Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Progress that takes us backwards

It begins as a blessing
And ends as a curse;
Making life easy,
By making it worse. *

Technology advances but it doesn’t always take us forward.

Here, for example, are some minor clever advances that make life worse:

  • Electronic volume controls on my laptop, that take a dozen clicks and ten seconds to do what the little wheel on my old laptop used to do in an instant with one thumb twirl
  • Energy saving light bulbs that take half a day to give half the light that the old one used to give instantly. This matters when you’re hunting for an ice-scraper in a dark garage at minus 6 degrees at 6 in the morning
  • Digital TVs that stop, pause and think for several seconds when they start up or change channel. This advance has arrived just at the time when the old analogue devices had finally evolved after sixty years of R&D to the point of doing these tasks instaneously.

OK. So none of those amount to a very big deal in the grand scheme of things. 

But there are some feted feats of current progress that have set us charging like lemmings towards an abyss of stupidity. Here are a couple.

Number 1 – Crowdsourcing

It’s a great idea, isn’t it, to pool knowledge from a whole bunch of people so as to ratchet up collective wisdom or to source the best ideas from beyond our own gene pool?

Well, in controlled situations, possibly so. But generally, it’s turning into a nightmare of inefficiency, misinformation and needle-in-a-haystackery.

Consider this situation. In company A, there used to be a team of people who were the experts in subject Z.  Everyone knew who they were, and called them to resolve issues. Just like that. Then a few years back these Guys And Gals Who Know Things were restructured to the four corners of the universe.  Instead there’s a company forum for posting questions and a wiki for crowdsourcing knowledge.  That’s so cool. We can all share our knowledge and help ourselves to knowledge on the fly.

And that all works until you really need to find something out.  Now instead of ringing Joe who knew the answer, you spend hours wading through postings, FAQs, Q+As, following links, trying new search terms (heaven help you if your search terms include a common word!) and trying every ruse to find what you are looking for. Eventually you adjourn for lunch, and a stiff drink, where you try to remember the names of people you know who have left to work in this field in other companies, and spend the afternoon chasing up their numbers so you can give them a call.

For customers outside the company, the problem is the same amplified at least tenfold. It’s a simple problem, it seems, so hopefully there’s a simple solution.  You go to the company website where you find there is no number to call. OK, let’s email someone.

Not that simple.  Before you can get near an email form, there is a maze of web hoops to jump through. This involves specifying generically what kind of issue it is, and then being bumped onto forums with a billion answers to a million questions loosely connected in terms of topic and vocabulary with the words in your generic question. How can I find an answer in all this noise?
Maybe the wider Internet will help.  There’s a lot of specialist forums out there, so there’ll be an expert somewhere with the answer. Surely.


What to do?

Ah well, just check my emails and wait until it’s time to go home.

Maybe the answer will come to me in a dream tonight.  I feel a random thought from my unconscious has a higher probability of solving the issue than all this malarkey.

Number 2 – Feeding and sharing

Having feeds into websites from interesting sources is quite a good idea.  Where there are communities of interest, keeping abreast of new updates adds value.

But it seems we’ve gone beyond the point of sensible feeding and sharing. I’ve been on websites where there’s a box for feeds that tick up and out within seconds. Wow, that news changed my life. And if I read one story, where have the others gone by the time I get back?

Assuming you don’t have the time or the inclination to keep your eyes glued all day to this stuff churning and chuntering past, it’s actually getting harder and harder to sift out useful information. That can include something you saw yesterday that seemed worth going back to. Where is it now? Gone in a puff of smoke!

Finding the original source of a story doesn’t always help.  So many blogs and websites now forego a logical menu structure in favour of tags that launch you into the same kind of guessing game to find things, as per item 1 above. Could be buried anywhere in a chaotic cloud of tags if it is no longer in today’s ‘Top 5’ list. And it seems the only things that qualify a story to be in a top 5 is a) novelty or b) number of times read. I suspect that most of the people who read it and thereby put it in the Top 5 were actually looking for something else.

The information being streamed, fed and shared hither and thither across the web and mobile devices is a mix of useful stuff, reposted stuff, all shades of comment, more reposted stuff, inane and self-glorifying comment and every variety of crap you can think of.

Once upon a time it was posited that in time everyone would have their 15 minutes of fame. Let me tell you, that time span is coming down and down. 

Before long everyone will have their 15 micro-seconds of fleeting visibility on everyone else’s website, and none of us is going to notice. It will be guaranteed insignificance through virtual ubiquity.

Welcome to the future of knowledge.

* Kevin Ayers / Soft Machine, Why Are We Sleeping? (more or less)

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Double dip? It's ten years of change and pain ...

One thing I get depressed about whenever I read commentary on the world's financial crisis - and that's the lack of any historical perspective - either forward or backward.

The political debate seems to be stuck in an argument from which there is no way out: spend more and have more debt, versus more austerity and stifle growth.  And all looking for short-term fixes.

In the UK, overall it is the left that tends to depress me more.  Three reasons: 

First, their refusal to acknowledge their own pivotal role in mismanaging both the economy and public finances. 

Second, their unshakable view that more borrowing is the key to unlocking growth, with the state in some magical way doing better now than it has done before while using the same tools. 
And third, the endless batting of the government with the accusation of creating a 'double dip' recession, as if this is the worst of all scenarios. 

Sooner or later we have to face up to the probability that there is no quick fix.  After four years of pain, we should have some inkling that this is the case.  Depressions, or extended periods of economic readjustment, can take many, many years to work through.

Complex change leaves governments floundering

The so called 'Great Depression' or 'Long Depression' in the 19th century took fifteen to twenty years to work its way through the system (some countries recovered a bit faster than others).  Like our own one today, it began with financial crises and banking failures.  But it was also a time of rapid globalisation and technological and social change.  New industries were emerging, and there was massive adjustment in world agricultural markets with the opening up of North America.

The point is that governments then, as now, were mostly clueless as to what was the right response.  And that is because with the complex trajectories of change, there is no single way to deal with it.

And not all the direction of change is negative in any depression.  Some parts of the economy do better than others.  Some may be in inexorable decline, while new areas of activity emerge and grow, bringing new pockets of prosperity amid the gloom.  This is as true for the 1930s as for the period around 1873-1892.  And, I would hazard, it's true today too.

So, as the saying goes, we can't expect the same kind of thinking that got us into this mess to get us out of it.  We need to identify the new trends, the siesmic shifts that are going on in the economy, and try to back the winners.

Huge new markets are emerging in Asia, Africa and Latin America, with fast growing middle classes that have a huge appetite for new services and products, and populations that are demanding much improved infrastructure.  Much of the rhetoric to date has been about seeing these new economies as a threat to our industries rather than as the opportunities that they are.  How well geared up are we to seize these opportunties?  What are governments doing to support companies adapting to serve these markets?

New ways of working bring new opportunities

And, of course, the new world of work that is emerging has a key role to play.  On the one hand Smart Working helps companies to become more agile and competitive, with the ability to enter new markets without having the massive overheads of a traditional global company.

On the other hand, the nature of small business is changing.  We are all familiar with the idea of a Microsoft or HP or Ben & Jerry starting out in a home or garage.  But we are less familiar with the idea that running a business from home could in ten years' time be the new normal.  Perhaps, like getting over a painful illness, the recovery begins at home.  Growth is not about spawning a handful of giant companies to create jobs, but about creating a long tail of enterprising freelancers and micro-businesses, creating the spirit where people can stand on their own two feet economically rather than stand in queue for a job.

And the new kinds of technology-enabled working practices will interact positively with the new high tech sectors that are emerging: artifical intelligence, robotics, new media, and even sectors we may think of as having a need to be based in a lab or research facility such as biomed, biotechnology, nanotechnology and new forms of manufacturing.  While there's a good deal of physical resource involved, much of the work will be carried out by people working in distributed and virtual teams, and by small businesses and freelancers operating as contractors who may well be located anywhere.

In this context the big government-sponsored solutions of the past just will not work.  The days of the big inward investment that creates 5,000 jobs at a stroke are more or less gone.  Throwing money at society generally will be a good way of picking losers rather than winners in a fast-changing economy.

So what we need is to stand back a moment and think of what the world of work is likely to be in twenty years time.  This is the horizon to be looking at, not the next election.  Then what is needed is to support the development of the physical and skills infrastructure that is needed to deliver the maximum benefits for this new world.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

The President endorses Telework - in Iran

2011 was an unusual year for me in all kinds of ways.  But one thing I could never have predicted was that I would share a platform with President Ahmadinejad of Iran, talking about telework.

I'm not sure the President knew I was there, however.  When I say 'share a platform', I have to say that my presence in the auditorium was virtual.  My presentation was remote via Microsoft Lync, so it was a 'walk the talk' kind of occasion for someone who advocates remote working and using technology to save the planet and so forth.

President Ahmadinejad's address was on the topic 'Telework - a Necessity not an Option'.  And I have to say that whatever your views about politics and sanctions and everything, it is actually really good to see the leadership of a nation get behind the need to modernise the way government works.  Expert after expert says that unless the top level of an organisation gets behind the programme, change will always be an uphill battle.

I was able to capture this image from a camera in the wings.  Here is the President of Iran exhorting senior civil servants to get moving on implementing telework, and outlining the benefits of doing so.

And for a country like Iran, there are many challenges too, not least the lack of a comprehensive broadband infrastructure.

I went on to run workshops over three days for managers, employees and for policymakers.  And while they couldn't be as interactive as if I had been there in person, these workshops were fascinating to do.  We had hours of Q&A from the delegates - and some very challenging questions too.  Like 'Hadn't telework failed in the UK if so few people in the government were doing it full time?'

What strikes me most is how similar were many of the concerns to people anywhere before remote working is introduced.  Issues like isolation, career progression, information security, people shirking, applicability to different sectors, etc.

There were some differences too in some of the concerns. Unlike most Western countries now that have seen extensive privatisation, the government sector is seen as a key direct provider of jobs in many sectors of the economy.  And there were undercurrents of concern and the occasional direct question about whether some of the efficiency benefits and having fewer properties would lead to the loss of lower skill jobs that many people depend on.

One significant difference in outlook that came up again and again, though, was an apparent expectation that Telework is or should be a kind of complete and regulated system that is introduced as a well-defined method of work.  Our approach over here has very much been one of uneven progress, and in government an ad hoc and multispeed approach.

I guess there are pros and cons to this approach.  Over here we could certainly have done with being a bit more coordinated and coherent, rther than every public sector body doing its own thing.  The Iranian Telework Regulations, to some extent like the Telework Enhancement Act in the USA, do provide a coherent framework for the development of telework/homeworking for public sector workers.  There is an outline of the benefits, and a duty set on each agency of government to define what they are trying to achieve, set targets, measure impacts, train managers and employees and monitor welfare.

All that is exemplary.  At the same time, I always get a little worried about viewing Telework (with a capital T) as a kind of special and separate system of working.  Basically, it's doing what you normally do, only having the capability of doing it somewhere else.  Somewhere that is more effective for the business and convenient for the employee.  The risk is in making it all too complicated, or having too many hoops to jump through so that it starts to seem like you have a mountain to climb.

And this is particularly so in developing countries with patchy infrastructure.  Back in the early 1990s, when Flexibility began, we started working from home with dial-up modems and with (so it would seem now) wind-up computers that would crash every hour or two, and a pile of floppy disks to keep our data on. The Internet was barely up and running then, and it was a case of the World Wide What?  And if you had a mobile phone, it was best if you had staff to carry it.  Portable computing devices? Even mobile phones were barely portable.  And many aspects of business and political culture were hostile to the whole notion of flexible working.

But we did it.  And these were useful, learning, developmental experiences.  And still worth doing at the time in terms of getting the work done.

The key question for Iranian civil servants perhaps is around the pace of change.  How far can they go in implementing telework if their infrastructure isn't up to it and, as some delegates indicated, many managers manage in quite traditional ways?

Well, I hope they don't wait for perfect systems to develop, and just move on fast in areas where it is possible to do so.  Lessons will be learnt, and the best implementations will be imitated. 

And the infrastructure will develop.  It is  a country with a very young and well educated population who are creating a demand for good quality infrastructure and services.  And when it comes they can skip out the intermediate stages we have been going through, perhaps.

Certainly a country to watch, and we have to wish them well with this aspect of modernising government.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Time on the road could be time spent with you

It's good to see the Trades Union Congress (TUC) here in the UK stepping up their support for flexible working.

As part of their support for 'Commute Smart Week', the TUC have published an analysis of government figures on commuting, and found that people working full-time spend on average 219 hours per year commuting.  That's equivalent to an extra 5 working weeks per year.

They also found that women commute less, and people with longer journeys generally have higher-paid jobs. (Details in our Flexibility article)

It may be stating the obvious - but the point is what to do about it

There is nothing new in these findings, of course.  Women overall commute less because part-time work is much more common amongst women.  Neither women nor men will travel so far for part-time work, as it generally pays less.  So it's not really to do with gender directly. 

The two findings reflect the same thing - people will travel further for more money.  It's the cost/reward trade-off that we all make when we look at where to work in relation to where to live.
One of the things we've always found in our smart working surveys in companies is that people with longer journeys are
  1. already more likely to work from home when they can, and
  2. are more likely to want to work from home or change their time of travelling
... than those who live closer to work.  Kind of logical, isn't it?

This also means that those who are the first to start working from home are usually managers and professionals.  It's partly because they can, but also because they have the biggest incentive in terms of savings - savings of both time and money.

All those hours spent commuting - probably alone in the car, or on public transport in the company of strangers - can now be spent in a more rewarding way.  Either in person with family, or virtually interacting with work and work colleagues.  Or dividing the time between the two.

And with fuel prices as they are, it's certainly time for companies and  the government to do everything in their power to enable flexible working for all.

Some challenges here for the Unions

The TUC is taking the right approach here, calling for more flexible working.  But there are challenges for them too.

Unions represent less than a quarter of the workforce - and mostly those on lower pay, mostly in the public sector.  For those on lower pay, part-time work is the most common form of 'flexible' work.  While their managers start to work from home or have greater choice over their working hours, low paid workers are not trusted to do the same.

Of course many jobs on the front line in manufacturing and retail, for example, cannot be done from home.  But other forms of flexibility may be relevant.  And for clerical workers, coming into an office is more to do with habit and archaic processes than necessity.

The challenge is how to make flexibility the norm for all workers at all levels, and not just the preserve of the manager and 'knowledge worker' who are empowered to make choices not available to others.

Friday, 21 October 2011

2.5 million looking for a job in the UK - while a billion Chinese look to start a business

I spent the summer in China with the family - combining holiday, family visit and work.  Down in hot, humid sub-tropical Hainan, China's southernmost province.  I was still able to work (virtually) in the UK, though there were times when this tested my remote working capability to the limit.  Dodgy Internet and an extensive array of exotic and invasive local fauna with anything from four to a thousand legs.  Only the dodgy Internet reminded me of Cambridgeshire.  But that's another story.

While we were in China there was a steady diet of woeful news about the UK and other Western economies.  And then the riots around the UK.  This generated a lot of concern amongst Chinese family and friends about whether my family in the UK would be safe, whether it would be safe to go back - and a general mystification as to why it all happened.

The Chinese media went to town on this.  The media is far more open and reflective than  you might expect.  Obviously there are topics to steer clear of, but on business, economics, social affairs and international affairs there's quite a lot of sharp analysis and in-depth discussion. Our soundbite and controversy-driven media could even learn a lesson or two, perhaps.

They interviewed a host of UK analysts and campaigners who always came back to the issue of disaffected youth and the lack of job prospects.  Now we find the new unemployment figures show nearly a million 16-24 year-olds unemployed.  That's serious - but it also set me thinking ...

What young person would want to spend their life making money for someone else as an employee?

It's a truism that everyone in China wants to do business.  The relentless focus on making money, getting the best deal in any situation, can be tiresome for the foreigner.  But it translates into an endless scrum of enterprise and ambition that pervades the culture.  And not least the way young people look at the world.

Down at street level are small enterprises, often involving all the family.  Street after street of small lockup shops or places where the family live over the top.  Grandma and grandpa are there to look after young children and help out as needed.  Older children come back from school, and are doing their homework in the shop/workshop/studio and helping out as needed.  Being part of a family business, then helping to run it or starting their own business is the way to go.

Sitting back and moaning at the government that there's not enough jobs, or not enough training, or that training doesn't lead to jobs - well, who would do that?

Apart from us British, of course.

The new world of work and the spirit of enterprise

So what has all this got to do with the new world of work?

We've got to stop thinking about having job opportunties and start thinking about creating value through our work.  That's what enterprise is.  And home is at the centre of creating new work.  It probably always has been.

Over 60% of startups begin life at home.  An idea + energy + motivation + good organisation.  The showcase examples lead to a Microsoft, HP, Pizza Hut, Ben & Jerry's.  But for most of us it won't - and that's OK.  It's about making a living doing something we can engage with.

Home-based businesses, small local businesses, family businesses - this is the way out of the shadow of recession.  And there have never been better circumstances to do this.  It's not all about 'knowledge workers' working fom home. 

It's about people buying and selling over the Internet, as with the burgeoning number of eBay businesses. It's about growing food in your garden and selling it, making things at home, in the garage, or at local cheap premises and selling them.  Or it's about developing skills - artistic, musical, technical - and selling yourself online.

Norman Tebbit once famously advised the unemployed in the Thatcher era to follow the example of his dad, who got on his bike and went to look for work in the 1930s depression.

75 years later, the advice should be just the opposite.  Get on your bike and go home!  Leave the un-enterprising at the Job Centre, where they can wait for a job they will hate to drop into their lap. 

Take a tip from the Orient.  Buy something. Sell something. Do something.  Make money!  And it all begins at home.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

You called this one right, Vince!

There has been a surge of criticism aimed at the government for shelving plans to extend the 'right to request' flexible working. It's not only come from others campiagning for more flexible working, but also from the Labour party.

The plans to ditch the extension came out at the start of the week, and were reiterated in today's Budget announcement. Labour leader Ed Miliband fiercely denounced it as an attack on working families.

I should be agreeing with him, shouldn't I?

I don't. And here's why.

1) In the process, the government has restated its commitment to extending the right to request to all workers - which we have always argued is the right approach.

The planned extension was just tinkering at the edges anyway, a timid delaying measure intended to avoid more substantial change. Changing eligibility from parents with children under 17 to parents of children under 18 was really going to make very little difference, and it was getting some businesses into a bit of a tizz about bureaucracy.

So why tinker? Just go straight for the real thing!

2) I've always thought the 'right to request' for parents - and not others - was inherently discriminatory. Positive discrimination, perhaps, but still hard to justify. You can end up with situations where people are doing exactly the same job, but only parents (one third of the workforce) are allowed to work flexibly. This can't be right.

3) It's funny how people can become fixated on a process, no matter how odd that process is when you stand back and look at it. I don't really buy into the 'right to request' concept, when it comes down to it.

Apart from being (at the moment) discriminatory, it also invites a reactive, ad hoc, case-by-case approach to implementing flexible working - rather than a proactive and strategic one.

So, rather than carp at ditching a minor adjustment, I think we should them give them 2 cheers for planning to extend the right to all workers.

Friday, 22 January 2010

When good flexible working goes bad ...

With case studies of flexible work, we hear the good news. But I've come across several examples of flexible working programmes that have gone into decline, or reverse. Here are some of the reasons why:

  • New Chief Executive, cut from traditional cloth, doesn't like people being out of sight, and sets up a review. Momentum leaves the flexible work programme, as managers all the way down the line don't want to proceed with something that may end up being a waste of time and could reflect badly on them.
  • Reorganisation. Faced with pressures on the business, the deck-chair re-arrangers come to the fore. They probably engage one of the big consultancies to draw new organisation charts. Teams successfully working flexibly are broken up and put into departments which work in the old ways. Desk-sharing comes a cropper as the numbers don't work any more, and no one has thought about this as part of the old-fashioned restructuring.
  • Downsizing. When flexible working was introduced, so was desk-sharing in the office. 25 desks for 35 people was thought to be quite radical. But now there are only 24 people in the team, and everyone is reverting back to the old 1:1 and sitting at the same desk every day.
  • Top team sabotage. After the introduction of smart working, which they have supported, the executive management team decide they don't go for all this togetherness. Our work is confidential. It's different. We're special.
    Meeting rooms are re-colonised as private offices - and it's a downward path from here as staff get the message.

What's the message here? I guess it's that introducing flexible working is a continuing journey. And sometimes the ground is shifting under your feet, and it's not safe to stand - you'll be sliding back or falling down a big hole.

So what's the answer? The organisation culture needs to change so that the principles of smart/flexible work are embedded. Whenever changes are proposed, the impacts on working practices become a central consideration.

And the culture needs to have taken root so that neither the top team or the new broom will find it so easy to sweep out the new and bring in the old.