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Archive for August, 2015

Why Americans face a future of uncertain work

The World Economic Forum acknowledges that the American workforce is rapidly changing.

As Labor Day looms, more Americans than ever don’t know how much they’ll be earning next week or even tomorrow.

This varied group includes independent contractors, temporary workers, the self-employed, part-timers, freelancers, and free agents. Most file 1099s rather than W2s, for tax purposes.

On demand and on call – in the “share” economy, the “gig” economy, or, more prosaically, the “irregular” economy – the result is the same: no predictable earnings or hours.

It’s the biggest change in the American workforce in over a century, and it’s happening at lightening speed. It’s estimated that in five years over 40 percent of the American labor force will have uncertain work; in a decade, most of us.

Increasingly, businesses need only a relatively small pool of “talent” anchored in the enterprise –  innovators and strategists responsible for the firm’s unique competitive strength.

Everyone else is becoming fungible, sought only for their reliability and low cost.

Complex algorithms can now determine who’s needed to do what and when, and then measure the quality of what’s produced. Reliability can be measured in experience ratings. Software can seamlessly handle all transactions – contracts, billing, payments, taxes.

All this allows businesses to be highly nimble – immediately responsive to changes in consumer preferences, overall demand, and technologies.

While shifting all the risks of such changes to workers.

Read full article here

By Robert Reich, Agenda

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Why 6 Million Americans Would Rather Work Part Time

They don’t want to commit to one job or employer.

With jobs more plentiful these days, Matt Tait could easily find full-time work. But he wanted to focus on his wooden toy business and took a part-time gig at Team Detroit, Ford Motor’s advertising agency.

It’s a win-win. Tait’s boss is happy to have him because the 31-year-old graphic designer’s outside activities make him more creative. And Tait has time to run Tait Design Co., which sells balsa airplanes and wooden yo-yos of his own design.

Six million Americans like Tait are choosing to work part time, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Typically young and college-educated, they’re not doing so because personal or economic circumstances forced them to. Rather, many are abandoning the traditional career path their parents took and working just enough hours to pay the bills or pursue a passion: toy making, puppetry, nonprofit advocacy. Their numbers have increased 12 percent since 2007, according to the BLS, a shift with broad implications for hiring practices.

Read full article in Bloomberg Business

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Match Supply and Demand in Service Industries

From the Harvard Business Review November 1976 Issue

by W. Earl Sasser

What makes service industries so distinct from manufacturing ones is their immediacy: the hamburgers have to be hot, the motel rooms exactly where the sleepy travelers want them, and the airline seats empty when the customers want to fly. Balancing the supply and demand sides of a service industry is not easy, and whether a manager does it well or not will, this author writes, make all the difference. In this rundown of the juggling feat service managers perform, the author discusses the two basic strategies—“chase demand” and “level capacity”—available to most service companies. He goes on to discuss several ways service managers can alter demand and influence capacity.

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Digitizing Change Management

Research tells us that most change efforts fail. Yet change methodologies are stuck in a predigital era. It’s high time to start catching up.

July 2015 | byBoris Ewenstein, Wesley Smith, and Ashvin Sologar – McKinsey & Co.

Change management as it is traditionally applied is outdated. We know, for example, that 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support. We also know that when people are truly invested in change it is 30 percent more likely to stick. While companies have been obsessing about how to use digital to improve their customer-facing businesses, the application of digital tools to promote and accelerate internal change has received far less scrutiny. However, applying new digital tools can make change more meaningful—and durable—both for the individuals who are experiencing it and for those who are implementing it.

The advent of digital change tools comes at just the right time. Organizations today must simultaneously deliver rapid results and sustainable growth in an increasingly competitive environment. They are being forced to adapt and change to an unprecedented degree: leaders have to make decisions more quickly; managers have to react more rapidly to opportunities and threats; employees on the front line have to be more flexible and collaborative. Mastering the art of changing quickly is now a critical competitive advantage.

For many organizations, a five-year strategic plan—or even a three-year one—is a thing of the past. Organizations that once enjoyed the luxury of time to test and roll out new initiatives must now do so in a compressed period while competing with tens or hundreds of existing (and often incomplete) initiatives. In this dynamic and fast-paced environment, competitive advantage will accrue to companies with the ability to set new priorities and implement new processes quicker than their rivals.

The power of digital to drive change

Large companies are increasingly engaged in multiple simultaneous change programs, often involving scores of people across numerous geographies. While traditional workshops and training courses have their place, they are not effective at scale and are slow moving.

B2C companies have unlocked powerful digital tools to enhance the customer journey and shift consumer behavior. Wearable technology, adaptive interfaces, and integration into social platforms are all areas where B2C companies have innovated to make change more personal and responsive. Some of these same digital tools and techniques can be applied with great effectiveness to change-management techniques within an organization. Digital dashboards and personalized messages, for example, can build faster, more effective support for new behaviors or processes in environments where management capacity to engage deeply and frequently with every employee is constrained by time and geography.

Digitizing five areas in particular can help make internal change efforts more effective and enduring.

1. Provide just-in-time feedback

The best feedback processes are designed to offer the right information when the recipient can actually act on it. Just-in-time feedback gives recipients the opportunity to make adjustments to their behavior and to witness the effects of these adjustments on performance.

Consider the experience of a beverage company experiencing sustained share losses and stagnant market growth in a highly competitive market in Africa. The challenge was to motivate 1,000-plus sales representatives to sell with greater urgency and effectiveness. A simple SMS message system was implemented to keep the widely distributed sales reps, often on the road for weeks at a time, plugged into the organization. Each rep received two to three daily SMS messages with personalized performance information, along with customer and market insights. For example, one message might offer feedback on which outlets had placed orders below target; another would alert the rep to a situation that indicated a need for increased orders, such as special events or popular brands that were trending in the area. Within days of implementing the system, cross-selling and upselling rates increased to more than 50 percent from 4 percent, and within the first year, the solution delivered a $25 million increase in gross margin, which helped to swing a 1.5 percent market-share loss into a 1 percent gain.

2. Personalize the experience

Personalization is about filtering information in a way that is uniquely relevant to the user and showing each individual’s role in and contribution to a greater group goal. An easy-to-use system can be an effective motivator and engender positive peer pressure.

This worked brilliantly for a rail yard looking to reduce the idle time of its engines and cars by up to 10 percent. It implemented a system that presented only the most relevant information to each worker at that moment, such as details on the status of a train under that worker’s supervision, the precise whereabouts of each of the trains in the yard, or alerts indicating which train to work on. Providing such specific and relevant information helped workers clarify priorities, increase accountability, and reduce delays.

3. Sidestep hierarchy

Creating direct connections among people across the organization allows them to sidestep cumbersome hierarchal protocols and shorten the time it takes to get things done. It also fosters more direct and instant connections that allow employees to share important information, find answers quickly, and get help and advice from people they trust.

In the rail-yard example, a new digital communications platform was introduced to connect relevant parties right away, bypassing middlemen and ensuring that issues get resolved quickly and efficiently. For example, if the person in charge of the rail yard has a question about the status of an incoming train, he or she need only log into the system and tap the train icon to pose the question directly to the individuals working on that train. Previously, all calls and queries had to be routed through a central source. This ability to bridge organizational divides is a core advantage in increasing agility, collaboration, and effectiveness.

4. Build empathy, community, and shared purpose

In increasingly global organizations, communities involved in change efforts are often physically distant from one another. Providing an outlet for colleagues to share and see all the information related to a task, including progress updates and informal commentary, can create an important esprit de corps.

Specific tools are necessary to achieve this level of connectivity and commitment. Those that we have seen work well include shared dashboards, visualizations of activity across the team, “gamification” to bolster competition, and online forums where people can easily speak to one another (for example, linking a Twitter-like feed to a work flow or creating forums tied to leaderboards so people can easily discuss how to move up in the rankings).

This approach worked particularly well with a leading global bank aiming to reduce critical job vacancies. The sourcing team made the HR process a shared experience, showing all stakeholders the end-to-end view—dashboards identifying vacancies; hiring requisitions made and approved; candidates identified, tested, and interviewed; offers made and accepted; and hire letters issued. This transparency and openness built a shared commitment to getting results, a greater willingness to deliver on one’s own step in the process, and a greater willingness to help one another beyond functional boundaries.

5. Demonstrate progress

Organizational change is like turning a ship: the people at the front can see the change but the people at the back may not notice for a while. Digital change tools are helpful in this case to communicate progress so that people can see what is happening in real time. More sophisticated tools can also show individual contributions toward the common goal. We have seen how this type of communication makes the change feel more urgent and real, which in turn creates momentum that can help push an organization to a tipping point where a new way of doing things becomes the way things are done.

Digital tools and platforms, if correctly applied, offer a powerful new way to accelerate and amplify the ability of an organization to change. However, let’s be clear: the tool should not drive the solution. Each company should have a clear view of the new behavior it wants to reinforce and find a digital solution to support it. The best solutions are tightly focused on a specific task and are rolled out only after successful pilots are completed. The chances of success increase when management actively encourages feedback from users and incorporates it to give them a sense of ownership in the process.

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Has Stephen Wolfram made knowledge a searchable commodity?

An interesting perspective on the future of jobs as we know them, from the man that made knowledge a searchable commodity.

Stephen Wolfram spoke with TechRepublic about his work in science and technology, his new book, and how technology is automating the world.

One of the key themes in Stephen Wolfram’s career has been the long road to fruition taken by technological advancement. In the beginning, there is often a glimmer of how something might work, or be useful, but it can take years for that vision to become a reality.

For example, computational models for neural networks were invented in the 1940s, and Wolfram worked on them in the 1980s. However, they are only now at a point where they can be utilized in a meaningful way, such as the Wolfram Language Image Identification Project.

“The ideas it’s using are not that different than the ideas that I was playing with in 1980,” Wolfram said. “But, what makes it possible in that case is a lot of ambient technology that didn’t exist back at that time.”

Another interest of Wolfram’s is the coding of everyday discourse. As he began researching this field to see what had been conducted, he found that most of it was done by philosophers 300 years ago or more. Again, it shows the disconnect between when ideas come about and when they are fully realized.

Even current iterations of some of Wolfram Research’s key products such as Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha and the recently announced Wolfram Language are innovations with three decades of development behind them, Wolfram said.

Automating work

Wolfram became a student of physics at a young age, eventually earning a PhD in theoretical physics from Caltech when he was only 20 years old. After he became even more interested in computer science, his began working in a fairly distinct pattern.

“The thing that has turned out to work really well for me — and I’ve probably done about four or five cycles of this — is do basic science, figure out some principles and ideas and so on, use those ideas in technology, build up a bunch of practical technology, use that technology to understand more about basic science, and then repeat,” he said.

Because of his pioneering work in automation, Wolfram and his work are often brought up in conversations around artificial intelligence. While AI is generally regarded as the “mystery thing” behind many tech products, Wolfram said, he believes it is merely continuing the story of technology, which is merely the automation of things we had done by hand before.

Automation in the workforce is a paramount concern at the moment, but Wolfram said it’s nothing new.

“If you look at the US workforce from 100 years ago, 80% of it was in agriculture,” he said. “Almost none of it is in agriculture anymore because that stuff was automated. There are a large collection of professions, many of whose functions will be automated and probably fairly soon.”

In terms of what will the people do when their job is eliminated by automation, Wolfram said that somewhere, someone still has to define the goals of those systems. And, the kind of goals we have had as humans have changed over time.

For some people, he said, the nightmare scenario is that in the future people will simply be sitting around playing video games. But if you look at today’s society from the perspective of human society 1,000 years ago, many of the things we do today could be viewed similar to that nightmare scenario.

Automating knowledge

As technology continues to advance and new forms of automation become apparent, Wolfram said that he is interested in how that affects the ways we gather and use information.

“One question is: Our civilization has accumulated a certain amount of knowledge,” he said. “There are questions that can be answered on the basis of that knowledge. Can we do that automatically or, do we have to go find an expert and ask them?”

Of course, this is what he has tried to accomplish with Wolfram Alpha. Additionally, he is also interested in automation of programming and he believes we’re right on the cusp of being able to program things at a dramatically faster pace.

Certain industry tools have converged between consumer-grade and professional grade – such as video editing software. It’s fairly easy for hobbyist video editors to access professional video editing suites.

The same hasn’t been done with programming yet, he said, and that’s what he wants to accomplish with Wolfram Language. That product is central to the future of the company.

As Wolfram Research continues to move forward, it’s undeniable the impact that Wolfram has had on the scientific and technology communities. When asked what advice he’d give to aspiring scientists and technologists, he said it is difficult to give general advice because of how unique each individual is.

But he said two questions to ask are: What are you good at, and what do you like to do? These are actually more difficult to answer than you think.

“I have a, perhaps, optimistic view of the world that for every person there’s kind of an optimal niche,” he said. “Finding that niche is often quite a puzzle.”

In his own words…

If you weren’t working in science and technology, what other profession would you love to try?

“The story of my life is I do the things I like to do. I’ve figured stuff out, run businesses, these are things I like to do. Actually, another story of my life is anything that starts as a hobby doesn’t stay as a hobby. There was a time when I used to do business as a hobby and pretty soon I was running companies. There was a different time when I was doing science as a hobby and that turned into a profession too. So, I’m very bad at hobbies from that point of view. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve managed to spend my life doing things that are really the things that I want to be doing.

“If I’d lived in a different age when there weren’t computers and those kinds of things — I don’t know. I think I was, again, lucky to be living at this time when…a number of things, particularly in science had just become possible to do right around the time when I did them, so to speak. Had I lived 100 years earlier or something, they wouldn’t have been even close to being doable. The situation not to be in is, your in the Isaac Newton time, 300 years ago, and you figure out that artificial satellites are possible, but then you can’t start a rocket launch company in 1687.”

What’s the best thing you’ve read lately?

“I’m really bad at reading books. I own maybe 8,000 books or something and my wife has always pointed out that we had to build a house just to accommodate the books… Actually, I happen to be writing a book again, which I thought I might never — I wrote a big book called A New Kind of Science that came out in 2002, and that book took me ten and a half years to write. It was definitely the single most grueling activity that I’ve undertaken in my life. I consider one of my main achievements with the book in addition to its content was just the fact that I completed it…

“The last few weeks I’ve been writing a book, which I’m happy to say has been going at like 100 times the rate of A New Kind of Science. It’s a very different thing. It’s basically a very elementary introduction to the concepts of the Wolfram Language. The question is, what are the minimal set of concepts that you need to understand to be able to become literate with this language. My model was a strange model which is elementary Latin textbooks. There’s one approach to teaching language, which is immersive, where you say ‘Okay, I’m going to learn French. Let’s go to France and not speak a word of English.’ Pretty soon you’re going to end up learning French. That doesn’t work with a dead language like Latin and it doesn’t work with a computer language because we can’t live our lives purely in a computer language…”

By  Connor Forrest, TechRepublic

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