closer to every commuter. One day we hope this capability will enable people to be more productive in their cars.

    Imagine cleaning our your entire email Inbox before arriving at work, or having that conference call with clients while actually paying attention, or even doing a video chat with colleagues that are kicking back in their driverless cars on the way to the office.

    If the recent hubbub from Yahoo! and Best Buy around the need for employees 'physically being together' catches on more widely - then it will just put more workers back on the road. Driverless cars are the one technology solution that has the potential to almost instantly turn down time into productive time, and enable your commuting workers to take back just a little bit of their lives. Which is kind of ironically what teleworking policies were meant to do.

    The next great workplace tech breakthrough just might be the one that takes you to the workplace.

    Monday
    Mar182013

    Employee Tracking Data and the Inevitable Pushback

    Last week I had a piece about the development of a new set of technologies that are effectively designed to collect, aggregate, synthesize, and help management interpret every interaction, activity, and action that employees take in the workplace. The idea being that this ocean of data about employee activity - who they meet with, for how long, how many emails they send and to whom, even how often and where they take smoke/coffee/Instagram breaks - can be mashed up with other more traditional workplace measurements about productivity, revenue, performance reviews, etc. to arrive at a more enlightened if not optimal set of recommendations, (and possibly rules) to optimize work and worker activity.

    Of course collecting this level and type of data about employee activity, if it indeed catches on in the workplace, will inevitably collide with employee notions about privacy first, and then once most if not all employees accede to this nature of data collection, (perhaps under threat as a condition of employment), to concerns about the 'fair' or proper interpretation of the data. What employee actions and activities are 'good' or 'beneficial' to overall performance of the organization as opposed to the individual's own performance will also be a bone of contention - it really is a big data version of the classic 'results vs. how those results are obtained' conundrum.

    It is hard to say how these issues will develop in traditional workplaces, but to catch a glimpse of how it might work out, (and the potential for management vs. employee conflict), I naturally look to the world of sports, in this case NBA basketball.  In the league these days the collection and use of more and more advanced statistics and data about player and team performance are changing the way teams and fans evaluate player performance and attempt to optimize the use of their talent to improve results.

    The specific example I want to call out is about David Lee of the Golden State Warriors. By traditional and historical measures, (points, rebounds, assists), Lee is a superior player - as evidenced by his selection to the NBA All-Star team earlier this season. But to those who closely observe the league, and supplemented by more advanced statistical and player movement video technology, Lee's poor play on defense all but cancels out his fine offensive performance - essentially rendering him about an average player on balance.

    Lee, to his credit, admits his defensive play has not always been stellar, but his comments about the recent attention being placed on the use of newer data sets and analyses to question his overall contribution is interesting and perhaps a bit instructive -

    “At this point I could care less. I’ve worked hard to improve my defense. I think I’m a much better defensive player today than I was a year ago and definitely to start my career. There’s a lot of different numbers to support a lot of different things. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say me putting up 20 and 10 doesn’t matter because ‘numbers don’t matter,’ but at the same time, ‘charts at MIT matter.’ You can’t have it both ways.”

    And that part of the quote in bold above - 'You can't have it both ways' - is really at the heart of the problem for the Big Data in the workplace movement as it marches inexorably into the future, (and as in the NBA, the present), of the workplace.

    Having more data about employees doesn't necessarily make us any smarter or able to understand that data, and how it might be applied to improve workplace performance. And it definitely doesn't make us any wiser as to how to handle the inevitable employee pushback when our interpretation of performance, backed with the data we think is important, doesn't align with theirs.

    With more data we can tell more stories, but we can also find data to justify any story we want to be heard.

    David Lee wants us to emphasize the data the paints him in an All-Star light - 20 points and 10 rebounds a night. His detractors want to point out that he is an ineffective interior defensive player - and can point to a new, hardly understood set of charts and graphs to back that up.

    The truth is probably somewhere in between, along with one other truth - more data about your employees probably won't make your job as a Talent pro any easier.

    Have a great week!

    Monday
    Mar112013

    If Yahoo doesn't kill remote working, then Big Data will

    A little bit lost in the continuing fallout from the decisions by Yahoo to end remote working arrangements for their staff, and Best Buy's move to end ROWE (Results Only Work Environment), at its corporate headquarters was this much more interesting, (and potentially more important), report in the Wall Street Journal, 'Tracking Sensors Invade the Workplace', that hints at a data-powered future workplace where 'being physically together' is not just mandated, but is tracked, recorded, and interpreted by algorithms and leveraged by management.

    How exactly does Big Data, (which usually sounds kind of benign, or at least non-threatening), play a role in the future of telework?  Take a look at this excerpt from the WSJ piece:

    As Big Data becomes a fixture of office life, companies are turning to tracking devices to gather real-time information on how teams of employees work and interact. Sensors, worn on lanyards or placed on office furniture, record how often staffers get up from their desks, consult other teams and hold meetings.

    Businesses say the data offer otherwise hard-to-glean insights about how workers do their jobs, and are using the information to make changes large and small, ranging from the timing of coffee breaks to how work groups are composed, to spur collaboration and productivity.

    "Surveys measure a point in time—what's happening right now with my emotions. [Sensors] measure actual behavior in an objective way,"

    The next step in figuring out how people work, communicate, and interact in the workplace and with their colleagues involves wearing an always-on tracking device, (bathroom breaks optional), and harnessing all the data the device collects about who a worker talks to and for how long, how often they get up, when they hit the coffee room and vending machine, how long they stand waiting outside a conference room because the prior meeting ran long - all of this and more.  Mash up that 'experience' data with other electronic data trails (email, IM, internal collaboration tools, etc.), and boom - the data will be able to prescribe optimal amounts of employee interaction, recommend the timing and duration of breaks, send push notifications alerting you that the guy you need to connect with about the Penske account is two stalls away from you, and crucially - keep your managers informed about just what the heck you are up to all day.

    But it seems really likely to me that if these workplace tracking sensors gain more well, traction, that organizations will quickly realize that the only way to really exploit them, and the data they collect to its fullest potential, will be in a traditional workplace environment - with all employees together in a physical location and 'on-duty' at the same time. Let's face it, for a remote worker wearing a tracking sensor probably won't produce much valuable data - unless its to try to 'prove' to a suspicious manager that a remote worker is slacking off.

    The tracking sensors, if they catch on, will change the anti-telework argument from 'We need you to come in to the office so we can keep an eye on you' to 'We need you to come in to the office so we can track everything you do, say, touch, and feel all day.'

    It's a brave new world out there my friends...