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?

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.

Sorry Sir, I’m Just Not Feeling Motivated

Scream. Courtesy of Crosa.
Scream. Photo courtesy of Crosa.

What is the trade-off between a compassionate workplace culture and strong corporate performance?  Surprise, there isn’t one!  Corporate performance is subordinate to organizational culture and the emotional intelligence of senior leaders.

This article by Travis Bradberry of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 fame describes an interesting conundrum.  A large number of top corporate leaders have poor emotional intelligence.  The highest emotional intelligence is found amongst front-line managers and then each management level upward the leaders display increasingly diminished emotional intelligence.

Bradberry attributes this phenomenon to two factors.  First, corporate boards are selecting for leaders who deliver the numbers, such as profits, sales volumes, and stock price appreciation.  Second, the work environment of senior leaders impairs emotional intelligence and inhibits its growth.  Severe stress, lack of rest, regulatory enforcement, and a low-trust and blame-heavy environment can drag anyone into an emotional stone age (and keep them there).

What is fascinating is that corporate leaders with high emotional intelligence, although fewer in number, still perform better than others.  It may be that organizations will select the occasional gem of a leader, but otherwise we are mostly recruiting and promoting lower-functioning leaders into senior roles.  So how do mean bosses even get the job in the first place?

It is reminiscent of Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.  Pfeffer provides endless examples of how an executive’s career prospects are often inversely proportional to their performance.  In brief, being a cold and calculating savage will motivate people to not mess with you.  It is possible to rig your career towards a poisoned and under-performing work environment where you still reign supreme.  When corporate leaders spend all day making power plays, there appears to be no beneficiary of this behavior other than the leader.  Look directly at these kinds of leaders.  How are they doing?  They seem to be doing well.  It’s just everyone around them who is falling apart.  It’s all of those people who just can’t play the game and can’t keep up; they aren’t able to deliver corporate performance.  Of course, the punchline is that downstream inability to perform is a hallmark of inferior top leadership.

There is another consideration; do major corporations have sufficient protections against leaders who have personality disorders?  The best-known personality disorder is psychopathy, which is well-documented in Robert Hare’s Without Conscience.  The other disorders are important, but psychopaths are special.  When you get to know the type, it sounds like the personality of someone who perfectly reflects the values of an emotionless profit-maximizing corporation.

Indeed this was well documented in The Corporation, a movie by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan.  Their critique is that the behavior of major corporations (as institutions) ticks all of the boxes on the checklist of psychopath behaviors for people.  If we promote leaders who reflect corporate values, and the corporate values are that we should act like psychopaths, then who is going to end up in charge?

There is a lack of insight amongst psychopaths, corporations, and many corporate leaders, and this lack of insight is at the root of poor emotional intelligence.  Let’s face it, if you got cut off in traffic by some jerk on your way to the office, and then a colleague cuts in front of you at the coffee station, it’s easy to get snippy.  Do you keep control? Are you even aware that you’re just carrying-forward a residual emotion from an hour earlier?  I mean, if it’s possible to carry-forward quarterly accounting indicators, surely it’s possible to carry forward emotions.

How can corporations be unaware of the need for a compassionate working environment?  I think it’s because hierarchy diminishes the two-directional information flow up and down the chain of command.  If the board wants numbers, executives commit to deliver, and the rest of the hierarchy snaps into line, this reveals an opinion that the best opinions come from the top.  However, this might not be how the world really works.  It is an organization’s history, geography, and people that determine the culture.  And it is the culture that determines the customer experience, the spirit of innovation, a healthy attitude towards rules, compassion during crisis, and discretionary effort amongst staff.

One does not simply demand good numbers.  Rather, we harvest good numbers from a well-cultivated culture.

Honey, I Shrank the Unemployed

Shrink Tricks. By Arne Endriks (Edited)
Shrink Tricks. Photo courtesy of Arne Endriks.

What if we just pretended that society’s problems had already disappeared?  It sounds dicey, but that’s often how things are done.  People who are struggling with unemployment are having a hard time explaining their lives.  And if you’re sitting in a job in human resources, you know that you have to understand this crowd.  Whether you’re administering layoffs and terminations, sorting through a long list of unqualified job applicants, or talking to friends and family who have a little problem at work, you know that the bewildered masses are your people.  But thankfully, you can make their problems disappear through government statistics.

An article from June 1, 2017 in the Huffington Post notes that the share of Canadians with a job has hit  a record high.  The content can be dense and confusing, but at issue is that people wrongly think the unemployment rate is a meaningful indicator of how well the economy is doing.  For labour economists, unemployment rates border on being a garbage statistic.

The unemployment rate is the number of people who have jobs divided by the number of people in the labour force.  But people have all kinds of reasons for not being in the labour force.  These include: discouragement from a long unemployment spell, disability, the decision to stay at home with kids, retirement, financial independence, postsecondary studies, prison, and travel.  Governments can also reduce unemployment by deciding that certain people aren’t trying hard enough to get a job and, therefore, they aren’t really in the labour market.  There’s a lot going on that has nothing to do with economic statistics.  Since the labour force is half of the equation, the unemployment rate itself is of debatable value.  You can still use it occasionally (i.e. for month-over-month comparisons), but only with caution.

A far better statistic is the employment-to-population (EP) ratio.  We know who has a job, and we know how large the population is.  Take these totals, divide one by the other, and suddenly the data is clean and interesting.

The Huffington Post article notes that the EP ratio in Canada is now 78.6 percent, its highest level since Statistics Canada first started measuring this in 1976.  That’s good for Canada.

It’s also interesting to look at the second diagram in the article, which describes the labour force participation rate.  The labour force participation rate takes those two denominators we described earlier and combines them.  It is the number of people who are in the labour market divided by the population (within the relevant age group).  The labour force participation rate disregards whether the person actually has a job; it’s an indicator of how involved people are in the world of work.

Canada has a high participation rate relative to the US.  Amongst the working-age population, over 77 percent of Canadians work or are looking for work.  Labour force participation rates in the US used to be 77 percent, back in the late 1990s.  In the twenty years since, participation has slipped 5% to 72 percent.  The decline happened during three different presidents, and only half of the decline was during that nasty recession that started in 2008.

Long story short, the US has an unemployment rate of 4.1%, but they have an extra 5% of the population that could work but doesn’t.  It’s the tale of two economies, two Americas.  There is one America where things are bright and sunny, people aspire to career growth, and they talk about red wine and heirloom tomatoes.  But in the other America, things are not so great.  Theirs is a world where people lost their jobs to globalization or technology, lost their homes to the mortgage fiasco, and are now losing family members to the opioid crisis.  This is a crowd for whom voting for Donald Trump is totally rational.

Yes, we can pretend that society’s problems don’t affect us, and that those who don’t fit into the new economy are not our concern.  But those who don’t fit in get to speak their mind, and it’s not in a way that some find pleasant.

It’s About Policing Numbers, Not Number of Police

The Police, by Luca Venturi
The Police.  Courtesy of Luca Venturi.

Can big data reduce crime?  Yes it can.  This is a great TED Talk by Anne Milgram about using analytics to improve the criminal justice system.  The talk from October 2013 describes how Milgram successfully attempted to “moneyball” policing and the work of judges in her role as attorney general of New Jersey.  Hers is a great story, and has many features in common with the Moneyball book and movie.

The speaker describes how she built a team, created raw data, analyzed it, and produced simple and meaningful tools.  Her most impressive outcome is a risk assessment tool that helps judges identify the likelihood a defendant will re-offend, not show up in court, or commit a violent act.  She and her team have successfully reduced crime.

Baseball players and police officers alike have a culture of bravado and confidence which may be critical when handling conflict, intimidation, and credibility.  Yet what police officers and baseball players often need is a safe space to question their assumptions, assess whether they could do better, and decide that they will do better.  These types of vulnerable moments don’t play out well when a player is at bat, or when an officer is handling complaints from the perpetrators.

In Milgram’s talk, where others see cool math tricks, I see a change in mindset and demeanor.  The speaker expresses curiosity about the information, enthusiasm for unexpected findings, modesty about baseline effectiveness, a lack of blame, and a can-do attitude about trying to do more and do better.

It’s a great metaphor for business.  In those workplaces where managers fiercely claw their way to the top, there may be a reduced willingness to talk about shortcomings in a manner that requires trust and collaboration.  Yet making exceptional decisions require that leaders choose an entirely different mood and posture while they explore an uncharted area, allow information to out-rank instinct, and aspire to a more subtle kind of greatness.  Put posture aside, and just do good work.  The way things are changing, those are the only kinds of people who will stay on top.