Work, business & professional services

The biggest change since the industrial revolution

Behind many things you do today, there is a vast bank of machines talking to each other about your requests and taking action. What W Brian Arthur calls the “second economy” is huge, automatic and invisible – but it will be the biggest change since the industrial revolution. It will not only change the way we live our lives, but the very nature of work. In fact, for many people, there will be no work to do.

Even in 1930, Keynes forecast “technological unemployment”, but he could not have imagined the massive interconnection of servers and nodes that provides the neural system for modern life. Arthur offers an easy example of this second economy: at the airport. You used to need paper tickets to show a human being and she checked in your luggage. Now you swipe your credit card near a machine and you receive a boarding pass and luggage tag, while computers talk to each other about your flight status, past travel history, seat choice, access to lounges. Others talk to each other about the distribution of weight in the plane, passenger count etc.

This goes on across banking, shipping, retail, and any other industry you can imagine. It is like a constant background hum of activity among machines – and humans are barely needed to take part. As Arthur writes, it is “self-configuring… self-organising, self-architecting, and self-healing. These machines don’t need us.

What does this mean for jobs? Unfortunately, physical jobs are disappearing and the effects of this are greater than our outsourcing to India or China. There is no reason to think that these physical jobs will reappear. So while the second economy will provide work for a few, many people will have no access to it, even white collar workers. The main challenge of this economy is therefore to produce prosperity and then distribute it.

The author does not know how our system will adjust to such a shift. We hope that some other jobs are created – or there will be more job-sharing, or governments will have to subsidise job creation. Perhaps the idea of being productive will have to change. Whatever happens, it is a massive, revolutionary change and, while we are on the verge of it, we have many of the early teething problems without any compelling answers.
Ref: McKinsey Quarterly (US), October 2011, The second economy. W B Arthur.
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Search words: digitisation, airports, IT, supply chain management, RFID, nodes, autonomous, communication, productivity, intelligence, neural system, prosperity, jobs, technological unemployment, robots.
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Work Related Stress

One of the most over-used words in the English language day is “stress”. Its causes are so far-reaching, we don’t really know what they all are, but many people are labouring under its ill effects. In fact, 95% of cases of chronic fatigue syndrome are high-achieving City of London executives who work long, intense hours. At both ends of the scale, stress has become the main cause of sick days in the UK.

In the public sector, where jobs are slightly more secure perhaps, people take an average of 9.1 days per year, compared to 7.1 in the private sector and 5.7 days in manufacturing. Sick days due to stress have increased in both sectors. Manual workers are more likely to take leave because of stress than pain or injury. Some 73% of employers offer counselling for staff affected by stress in their workplace.

Curiously, in 1881, George Miller Beard claimed people were suffering “neurasthenia” because of the telegraph, railroads and steam power. It was all because they had to “get somewhere or do something at a definite moment”! It could have been written today. With the effects of always-on technology, like smartphones, email and social networks, there is little opportunity to escape. For many people, it is even addictive – they can’t imagine a day without these gadgets. One study found, when accidentally shut out of the internet, 40% of workers take part in “agitated mouse-clicking” and 10% bash their computers.

Whether you are addicted to, or alienated by, our modern technological life, stress is an insidious disease that will only create a sicker and more medicated society. In this sense, it is worse than diabetes or obesity. But maybe they are all part of the same deep modern malaise.
Ref: The Telegraph (UK), 3 November 2011, How much more can we take? R Colvile.
The Telegraph (UK), 5 October 2011, Stress is the number one reason for taking time off sick. L Peacock.
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Search words: stress, workers, employers, public sector, security, pressure, chronic fatigue syndrome, iPhone, Blackberry, burnout, holidays, hypertension, email, smartphones, addiction.
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Working from home doesn’t always work

Working from home used to be very unusual, but in today’s digitally connected world, it’s normal. But that doesn’t mean it works. A study of 316 ‘teleworkers’ in a computer company asked about working hours and the balance between private and working life to see if working at home is productive overall. It found the best results when employees could separate their work and home roles successfully, regardless of whether they worked traditional hours or not. Those who could not juggle the two roles were much more tired at night.

One of the downsides of working at home, is that people at home – and sometimes visitors – don’t understand you are working. Or they think you can be available for them, even though you are working. One way to deal with this is to work in a separate place, such as a shed or loft, to create a clear distinction. Some people even create a barrier artificially by entering a different door or wearing certain clothes.

Many people in offices claim they get more work done at home than they do in the office. If these people were studied, they would probably be tired also, not because of working at home per se, but because they are trying to catch up with their burden of work. It seems ironic that so many people are overworked, while the rest of the nation has insufficient work – or none at all. See: Stressed out!
Ref: The Telegraph (UK), 9 November 2011, Working from home ‘exhausting’. S Adams.
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Search words: working at home, teleworkers, conflict, family, work, tired, hours, overwork, separation.
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The race for information you don’t need

Today’s managers have a seemingly insatiable need for information, but may have an unreasonable expectation of what they need. Attivio, a US company, says that many companies sacrifice speed for accuracy. This means they would rather wait to be able to trust their information 100% than make do with what is more easily available. This is a risk-averse approach, but managers can use ‘good enough’ data to take interim steps. Managers should ask whether it matters if the report is exactly right – or ‘right enough’.

More important is the so-called ‘provenance’ of the data. As many school students have found, merely finding information on the internet is not good enough. The data need to come from a reliable source. If the source is reliable, it matters less if the numbers are not exactly right. The challenge then is to make a decision – and waiting too long for perfect data delays that decision.

Another view is that managers should aim for faster decision-making, rather than fast data, because that is why they want the data in the first place. Some kinds of data are needed more quickly than others, for example, customer feedback surveys can be collated over a few weeks but sales data is probably needed weekly. It makes little sense to have all data available all the time, although technology experts might want to convince companies of the opposite.

Curiously, managers often ask for more data than they actually use. This may be because they want an excuse to delay the decision, or simply because they don’t realise what information they use to make decisions. The chances are each decision is based on different criteria and gut instinct will play a strong part. Perhaps the most important caution here is not to confuse speed of data with speed of decision.
Ref: MIT Sloan Management Review (US), Spring 2011, Why companies have to trade ‘perfect data’ for ‘fast info’. M Hopkins.
MIT Sloan Management Review (US), Spring 2011, How fast and flexible do you want your information, really? T Davenport and J Snabe.
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Search words: data, speed, accuracy, provenance, “good enough”, decision-making, perfection, usable.
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How Facebook can wreck your career (and your life)

As Facebook increasingly helps “tell the stories” of our lives, it could be making many people unhappy at work. A recent book by Daniel Gulati and others, Passion & Purpose, describes how young people in business become distressed by seeing the (supposed) achievements of others on Facebook. While they might add positive comments, or likes, deep down they started to feel worthless, jealous and even depressed. As one respondent said, “Now, Facebook IS my work day”. Another said of his best friend at work, “I kind of despise his updates”.

There are three reasons why Facebook could have this effect on young people at work. First, comparing yourself with others is always a recipe for unhappiness and on Facebook, people tend to share the positive parts only. Second, it fragments time. Facebook users can check their account any time of day using whatever device is handy – and this takes them away from where they are. If at work, there are ‘switching costs’: loss of productivity associated with changing from one task to another. Third, Facebook is becoming a substitute for face-to-face meetings, even with friends and family, losing the “closeness properties of friendship”.

The author suggests building in time away from Facebook, trimming Friends lists and spending time building offline relationships. He suggests only the brave will delete it entirely! We wonder how long it will be before Facebook loses its shine and its dominance in daily life.
Ref: HBR Blogs (US), 9 December 2011, Facebook is making us miserable. D Gulati.
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Search words: sharing, friends, jealousy, comparison, unhappiness, fragmentation, time, ‘switching costs’, Facebook.
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Daniel Gulati et al, Passion & Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders, Harvard Business Press Books, December 2011.