Information is the New Sugar

pie. by chad glenn. (=)
pie. Photo courtesy of chad glenn.

On Pi Day, are you able to resist temptation?

The bright colours?

The sweet flavours?

Maybe once a year it’s good for you.  But what if you were force-fed sweets every day?  That’s what’s happening today with information.

In an article in Wired, author Zynep Tufekci makes a comparison to food when describing the addictive power of information.

“…within the next few years, the number of children struggling with obesity will surpass the number struggling with hunger. Why? When the human condition was marked by hunger and famine, it made perfect sense to crave condensed calories and salt. Now we live in a food glut environment, and we have few genetic, cultural, or psychological defenses against this novel threat to our health.”

The author compares our food behaviours to our current addictions to highly processed data:

“Humans are a social species, equipped with few defenses against the natural world beyond our ability to acquire knowledge and stay in groups that work together. We are particularly susceptible to glimmers of novelty, messages of affirmation and belonging, and messages of outrage toward perceived enemies. These kinds of messages are to human community what salt, sugar, and fat are to the human appetite.”

There was a time when humans desperately needed food and new information.  Once these needs are satisfied the ability of industry to exploit our lingering sense of need and push unhealthy variants and volumes became the next big threat.

With food, it is helpful to seek out existing traditions in which things have been figure out already.  Healthy people eat in a manner that resembles the cuisine of their grandparents, rejecting processed foods and fad diets alike.  To quote Michael Pollan, the food writer, “eat food, not to much, mostly plants.”  So, if we were to seek healthy and viable traditions in the free flow of information, where would we turn?

Pi Day is a great place to start.  In the late nineties, I stayed at the home of a family friend named Larry Shaw, a science educator at the San Francisco Exploratorium.  During this trip Larry handed me a slice of pie on March 14.  I didn’t figure out until years later that he was the creator of Pi Day.  Larry looked like a hippie, and he had a great sense of fun.  But he was closer-at-heart to a serious movement to empower people to disagree with those with power, and express disagreements through free speech.

We watched a brief documentary about the Freedom of the Speech Movement.  In 1964 a man named Jack Weinberg was arrested for distributing political materials on the Berkeley campus.  Students encircled the police car Weinberg was in.  There was a 32-hour stand-off during which activist Mario Savio gave a compelling speech, saying:

“There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious — makes you so sick at heart — that you can’t take part. …you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

In the era of social media and big data we are experiencing this same problem, but in reverse.  In decades past, government and industry asserted legal power and made threats against the publication of some news.  Coercion-narrowed perspectives whipped the public mood into compliance.  When protests break out today, we know about it through social media in minutes, without the support of broadcast media.  This should be the golden era of free speech.  But it’s not.

Nowadays when you see news it is unclear if you are receiving something accurate.  And if you are the one posting the video Tufecki asks “…is anyone even watching it?  Or has it been lost in a sea of posts from hundreds of millions of content producers?”  It’s not the case that accurate news is reaching the broadest audience, and it’s not the case that you as a citizen can make your voice heard.

Social media offers a community experience that is equivalent to shopping for groceries at a convenience store.

Tufekci notes that the world’s attention is overwhelmingly funnelled through Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Twitter.  These entities

“…stand in for the public sphere itself. But at their core, their business is mundane: They’re ad brokers. …they sell the capacity to precisely target our eyeballs. They use massive surveillance of our behavior, online and off, to generate increasingly accurate, automated predictions of what advertisements we are most susceptible to…”

The author makes the case that freedom of speech is not an end in its own right.  Rather, it is a vehicle through which we achieve other social goals, such as public education, respectful debate, holding institutions accountable, and building healthy communities.  Consider Savio’s “bodies upon the gears” speech and you know he wasn’t in this so you could look at food porn or cat videos.

We shall seek the best possible recipe for our knowledge.  We need to read books, watch well-produced documentaries, and talk to trustworthy friends who are knowledgeable on the right topic.  We must be skeptical of those in power but even more skeptical about friends who coddle us with complacent views.  Seek information that is healthy and fulfilling, and guard it like a borrowed recipe from your grandmother’s box of index cards.

And yet, enjoy small amounts of rumor and gossip, like the indulgence in a favorite slice of pie.  You still get to have fun, once in a while.  You’re still human.

Not Too Shocking – Those High Numbers from AI Job Disruption

Shocked. By Mark Turnauckas.
Shocked. Photo courtesy of Mark Turnauckas.

Can you think of a time you took advantage of a new technology, and in the process got way more work done?  We’re all going to need more stories like this in order to stay ahead of the game.

I’ll never forget my first exposure to a pirated version of Microsoft Excel.  I was in graduate school in 1994 and a young woman in my class, Bev, handed me a stack of eight floppy disks held together with a blue elastic band.  She told me Excel was way better than what I was using.  Six months later I had finished an entire graduate thesis based on clever charts and tables I had created using new software.  Six months after that, I was at a firm in one of the towers in Toronto’s downtown core with experienced consultants lining up at my cubicle, waiting for some solid analysis.  My mind had co-evolved around the technology, and I was valued.

For many months I was the only analyst on a team that had four consultants.  When new technologies are brought in, sometimes one person can do the work of several peers.  And this appears to be a concern today with incoming technologies, such as artificial intelligence, internet of things, and analytics.

There has been some excitement lately about McKinsey’s report that 800 million jobs will be eliminated worldwide by technology.  Reading the content of the report – not just the media coverage – I can assure you that it’s far less dramatic.

First, the 800 million jobs was the upside of a forecasted range, and the authors recommend considering the mid-point of the range, which is 400 million jobs.  Those 400 million jobs are proportional to 15% of current work activities in the global labour market.  These job losses are not expected to be immediate, as this is a forecast into 2030 – twelve years from now.  This means the forecast is closer to 30-35 million jobs lost per year, which seems far more modest on a planet with 7.6 billion inhabitants.

But it gets better.  Of the 400 million jobs lost, only 75 million jobs will be eliminated altogether.  The remaining job losses will be in cases where parts of our jobs will be eliminated.  About 30% of “constituent” work will be automated for 60% of occupations.  That is, there will be bots taking care of the more mundane parts of our jobs.  It remains to be seen whether this shift will result in 30% less employment, or if our outputs will just be more efficient.  There may be a line-up at your own desk, with senior people increasingly reliant on your own unique, human-machine hybrid.

This technological revolution will have more dramatic impacts on industrialized economies such as Canada, the U.S. and Europe.  New technologies have a cost of implementation, and cost savings are needed to justify the investment.  A lot of cost savings can be found in eliminating expensive jobs.  But in the developing world, wages are lower and the gains of the new technology won’t always outweigh the cost.  The trade-offs between hiring people and bringing in new technology often tips towards employing people in those places where wages are low.  It’s in the industrialized world where we will see the most change.

In my opinion (not necessarily McKinsey’s), this will have an impact on political optics.  Jobs will appear to be eliminated in industrialized economies and then magically reappear in the developing world.  But the back-story is that technology allows work to be done with fewer employees and more machines in industrialized countries.  And those western workplaces will have competition from countries where it is not optimal to bring in new technologies.  The jobs created in developing countries will look like the same jobs that used to exist in the West.  But that’s not what’s going on.  Developing economies are just briefly immune to the more-expensive technology, for as long as those countries have low wages.

McKinsey also reviewed the history of technological change and found that there tends to be a net gain from new technologies.  The technology benefits someone — the buyer, investor, or some new profession or trade.  That someone spends money in a manner that creates different jobs, often by taking advantage of yetanother new technology.  Those 400 million lost jobs are likely to be the downside of a net-gain from technology.

This raises the difficult issue of things getting better on average.  As I described in an earlier post, if one million jobs are eliminated and a million-plus-one jobs are created, this is a net gain of one job.  In the minds of economists, this is considered progress.  However, looking at the blow-back from voters in industrialized countries, it appears that we must now pay very close attention to the millions who were on the downside of this net-gain.  And perhaps you know some of these people.

McKinsey was all over this issue:

“Midcareer job training will be essential, as will enhancing labour market dynamism and enabling worker redeployment.  These changes will challenge current educational and workforce training models…  Another priority is rethinking and strengthening transition and income support for workers caught in the cross-currents of automation.” (p. 8)

Within the human resources crowd, we are experienced at either enduring push-back from unions, or anticipating labour’s response with meaningful policies and initiatives.  But regardless of whether you are sympathetic to the underclass, or just trying to implement a new technology as quickly as possible, you can see that society’s success at adapting to this change will hinge on the personal experience of those who have lost.

Looking around us, it seems like we are all trying to get our footing, trying to figure out for that one special thing that sets ourselves apart.  You might not be told ahead of time what that thing should be.  In fact, you might need to figure it out entirely by yourself.  But those who are always working on their angle will have a better shot than those who are relying on prior wins.

Sure, there might be an employer who is loyal enough to set you up for success, or a program or union that will help with the job transition.  But as we take turns eliminating each other’s jobs, you might want to hold onto a dash of selfishness.  If you can bot-boss your way into a superior level of productivity, you might have a shot at being that one valued employee on the upside of a turbulent net-gain.

Either as a society, or as an individual, you need to write yourself into a story where you reached for the power cord and taught the corporate machine to work for you.

All Qualified Felons Are Encouraged to Apply

Under Arrest, by Chris Yarzab
Under Arrest.  Photo courtesy of Chris Yarzab.

When you think of a prison work force, your mind naturally drifts to chain gangs in striped clothing smashing rocks with pick axes. Well, it may be time to update your perception. Employers in the US are increasingly hiring job applicants who have criminal records.  It’s a sign of a tight labour market where employers are desperate to fill positions.

In a great New York Times article from January 2018, Ben Casselman details the many ways in which people are getting a little more out of the jobs market.  To clarify, workers are getting more out of it.  But employers have to put in extra effort.  The criminal-hiring phenomenon appears in varying degrees depending on the unemployment rate, particularly in places where unemployment is below 4%.

“In Dane County, Wis., where the unemployment rate was just 2 percent in November, demand for workers has grown so intense that manufacturers are taking their recruiting a step further: hiring inmates at full wages to work in factories even while they serve their prison sentences.”

The effects of the low unemployment rate go beyond those with criminal records.

“Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based software company that analyzes job-market data, has found an increase in postings open to people without experience. And unemployment rates have fallen sharply in recent years for people with disabilities or without a high school diploma.” (Emphasis added)

Those who have experienced prolonged bouts of joblessness are also able to make gains.

When governments attempt to design better social programs, they often say the labour market does the heavy lifting.  That is, when those dependent on social supports are suddenly able to work and then they find work, employment does big things for their wellbeing.  A man named Jordan Forseth is showing up at work in a car that he bought with the money he earned while in prison.  He says that this arrangement is giving him a “second chance.”

In the United States, labour force participation fell dramatically over 20 years.  During those two decades a lot of people lost good jobs in the manufacturing sector, or lost jobs in their small-town locale.  They assumed they would never find similar work.  Discouraged workers create the illusion of low unemployment, because they don’t show up in the statistics for “people seeking work”.  But as employers exert more effort to hire those who had been passed-over, there is encouragement, and those workers come back into the market.

It’s a feel-good story, reading about employers who are going out of their way to hire the disenfranchised.  But what does this mean for ordinary employers who have not put in this effort?  Well, they could soon be in a bind, and this could mean you.  The active recruitment of discouraged workers is a social technology, if we were to define technology as a way of organizing production.  If the external environment has created a combination of opportunities and threats that imply that we should adopt a certain technology, then the businesses that adapt first can have a competitive advantage.

It can take a year or longer to adapt to other social technologies such as anti-bullying legislation, the acknowledgement that addiction and mental health are one-in-the-same, and the obligation to terminate super-stars who sexually harass juniors.  These new methods of organizing can be just as disruptive as computer-based technologies such as cloud computing, online delivery of learning tools, and the use of analytics.

One of the most challenging features of this new social technology is that people will need to trust prisoners and ex-convicts in order to work with them comfortably.  Similar to a newfangled device being brought into your workplace, you might worry that the new way of doing things can cause harm.  However, it should be noted that in several jurisdictions, there are human rights rules that prevent an employer for screening-out applicants based on crimes that are irrelevant to the job requirements.  For example, a drunk-driving conviction might be prohibited grounds for a job that does not require any driving.  This means that the social technology may already be in place, as legislation, and it’s just a question of whether you will comply and keep up with the times.

It’s ironic… that in order to screen-out job applicants who have broken society’s rules, an employer would be put-upon to break a different societal rule.  These rules are tucked inside human rights codes alongside rules against discriminating on the basis of race and sex.  And we should know from the advanced class on employment equity, that in order for us to all get along we need to know each other’s stories.  So what was the convict’s story?  Are they so much different from you, as a human?  Perhaps with your strength and wisdom you have an obligation to cultivate trust, rather than use mistrust as an excuse.

In order to stay at the cutting edge, employers need to adapt to one more compelling, externally-imposed change:  rethink your ideas about the less-fortunate.  Because one day they might be helping you.

Dig Deeper and Discover Employees Are Human

010-hard-work, by jdxyw [edits]
010-hard-work.  Photo courtesy of jdxyw.
In an earlier post I summarized Josh Bersin’s 2018 forecast of disruptive technologies in HR, which I followed-up with an overview of the leadership styles implied by the technology.  My experience with the technology and analytics is that many of the logical elements of human resources can now be figured out with increased ease.  Or rather, it’s easy if you figured them out last year.  But once we have figured out the numbers, it is the social and qualitative factors that become important.

When describing the analytics Bersin names four different types of data:

  • HRMS data
  • Relationship data
  • Wellbeing data
  • Sentiment data

The relationship data described above is a reference to Organizational Network Analytics (ONA), which uses social network theory to look at the way people interact.  ONA collects data from email traffic, meeting attendance, phone calls, and geographic proximity.  It takes a lot of work to get the data to sing, but we already know some of the implications from pre-existing research on social networks.

Information and opportunities flow through the social networks with partial disregard for rank, department, or a person’s commitment to the institution itself.  Sometimes powerful and important people have good connections… but sometimes they do not, and sometimes there are lesser-known influencers who are the key.

Your new status in a network will be influenced by your ability to consider contradictory opinions, your curiosity about new perspectives, and your connections to people in diverse cliques.  Keeping the channels open will be key to your success.  But the best opportunities are to coordinate the entire network for organizational gain, rather than to rig it to favour one individual (be it yourself or someone else).  Think of this as being like pay equity on steroids; once you measure and publicize how things have been organized, there will be an immediate impetus to re-orient everything towards fairness and performance.

Beyond social networks, sentiment data opens a major opportunity.  Your opportunities for analysis jump dramatically once you ask people their story, their context, their emotions, and how this experience relates to their home life and how they describe themselves as people.  Qualitative data has turned out to the missing puzzle piece that everyone was looking for.  It’s difficult to get to because analysts need the humility to talk to people who aren’t always great at math.  Some of the best insights about the subjective experience comes from journalists, novelists, philosophers, and people in the arts.  You really need to show up at those kinds of dinner parties because when it’s time to design your model or your AI to mimic human behaviour, you need to know what it means to be human in the first place.

Increasingly, people analytics is a velvet-roped line up to board a greyhound bus that takes you to destinations unknown.  When you get off that bus, you will find you are not being led to a four-star hotel or the hip new club.  Rather, you are unloaded at a diner where a long-lost cousin shares old photos, your best friend calls you on your bull, and you re-discover that one small thing that’s truly important to you.  The truth doesn’t feel good because it’s cool, the truth makes you feel right because it helps you become authentic.

The deeper you go into the data, the more you realize that people are vulnerable, complex, and hiding great potential.  They want to talk, and it’s your job to listen.

Technology Can Reverse the Pecking Order

Photographers expand horizons in 2010 Army Digital Photography Contest 110311. By U.S. Army
Photographers expand horizons in 2010 Army Digital Photography Contest 110311.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

It’s funny how a small change in technology can disrupt hierarchy.  As new technologies collect better information about employees, it puts management under increased scrutiny.  In my last post I summarized Josh Bersin’s 2018 forecast of disruptive technologies in HR.  While it is interesting to see that there are tools available that allow us to be more effective, there are dramatic implications to the way we work.

After much delay, it appears that the long-awaited labour shortage has finally arrived.  Bersin notes that this will make an appearance as a “war for talent” with recruiting becoming more competitive.  Chatbots are automating parts of the recruitment process, applicant-tracking systems are making things simpler, there is a wider range of tools for assessing candidates, and I would note that it’s possible to use technology to reduce bias (assuming the AI has been taught to not pass forward pre-existing bias).  Many of these technologies have been pioneered already, which means 2018 will be a year of diffusion.

I think there is a social element of this war for talent that warrants more discussion.  That is, when good employees are being fought over they are more likely to ask for pay increases, apply for promotions, and leave their current workplace for something better.  But it can get even more dramatic when employees are bold enough to sign union cards, tell-off their harasser, and speak openly about how to improve management.  These shifts oblige managers to change.  We can’t pretend that everything is normal.  Hiring managers must start treating employees like they are valued, respected, and deserving of growth.  That’s what it looks like amongst managers who are keeping pace.  By contrast, it may suddenly look odd that there are managers who lack this collaborative orientation.

In the discussion of continuous performance management, Bersin references goal-setting and coaching.  We can’t really slip these items into a discussion of performance management without acknowledging that ground-up performance conversations are not yet fully established.  If emerging research recommends that good managers take a coaching approach, what are the implications for managers using a prescriptive approach running off a forced-distribution scorecard?  Simply put, command-and-control managers need to change their style.

For decades, the research has been bubbling just beneath the surface.  The reality is that for employees, true motivation comes from within, and their ability to align personal motivations to their employer’s strategic environment is key.  Engaged employees achieve two-times or three-times the productivity of other employees, and leadership style is a major factor in achieving high engagement.  The new technology is designed to help managers with that leadership style, but there aren’t a lot of apps that will help advance an archaic style.

On the wellbeing side, there is a variety of new tools to monitor cognitive overload and nudge people to exercise, sleep better, and eat better.  We have so overburdened people with meaningless and counter-productive work obligations that we have to reduce workload to improve productivity.  Deloitte has a good model that describes how engagement, productivity, and wellbeing are integrated into a unified concept.  Wellbeing is not really about fruits-and-veggies advocacy any more; it is integrated into peoples’ ability to focus on their best work.

I’m fascinated by the way this trend up-ends the hierarchy.  As a result of the wellbeing imperative, the people who need to “work harder” are management and leadership who are obliged to clarify goals, cultivate a positive work culture, and encourage employees to seek growth opportunities.  Looking back, it seems like a manager-driven culture which obliges employees to follow orders and be happy with their lot in life is hopelessly archaic.

Thankfully, we don’t need to debate the best leadership style because transformational leadership simply out-performs the alternative.  Just wait a few years and the only teams left standing will be the ones that have stayed at the forward edge.  Lucky for us, this collaborative style makes work more fun.

In my next post we will explore how subjective and qualitative information are making technology and analytics whole.

HR Technology – Get Ready For the Big Shake!

Day 119 - Shake it all about. By JLK_254
Day 119 – Shake it all about. Photo courtesy of JLK_254.

Looking back, it feels like 2017 was a big crazy dog that we watched playing in the water.  That dog has now come out of the water, it’s coming right at you and… get ready for the shake.  There’s never a dull moment in the world of technological disruptions in human resources and workforce analytics.

It’s becoming clear that the disruptions of the near-future will rely increasingly on human resources departments.  Items such as workplace learning, change management, and leadership development are being increasingly flagged by leaders outside of HR as critical to success in their own fields.  Meanwhile, and the ground level looking upward, employees are getting blunt about their expectations for career growth, workforce diversity, and a sense of organizational purpose.  Organizations trying to get on top of these issues without saying “human resources” are running out of euphemisms.

With a new year ahead of us, Josh Bersin of Bersin by Deloitte has published his forecasts for 2018.  In this case Bersin’s forecast is a list of emerging trends in human resources technology, a narrower focus than in the past.  Nonetheless, as everyone grips for emerging technological disruption in a variety of fields, it makes sense for us to consider how technology will disrupt human resources itself.

In my two subsequent posts I will describe how these innovations imply a different workplace culture and  leadership style, and increase the importance of qualitative information and our interpretations of the employee context.  For now, just consider that all work can change, and the people helping workplaces adapt to change are also changing themselves.  HR is just getting a double dose.

At-a-glance, Bersin’s top ten trends are as follows:

  1. A Massive Shift from “Automation” to “Productivity”
  2. Acceleration of HRMS and HCM Cloud Solutions, But Not the Center of Everything
  3. Continuous Performance Management is Here: And You Should Get With It
  4. Feedback, Engagement, and Analytics Tools Reign
  5. Reinvention of Corporate Learning is Here
  6. The Recruiting Market is Thriving With Innovation
  7. The Wellbeing Market is Exploding
  8. People Analytics Matures and Grows
  9. Intelligent Self-Service Tools
  10. Innovation Within HR Itself

For the uninitiated, Human Capital Management (HCM) cloud solutions (#2) is the technology that delivers databases known as human resources management systems (HRMS) on a fee-for-service basis through off-site cloud-based servers.  It’s disruptive because previous systems involved the purchase of an application which was stored on in-house servers alongside the data itself, with everything being owned and modified by the buyer.  Switching to cloud solutions means that you must steward and cultivate data carefully to allow it to dovetail with the rented solution, like a millwright, but with data.  These solutinos allow employers to take full advantage of all configurations in the latest version of the software.  There is far more functionality.  But the increased functionality won’t work unless your data is good and you figure out how to use the new modules.  This change has large implications for human resources, information technology, and daily users of the database.

Prior to now, most People Analytics (#8) was a combination of advanced analytics interpreting data that comes off the core database, plus a bunch of emerging data coming out of engagement analytics (#4).  But now, those two items are just the major platforms.  There are systems that used to be fringe players in HR but are now increasingly critical… and they need their own enabling technology.  Some of the technology hinges on the HRMS, but some of it does not.  For example, workplace learning (#5) and wellbeing initiatives (#7) used to be something that you could operate off an Office suite using a research-based model that followed the best literature in pedagogy or public health.  The best content would be distributed face-to-face, with limited need for software to make the difference.  Now the technology can help out so much more, and tools are becoming available to empower the traditional delivery methods to be more effective, more targeted, and better connected to analytics.

To some extent, everything is being disrupted in a manner that obliges us to think less about the technology itself and more about general productivity (#1).  Those delivering generalist human resources services are also seeing innovations in their own area.  Recruiting (#6) and performance management (#3) are being improved by technology, and a variety of self-service tools (#9) are automating operational tasks such as case management, document management and employee communications.  First we must obsess about the technology to get it to work for us, then we can clear that obstacle and get into new challenges.  Breaking new ground every day will give people in HR a lot of mojo, but only if we keep moving forward.

Bersin brings it all together by noting that it’s not just the purchased solutions that are transforming human resources teams.  In-house HR departments are disrupting themselves (#10), regardless of help from vendors.  Then they ask for help and the vendors themselves are struggling to keep up with clients.  When dealing with complicated case-work and finicky databases, in-house staff sometimes have a home team advantage.