And The Robot Looked Outward, Feeling Nothing Inside

P5190596, by Tim Brennan
P5190596.  Photo courtesy of Tim Brennan.
How close are we to achieving human-level artificial intelligence?  We’re making progress but it might be a long way off, possibly never.  There are five major milestones required in order for computers to become as intelligent as humans.  This is covered in a good Huffington Post article from October 2017.  Here are the highlights:

  • Generality is the idea that an approach from one domain can be applied to another. For example, tips on folding the laundry by doing the big-and-easy things first can be applied to other areas of work such as cleaning data.  Artificial Intelligence can do this kind of thing already.
  • Learning without being taught is another milestone. Deep Mind, a company owned by Google, has an artificial intelligence system called AlphaGo Zero which recently achieved this goal.  AlphaGo Zero set a goal and learned strategies to achieve that goal without having its hand held by programmers.
  • Transfer Learning is like generality but it allows humans to transfer one abstract concept (not just an approach) and apply it to a totally different context. It’s about using the pattern-forming behaviour of the human brain and applying symbolic approaches to the task at hand.  AI cannot do transfer learning yet, but they’re working on it.
  • Common Sense turns out to be hard for a computer to figure out. If you have been to a swimming pool you know that Michael Phelps must have got into pool in order to win an Olympic medal in swimming.  As a human you know that Phelps got wet.  Computers don’t know that Phelps got wet.  There is speculation that humans are running off memory and coming to a logical conclusion, and computers need this memory in order to pull together common sense.  They’re working on it.  It’s reminiscent of the new Blade Runner movie, which has brilliant sub-plot about the human-ness of our memories.
  • Self-awareness or consciousness in computers looks like it might never happen. This is the idea that humans can develop a subjective experience, which is experienced personally and might be quite different from the experience as observed by a neutral third-party.  They’re pretty sure they can get a computer to pretend to be self-aware, but on the inside it would have a cold heart.

I like the self-awareness question because it makes it sound like the smartest AI ever will be just like a psychopath who has perfected their game of crocodile tears.  We won’t even need to hire psychopaths any more because everything they are good at will be done by computers.

By the way, what jobs do we want to assign to psychopaths?  Just asking.

Everything Causes Everything Else

catfight. By Dennis Carr
Catfight. Photo courtesy of Dennis Carr.
Do you need to be engaged at work to be effective?  Sure, maybe.  But maybe not.

A provocative article by Alec Levenson from 2015 argues that Employee Engagement Does Not Cause Performance.  Levenson says the notion that employee engagement causes performance “makes intuitive sense yet does not hold up empirically.”  He argues that the link between engagement and performance is correlation, not causation.  Or rather, if there is causation it is probably the reverse; better corporate performance probably causes higher employee engagement.

I think this interpretation is consistent with the idea that a thriving and growing organization will tend to be in hiring mode and have a larger number of new hires who are in a high-engagement honeymoon phase.  Thriving businesses have newer machinery and newer buildings, and employees are subjected to endless compliments from family and friends for getting a good job at a winning company.  These factors may drive engagement regardless of the work experience.

Levenson notes that the statistical models are troublesome as they can confirm causation in either direction.  It’s a real problem in statistics.  Sometimes the causation can go in both directions or in a circle.  I exercise, so I sleep well, therefore I eat well, and – behold – I have energy to exercise.  Hiring is down, so consumer confidence is down, thus consumer spending is down, and hiring drops further.

Often there is a third factor causing everything else to happen.  Two major drivers of engagement are a collaborative workplace culture and pro-social front-line managers who make positive interventions.  Yet those items can drive productivity directly and engagement directly, resulting in a spurious correlation.

Within the economics field, there is a dirty little secret that everything causes everything else.  Economies are incredibly complex, and economic models often get more accurate as you add a larger number of variables.  Usually the biggest drivers of the economy are things like oil prices, interest rates, housing starts in the US, and consumer spending in China.  When you throw those major drivers into any cause-and-effect model, you usually discover that your personal project is not such a big deal.

However, I think the debate about the direction of causation is moot.  The world is a big, hot mess of major forces driving success and failure, and every now and then someone is able to make the case that they themselves caused everything to happen.  So what should you do?  Give appropriate thanks and move on with your own contribution.

As for the statistical causation, just take your placebo.  Take vitamins, drink that one glass of red wine per day, show up, answer the phone, and go with the flow.  After all, it’s really about your personal engagement, isn’t it?  And maybe the people working next to you.  So help them out, too.  Maybe you can help build team spirit and create a little spurious correlation while you’re at it.

Then The Introvert Spoke, And It Was Good

just a copy of... (cc) by Martin Fisch
“just a copy of…”  Photo courtesy of Martin Fisch.
When someone steps forward in a manner that sets themselves apart from the crowd, are they a natural leader?  Natural leader, maybe.  Good leader, perhaps not.

A gentleman named BG Allen has pulled together a compendium of resources on the topic of introverted leaders.  For those of you who are unfamiliar with Susan Cain’s blockbuster TED Talk on the Power of Introverts, introverts are reluctantly being put into the spotlight as potentially great contributors to society.  Introverts are being overlooked and misunderstood because they are in the minority and their unique difference reduces the likelihood their views will be heard.

Allen has found multiple sources beyond Susan Cain, that get into the unique contribution of introverts as leaders.  I tried to find if Allen had written a book about this.  He hasn’t, but an Amazon search on “introverted leader” reveals a dozen books on the topic.  There are great articles in Allen’s compendium, from Fast Company, Forbes, and Psychology Today.  The Psychology Today article even cites studies showing that introverted leaders that are not just adequate, they can also be superior leaders.

Although I am an extravert, I have personally benefitted from strong introverted leaders over the years.  You might have experienced the same thing.  I think that when we are at our very best, we come from a strong sense of internal strength, knowing our values and our thoughts with a clear sense of introspection.  I always look up to the strong introverts in my life who seem to be the masters of the internal journey.  I think it would be a good thing if we could cultivate this virtue in teams and in society by putting introverts in roles where they can lead by example and help others develop this strength.

My personal experience has been that as I aspire to be a better leader, I’m a little bit stronger when I hang back a little and let others talk.  I’m a little more clear-headed if I wonder why I think the things I think.  And I can cause others to be stronger by understanding what’s going on inside their own head and heart, independent of what sprang into my own mind seconds ago.

I think this emerging evidence of introverted leaders is best understood when you think of who are the very worst leaders.  The very worst leaders are those with poor emotional intelligence, bullies, narcissists, people who value their own excellence first and negate the contribution of juniors, and most importantly those who get ahead by smooth-talking their way into the next promotion.  These personality vices are often the mark of the extravert.  In order for an extravert to become increasingly excellent at leadership, they must avoid these pitfalls, seek solitude, and look inside themselves just a little more often than comes naturally to them.  Just pretend to be a little bit shy, and you might achieve greatness.  And if you’re already like that to begin with, be proud about it.  And tell somebody.

[Special notice: there is an event in Vancouver on the evening of Friday, November 17/2017 on the topic of “Introverts and Extroverts as Leaders” by Faris Khalifeh.  For more information look into tickets here.]

Tech Change Will Make Commies Of Us All!!

clenched fist

Is it just my imagination, or has there been an up-tick in socialist rhetoric lately?  Don’t get me wrong, I think that decisions about the role of government in our economy should be put in the hands of voters, and I recognize that for a few decades people steadily voted for less government.  But it looks like once every couple of weeks, another corporate heavyweight and another major news outlet presents a strong case that corporations have screwed it all up and it’s time for government to step in.

I’m counting this as a relevant topic for human resources generalists to take really seriously.  Brokering a compromise between the corporate mission and the sentiments of front-line workers is much of what we do all day, whether it’s in collective bargaining, employee communications, or just explaining a layoff to an affected employee.  So, when you’re trying to find an appropriate balance between the interests of unions and investors, it can be important to keep your fingers on the pulse.

In an article from Wired, the author criticizes Equifax, which released the confidential financial information of hundreds of millions of borrowers.  The author asserts that the Equifax breach is different from security breaches at regular bricks-and-mortar companies because Equifax’s entire reason for being is the safe storage of confidential information.  An effort at which they failed.  The author calls for the dissolution of Equifax’s corporate charter.

In my earlier blog post summarizing a major report by McKinsey on the structure of the gig economy, the general management consultancy started to leak spoonfuls of compassion.  The article notes that modernizing the social safety net may be warranted, in particular to extend social insurance systems to cover independent workers and those changing traditional jobs more frequently.  McKinsey also points to the pooling of workers by unions in the entertainment industry as a suitable vehicle for delivering health benefits coverage.

In an HBR article by Eric Garton from Bain & Company, another general management consulting firm, the author asserts that we should be investing more in employees to improve labour productivity.  After detailing a number of ways employee effort can be harnessed through employee engagement and a lower level of busy-ness, the author then turns to public policy.  Garton asserts that higher wages and investments in health care, training and education are among the possible additional improvements needed to achieve a better economy.

Over at Guardian.com, the left-leaning publication might normally be expected to call for greater government involvement in the economy.  But in this article they have abandoned those little comments from years gone by about tax-the-rich-here and social-programs-over-there.  They’re going for the jugular and calling for a government takeover of Google, Facebook, and Amazon.

The author explains that the first-to-market and winner-takes-all nature of these major platforms eliminate competition, voiding any pretense of a free market.  With artificial intelligence likely causing power and money to concentrate even further in future, nationalization might just be fair game:  “…utilities and railways that enjoy huge economies of scale and serve the common good have been prime candidates for public ownership. …Tinkering with minor regulations while AI firms amass power won’t do.”

Over at the Atlantic, they’re interviewing people in the Silicon Valley who are asserting that our consumer electronics have addictive properties that are deliberate and need to be curtailed.  One expert “…compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was established: keen to give customers more of what they want, yet simultaneously inflicting collateral damage on their lives.”

What should we do about being duped into staring at our smartphones far too often?  Why, open revolt, of course!  “Harris thinks his best shot at improving the status quo is to get users riled up about the ways they’re being manipulated, then create a groundswell of support for technology that respects people’s agency–something akin to the privacy outcry that prodded companies to roll out personal-information protections.”  On the low-end the same experts are calling for a shift to non-addictive behaviours, similar to switching to organic produce at the grocery store.  But that’s for lightweights.

Now, some of this might just be talk, and maybe we should take some of it with a grain of salt.  But next time you’re in the elevator or at the bargaining table or out for drinks with a friend who is stuck in their career, listen more closely.  As an HR professional you’re going to be expected to show that you’re in touch, and this kind of thing can sneak up on your.  So think carefully, ahead of time, what you’re going to say when you’re out in public and your best friend asks you to hold their pitchfork.

Cashiers Smile While Robots Take Stock

adobestock_100618923.jpeg

What jobs do we actually want the robots to take off our hands?  Boring, tedious jobs, for sure.  Walmart is deploying shelf-scanning robots to 50 stores on a trial basis. The robots are expected to browse the aisles and take inventory of items on shelves, identifying depleted items, misplaced items, and overlooked price changes.

The technology is expected to complement shelf-stockers rather than replace them.  That is, the robot will collect better and more-prompt information about what is on the shelves, and then humans will come by the exact shelf location and re-stock the shelf with the correct amount.  Apparently taking inventory is thankless and tedious work that can be automated, while the actual use of hands and eyes to move physical packages onto shelves is an overwhelmingly human behaviour, at least for now.

The video produced by Walmart explains the technology itself, then wraps up with the following statement:

When we combine the passion of our people with the power of technology the possibilities are endless.

While it sounds like a corporate-speak motherhood statement, these words are truer than you can imagine.  The empathy of human sales staff has an outsized impact on customer engagement, and as such the jobs which are most immune to technological disruption are those that deliver the human element of the customer experience.

So if you’re feeling blue and bewildered about all of the rapid technological change in the world, put on your happy face, make eye contact with someone you can help, and offer a hand.  It might actually improve your job security, directly.  Knowing you’re more secure, your smile might turn real.

Workers Have Upped Their Game. It’s Your Move!

039-hard-work, by jdxyw
039-hard-work.  Photo courtesy of jdxyw.
Does business make people productive, or is it people that make business productive?  It’s the latter.  Increasingly, in the modern economy, it’s people who keep the engines running, people who bring in revenue, and people who create profits.  And it’s becoming increasingly obvious that people have been neglected to the point that their full potential is not put to full use.

Eric Garton has written a compelling article for Harvard Business Review entitled The Case for Investing More in People.  Garton, from Bain & Company, has created and/or found strong research that makes the case that high-functioning human resources can be the best driver of corporate performance.  I haven’t read his book, but it looks like the article is an overview of his 2017 book Time, Talent, Energy.

Restoring Fairness in Wage Growth and Labour Productivity

There is a variety of metrics that show that labour market productivity (i.e. how much an individual worker puts out) has been growing at a very slow rate in the US relative to other countries and years past.  While labour market productivity is normally a good predictor of wage growth, the link has been broken such that even that meager growth that has been realized has not been passed along to employees.  This failure to re-invest in labour productivity is a problem.

The article cites a book by Zeynep Ton from MIT entitled The Good Jobs Strategy.  Ton notes a variety of businesses that have chosen to pay above-market wages in order to encourage employee engagement, which is increasingly seen as a driver of customer engagement.  The higher wages lead to “…lower levels of employee and customer churn, and correspondingly lower employee hiring and customer acquisition costs.  The compounding and virtuous effects of increasing customer and employee advocacy more than offset the higher cost of wages.” The decision to spend more on wages is not actually an expense so much as an investment.

We Are So Busy That We Are Unproductive

Garton also frets about employers carelessly wasting employees’ time.  Research shows that the over-abundance of interruptions and time-wasting meetings is causing employee burnout.  Particularly amongst managers “…great ideas that drive breakthroughs in productivity come from human beings with time, talent and energy to innovate.”  In my estimation an accidental or deliberate decision to slam managers with workload is a decision to reduce productivity.  Being cavalier about work volume implies a flippant view of workplace productivity, especially when people are working too hard.

The obligation to see every email, show up at countless meetings, and “look busy” is the hallmark of an organization that has chosen to do everything the same way, every day.  This hamster-wheel organization brings little hope to the future of labour productivity growth.  Yet there are opportunities to remedy this problem through productivity efforts such as Agile and Kaizen… if the workplace decides creative time is a desired business goal.  Remember, this is all about making choices.

Emotions Prevail: Employee Engagement is the Jet Fuel of Productivity

Another missing ingredient is employee energy.  In this case employee engagement is the focus.  “An inspired employee is more than twice as productive as a satisfied employee and more than three times as productive as a dissatisfied employee.  Yet, only one in eight employees is inspired.”

Personally, I’m fascinated by these performance metrics of an engaged employee.  If what the author says is true, and an inspired employee is producing 300 units, a satisfied employee is producing 200 units, and a dissatisfied employee is producing 100 units of output.  Can it be the case that turning an employee from dissatisfied to satisfied is proportional to a doubling their productivity?

That sounds about right to me.  People who are still feeling pretty good (i.e. “satisfied”) can probably get inspired and pour it on, increasing their productivity from 200 to 300 units (a decent 50% increase).  This means that for every 10% of the workforce that experiences a jump in employee engagement level, the return for the employer is in the realm of 5-10%.  And that’s mostly based on intangible items such as job design, power sharing, compassion, and open conversations.

That rate of return significantly out-performs most of what can be produced on the capital investment and cost-containment side of the productivity agenda.  I think that’s why we should conclude that the American investor class has completely screwed up their country’s ability to reach its full potential.  Low investment in labour productivity has been driving lower shareholder returns, flat wages, and generalized discontent.

Amongst society’s greatest woes is that people are working harder but not seeing any results in their paycheques, free time, or government services.  The instinct that we’re making sacrifices for the benefit of nobody but the investor class increasingly rings true.  The article notes that in addition to higher wages, investments in health care, training, and education are among the possible additional improvements needed to achieve a better economy.  If only there was some entity in the American economy that had accumulated extra money in the past few decades which might be available to pay for all of this…