Keeping Old Things Beautiful

Tower Bridge (HDR), by Adriano Aurlio Araujo
Tower Bridge (HDR).  Photo courtesy of Adriano Aurlio Araujo

We need to get excited about maintenance, according to a great counter-intuitive article by Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel.  The authors propose that we should give “maintenance” higher priority in our society.  By maintenance they are mostly referring to government-owned physical infrastructure; ensuring it is functioning, well-maintained, and not closed-down for emergency repairs.  While the authors also tip their hats to computer infrastructure, the connection to public transit keeps the idea tangible for everyone.

The article asserts that “Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery.”  They highlight that while “innovation” describes the art of doing something new, technology broadly-defined should rightfully consider technology that is mid-life or old.

Many of the coolest stories in business shine a light on this misunderstood area.  There are vulture funds that pick up the assets of distressed companies and refurbish the “old” company into something new.  There are entrepreneurs that buy old, depreciated assets at bargain-basement prices and in the process net high percentage returns on the asset they got for cheap.  There is a company in my region that tried to close down their business, held an auction to unload their old equipment, and discovered that auctioning is an incredibly lucrative business to get into.

But those stories are a little too sexy; let’s get back to drudgery.  It turns out that a large number of engineers and computer programmers are devoted to maintaining something that has already been created.  In addition, maintenance workers are often paid less than those who are closest to ribbon-cutting ceremonies, IPOs, and product launches.

Workforce Management and the Maintenance of Human Capital

The connection to human resources is that people are trying to articulate how we should think of employees as “human capital.”  The phrase itself invokes a metaphor that the people who show up every day are a treasure that you invest in and get great work out of.  Perhaps we should extend the metaphor into the importance of human capital maintenance.  Do we have opportunities to conserve, re-build, renovate, and polish-up our pre-existing cadre of staff?  If you think about it for a while, examples abound:

  • When employees are injured, there is significant value to intervening early to help them stay at work or return to work sooner. The “return to work” field is a specialized field which has a knack to it, and major employers take these efforts seriously.
  • It is well understood that new hires have higher engagement than longer-serving staff.  By default, the implication is that if you want to improve engagement, your greatest opportunity is with longer-service staff.  At the crux of workforce analytics and employee engagement is the opportunity to refresh the workplace experience of those hired long ago.
  • In the c-suite, there is the recurring challenge that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” (Drucker) However, it is understood that workplace culture changes very slowly. This tension implies that those who want to advance a strategy must have significant understanding of the longer-serving staff who carry the workplace culture.  Perhaps looking to the wisdom of longer-serving staff is an easier way to predict which initiatives will take hold in the pre-existing culture?
  • When attempting workforce analytics and workforce planning efforts that align to strategy, stale strategy documents and longer-serving executives can be your only opportunity for alignment. New executives and new strategy documents can have a long runway, in some cases with a perpetual churn.
  • Long-serving staff tend to learn a number of shortcuts that allow them to achieve their work goals more easily.   This grab-bag of quick-tips, tacit knowledge, and mature social networks are a troublesome source of high productivity.  Workplaces fear the retirement of long-service employees who understand the physical and organizational machinery in a manner that is undocumented.  In such cases there is a demand for knowledge management, the active cultivation of repositories of information where tacit knowledge is curated and transferred between newer and longer-serving staff.
  • As millennials age, our struggles to understand this generation are going to shift. It’s not so much that we don’t know what they’re thinking (they tend to just tell us).  Rather, what will their experience be as millennial managers, dealing with the next batch of young whipper-snappers in Generation Z?  This multi-generational transfer of energy and wisdom will demand a workplace culture of humility and curiosity.  Workplace traditions can emerge in just a couple of years, and can evolve around the behaviors of employees young and old.  Yet it is not so much the best perspective that matters; it is the ability to move a diversity of perspectives amongst peers.

As the shine comes off workforce planning and workplace analytics as a novelty, we are obliged to take our practice into a mode where great work is done quietly, well, and with a known value.  As we look at the legacy of buzzwords that came before us and the shiny new practices to come, there is a new opportunity to understand the boundary between engineering drawings, breaking the ground, and replacing broken parts.  Cultivating and maintaining people, their knowledge, their relationships, and the workplace culture are key to delivering strategy.  There is an opportunity for your employees to age gracefully and keep delivering the goods.

Walking on Eggshells with Technology and Jobs

Carton, by John Loo
Carton.  Photo courtesy of John Loo.

On average, you can get a new job making eye contact.  That’s because the new technology just can’t get this right.  While you brace yourself for massive technological disruption, new business models are emerging where your hands and your heart will guide you through the next era of technology and employment.

Dustin McKissen of McKissen + Company wrote an intriguing article in July 2017 about non-degreed workers displaced by technology.  The article is blunt: My Father-In-Law Won’t Become a Coder, No Matter What Economists Say.  It’s a great critique, because it gets into the problem that technological change is supposed to be good for us “on average,” a concept that only makes sense to economists.  If one million old jobs are eliminated, and a million-plus-one new jobs are created, an economist would talk in terms of a net gain of one job. Yay!  However, the one million people who lost their jobs don’t see this change as positive, and they are perfectly entitled to speak as humans who have a voice, a home, a family, and a vote.

I endorse McKissen’s view that this human resources topic is highly political.  What does the fast-changing world mean to those who are displaced?  While the father-in-law is currently fine for work, the company is encouraging sales staff to get their customers to place orders online.  Will that man have the same job, or any job, ten years from now?  You see, if there is political blowback from those who are adversely affected by this net-positive change, the voice coming from the dis-employed may affect the viability of our economic and political system.  McKissen calls for a new ideology, a new “ism,” that bypasses the politics of left vs. right.

Customer Engagement is Connected to Employee Engagement

I personally think the new ideology is starting to become evident.  The idea is that business performance is hyper-sensitive to the work of engaged employees delivering meaningful experiences to engaged customers.  For lack of a better word, let’s call it “double-engagement.”

Technology is just something that ramps-up productivity of those who advance the double-engagement experience.  The use of wearable technology, hand-held computer devices, and links to large databases and artificial intelligence simply empower the front-line worker.  The workers do what the technology cannot: make eye contact with customers, express empathy, display a sense of service, and show responsibility for getting the goods into the client or customer’s hands.  Profits, investments, and public policy are just along for the ride, and people who are big in those areas need to stop pretending they’re the boss.  This new model can be found in other articles, such as here and here.

It’s noteworthy that McKissen’s father-in-law works in the sale of food.  Whole Foods was recently bought-out by Amazon; what does that mean for the future of food shopping?  It is increasingly apparent that the retail sector is at risk of being savaged by online shopping.  Sure, we’ll still be buying food a decade from now.  But how will the food get from online order to a front-door delivery?

The Workplace Culture of Customer Engagements

In an article from the New York Times, there was an eye-opening exposé of the life of those who deliver food after the online order.  It turns out that new technology is only efficient until the requested groceries make it to the last mile.  In “the last mile problem,” tactile and emotional challenges emerge in a very human way.

The bananas must not be refrigerated, almost everything else must be kept cool, there is more than one optimal temperature for cooling, the milk must be stored upright, and apples must not be stored in a confined area with lettuce.  Each hour of delay in getting the groceries to the customer eliminates one day of shelf life.  The traffic is unpredictable, the parking rules are unpredictable, and there is physical effort to getting the containers from car to front door.

And the carton of eggs must be presented and inspected by the customer.  Apparently intact eggs have a do-or-die influence on customer satisfaction.  So this satisfaction is micro-managed by a devoted delivery person, in a face-to-face conversation.  Double engagement.

The wages are modest, but the tips can be good.  Why would someone provide a tip to someone delivering groceries from an online order?  Because a worker put some enthusiasm and promptness into helping the customer get what they really wanted.  How could you not tip this kind of service?  As a customer, the cash rightfully belongs in your own hand, or the person who helped you.  Why would your money go to anyone else?

The Innocent World of Comfortable Ideas

Discomfort of Innocence, by Mohammed alalawi - Copy
Discomfort of Innocence.  Photo by Mohammed Alalawi

Why do you hang out with people like you?  Because you have to be friends with your friends’ friends.  Society does not give you permission to dislike (or not know) your friends-of-friends.  It’s called the forbidden triad.  There is a complex quantitative puzzle involving triangles with plus and minus signs, all coded and ready for an elaborate statistical analysis.  You can peek at the math in this October 2016 overview of the research by Dustin Stoltz, a PhD candidate at University of Notre Dame.

But back to people.  The main problem is cognitive dissonance, that feeling you get when you are obliged to maintain two contradictory opinions at the same time.  An example may be that you both love and hate a particular family member, politician, or manager in your workplace.  Cognitive dissonance makes you uncomfortable, and you aspire to greater comfort.  Therefore, you will choose between contradictory opinions and let one prevail over the other.  So, you decide that you like that complex person.  If you then meet a third-party who dislikes that person, you have to even-out the triangle.  You will be motivated to change the third person’s mind, change your own mind, or just stop hanging out with the third party.    If everyone does this, friendships and world views will evolve within cliques that are internally consistent, comfortable, and smug.  But that’s not so clever.

That is because social networks are held together by people who choose to maintain contradictory opinions.  They foster civil dialogue, cultivate plurality, and agree to disagree.  It’s not so much that they are smarter, although that may still be the case.  It’s that the exploration of the best information and the most diverse opinions guarantees contradiction.  You will find attributes that seem contradictory but not mutually exclusive, such as sensitivity and courage.  You will find rival facts, such as the prevailing research on global warming and colder winters in your own locale.  And there will be facts that change quickly, such the price of oil or a change of government.

Workforce Analytics and the Workplace Culture of Curiosity and Discomfort

If you place comfort ahead of maximum information, then you have to insulate yourself from contradiction.  Yet this can be a big mistake in the modern world.  How could you possibly choose a stable mindset when the amount of information is exploding, technology is disrupting everything, and ideas and opinions go round the world in a heartbeat.  It’s a wild and crazy world we live in.  You must choose discomfort, and reject the allure of smug.

In workforce analytics, there is a great divide between colleagues and clients who are curious about new information and those who are not.  It often feels like I exclusively support those hungry for the new, who like the challenge, who want to pick up a few tricks.  Yet those who are more settled in their views or slower to change need to be brought along for the ride.  That is because at the center of the social network people are obliged to commit to, and support, prevailing views.  They tend to agree with one another just like you might do with your own friends.  Looking outward to the fringes of the network, you might see a wider variety of irregular opinions, trends, and opportunities.  The fringe is full of people who are removed from the network in some way, be it marginal legal status, geographic isolation, exclusion, or just looking different.  To bring diverse views from the fringe to the center (and vice-versa) obliges us to maintain contradictory opinions.

The prescription that we must become uncomfortable applies equally to social trends, new technology, and disruptive workforce analytics.  In your workplace, you may have had one opinion for a very long time.  When you are presented with change or new evidence, it is one thing to simply obey orders or comply with the data.  But if you really want to be clever, it is far better to hold onto that moment of discomfort for a while to get a sense of what everyone else is going through.  Only then can you talk to diverse people who think and live in different worlds.  And only then can you fine-tune new evidence to make it presentable to a broader audience.

If we are to disrupt normal ways of doing things through emerging information, we must stand at the bridge between two worlds, be prepared to disrupt ourselves, and get used to discomfort.

Data Democracy, For Better or Worse

Vote Here. By Andrew DuPont
Vote Here. Photo courtesy of Andrew DuPont

Do you wish that there was more equality in our access to information?  I do.  In the past (i.e. a few decades ago) it used to be far more common for information to be more tightly-held by those with power.  However, major employers are pushing data downward into the hands of more people within their organization.

Here is an interesting article about data democratization, a buzzword that warrants some clarity.  Author Bernard Marr, in his July 2017 article in Forbes, describes data democratization through general themes.  An organization’s internal data is no longer “owned” by the Information Technology department, rather the data is put into the hands of diverse users.  Everyone has access to the data and there are no gatekeepers creating an access bottleneck.  People from varied ranks and diverse professional backgrounds can use the data to advance their goals.  There are down-sides, including redundant efforts by distributed users, concerns about data security, the fact that some data still exists in silos, and misunderstandings by those who don’t deal with the data every day.

It’s important to take this phenomenon seriously as a trend that is building steam, and which is probably here to stay.

In my opinion, the word “democracy” is problematic.  For example only those with digital literacy who are inside the organization can take full advantage.  Those with more power can use the new information more significantly to their advantage.  There also tends to be a winner-takes-all outcome, where the person with the best information and the most sophisticated ability to use it tends to come out ahead.

While you might think that these phenomena imply data is undemocratic, guess again.  Electoral democracy, although pure in spirit, tends only to involve between one-half and three-quarters of voters who cast a ballot.  Those who are powerful (i.e. business owners and property owners) have a strange ability to get more out of elected governments than others.  And those who are the best at politics will tend to win all of the power, leaving others in the dust.  Much like parliamentary democracy, data democracy works best for those who have the upper hand.  In both cases, the system is a pseudo-democracy of established interests choosing amongst themselves who they will share power with.  I think that’s called aristocracy.

Chasing Your Tail, Finding Your Soul

Chasing his tail. Courtesy of Lil Shepherd
Chasing his tail. Photo courtesy of Lil Shepherd

Do you want to get promoted?  Here’s a quick tip… you probably don’t want to get promoted.  It’s extremely common for people to attribute their hopes and dreams to the single most common solution to their woes, which is a promotion into a higher-paying job.  But that’s not how our souls really work.

The “long tail” is a theory attributed to Chris Anderson of Wired and TED fame.  The long tail theory is that for many cultural products – books, movies, and music – we over-rely on a small number of great works that are immensely popular.  But there is also a very large amount of product that you might have enjoyed, if only you knew about it, it was easy to access, and you didn’t care that much what others thought about your taste.  If you want to get geeky, the long tail web site describes this concept using a power law distribution (1/x), where the popular goods are at the peak on the far left, constituting the “big head,” and the lesser-known goods tail off to the right, going on forever into smaller and smaller numbers, hence the “long tail.”

Bricks-and-mortar storefronts prefer to sell large volumes of popular goods, in order to reduce production and storage costs.  By contrast, things sold over the internet can be stored at low cost and sold in low volumes at reasonable profit.  The internet opens up your access to a greater diversity of concepts, allowing you to bypass overly-popular mainstream content.

It’s important to keep our eyes on consumer data, because consumer-based big data is about one decade ahead of human resources analytics in terms of maturity.

For those in human resources the long tail phenomenon is a good metaphor for career advancement concerns of employees.  Consider our societal obsession with vertical career movement and the opportunity to make more money by working longer hours and enduring greater stress.  Contrast that mainstream goal with the possibility of thousands of careers to choose from, a wide range of work-life balance concerns and solutions, and unusual combinations of hours of work and locations of work.

When people meet with career coaches, the employee will often name career advancement as their primary goal, typically to the rank of Director.  But after some inquiry, it often turns out that there is a deeper personal objective which is more important to them.  It could be energy level, the challenge, pride in craftsmanship, helping others, or greater independence.  But each of these individual objectives can be achieved through more targeted efforts.  Promotion is only one way to make life better, and in some cases it makes life worse if it takes us further away from the deeper goal.

Career decisions and deeper goals will occasionally line up with the mainstream.  For example, it’s usually an all-round good idea to get a degree.  But if your motivations are unique, think of your life choices as the equivalent of an obscure garage band with a cult following of two hundred people.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter if everyone else is doing it.  But it always matters if you’re doing what’s right for you.

Bias Bad for Business

Hiding, by Wes Peck
Hiding.  Photo courtesy of Wes Peck

Bias is bad for productivity.  Here’s an overview of a study that came out in July 2017.  The findings are that perceptions of bias have a negative impact on idea-sharing and job commitment.  “Of employees who experienced bias, 34% reported withholding ideas or solutions in the last six months and 48% said they looked for a new job while at their current job during the same time period.”

Perceptions of implicit bias are reduced by an inclusive environment. “Employees were 64% less likely to perceive bias at companies with diverse leaders, 87% less likely when they had inclusive leaders, and 90% less likely when they had sponsors.”

The methodology was to compare self-assessments of employee potential to those employees’ estimates of how they would be rated by their manager.  Larger gaps were interpreted as an indicator of bias.  There’s room for debate about the methodology, but the findings ring true.  That is, that managers who favour people like themselves discourage the productivity of a diverse workforce.  Bias is simply malfunctioning thinking.  Leading an organization with malfunctioning thought would presumably be a hindrance to workplace effectiveness.