Thoughts on advancements in technology and the world of work

I’m going to take a departure from normal writings. A couple of weeks ago I was having dinner with David D’Souza, and asked him to explain to me his thinking on where artificial intelligence is taking us, and the implications of this thinking. On a side note, if you’re not connected with the Head of London or read his blog, you should take the time to reconsider your life options.

Yesterday, I was at an LPI event where we were learning about digital transformation from some of the brains at Microsoft UK. There was lots of good content here which got me thinking about a whole range of stuff. Mostly, it got me thinking that where technology is advancing, we’re not ready for as people and the way it’s going to dramatically impact our lives.

We’re already facing this dilemma when it comes to AI and robotics. What tasks, jobs and skills will we be able to pass over to machines and never have to worry about them ever again?

We’re only a few years away from self-driving cars becoming mainstream. The tests are pretty conclusive that they are much safer than human control – and the few accidents that have happened, are a lower ratio to human error. Oh, and don’t worry about the morals and ethics of decision making – humans are just as bad at arriving at the right conclusions. Just take this Moral Machine test from the smart people at MIT and see how hard it is to decide who should die in a hypothetical situation. I’m warning you, your sense of morals will get messed with.

Over at the Tate Britain museum in London, they have an AI programme (Recognition) comparing photos from journalists with photos it has in its repository. It can get interrupted by human input and uses this to test if the comparisons it makes are smarter and meaningful in different ways.

In the world of technology, Foxconn (one of Apple’s main suppliers) announced they’re getting rid of 60,000 jobs all to be replaced with robotics.

And in policy, robots are going to be given ‘personhood‘ status, to make them accountable for their actions.

Change is happening now. And, it’s fundamentally challenging what it means to be human, where we add our value, how we define ourselves and what we choose to do in the world. If we accept that Asimov’s Laws will protect the human race, and that there is a kill switch that can give us an added level of assurance against a robot uprising, then we’re suddenly thrust into a world where we have to produce new definitions of what it means to be human.

If all (and pretty much all jobs will go this way) jobs can be given to machine learning, robots, etc, then what are we left to do? What does human endeavour become about? What work do we then do? For many of us, work is a defining feature of who we are. If the work we thought we needed to do no longer needs us to do it, where do we expend our energy?

We’re not anywhere near ready for this kind of change, and we’re going to have to address these things far more purposefully. Finland are starting to experiment with universal basic income to start to understand how does this approach affect the human psyche? Do we become lazy and reliant on the state to provide for us? Do we use that income to help us develop new skills and become creators? Do we become more kind and compassionate towards others because the status of money has changed? Do we suffer mentally because we lose our sense of identity which we normally attach to work?

All those questions and more are at the heart of where this new world is taking us. I say we’re not ready, because there are too many institutions and practices that firmly entrench us in the need to have to work. We’re only just beginning to realise the purpose of emotions on our wellbeing, how our physical health needs to be improved, and how climate change needs to be tackled. We’re not ready for our work to be taken away from us and to have to contemplate the purpose of our existence. That’s normally what we expect philosophers and the likes to answer for us – but soon enough, we’re all going to need to have an opinion on what that looks like.

Some of that will be answered by our respective governments and what they provide for their people.

Religion only provides for how we can live well, it doesn’t provide answers for what we should do with our lives. That’s the beauty of human intelligence and the potential of what we’re here for – for us to determine these things and lead the way forwards.

And we’re definitely not ready for it when you have world leaders who are more worried about protecting their own interests rather than focusing on developing world defining character, purpose and collaborative efforts to raise the living standards of all.

It’s big stuff, right? And it should be too.

The debate will continue to evolve and be shaped by many different voices. I’m interested to hear yours.

A post about blogging as an L&Der

I’ve been writing a blog now for about 8 years. I have a modest followership (totally a word I just made up). The topics tend to focus on people and the workplace, sometimes I write about personal stuff, and sometimes I write about topics to do with politics or diversity and inclusion or my religion.

My blog is a personal space of reflection that I’m happy to share with the wider world. I don’t pretend to be a ‘thought leader’ or anything other than someone who writes about things of interest. The things I tend to write about are innocuous enough that they don’t cause widespread readership, the subject matter tends to be of interest to a small community, and I write regularly enough that people can expect a blog from me once or twice a week.

Some people are kind enough to tell me that my blog helps them. That’s pretty ace when that happens. Some people tell me that because I do this blogging thing, it puts me into a leadership space amongst L&D. That’s pretty kind too. Through the blog, I’ve been invited to attend various events and provide coverage in return for a free space. That’s fair enough in my books.

There are a fair number of people whose blogs I enjoy reading, and at the same time, regularly meet people whom I would love to hear more from. Blogging is a fairly easy game. I tend not to draft my writing – my writing is thought in action. I often know where I’m starting and then let the writing take over. Where I end up is anyone’s guess!

If you’ve attended any of my positive psychology sessions, you’ll have heard me describe blogging as my third place. What I mean when I say that is that it’s my place to escape. Which is why I do it regularly. I don’t blog for any particular reason than my own reflection and my own sharing practice. If it builds or leads or supports, that’s pretty great. There are days I’ll publish a blog post and it will get minimal reading. There are days I’ll publish and it’ll do well. I can never predict, and rarely try to.

Here’s a sense of how my blog ‘performs’.

My best year of blogging was in 2014, when I had 25,000 views. Last year, I had 16,000.

In 2016, my best read posts were:

I’ve never had a blog post with more than 280 views. My average is about 30. A good day is about 60-80.

I’ve also been experimenting with blogging on LinkedIn and on Medium. They provide a completely different audience. On LinkedIn, I can get better readership in a day. On Medium, it tends to be far less. I tend to enjoy writing on Medium where I can be a bit more creative in my writing. WordPress continues to be my go to place for blogging, though. It’s my home. And for those who are aware, I have two different WordPress blogs – this one, and the one on my consultancy website Challenging Frontiers.

Thanks for reading and for those who keep coming back to read, thank you too.

The business of joy

We’re fortunate enough to have spent a couple of weeks in the sunny climes of Orlando, enjoying all things Disney. We’re fans of the animated films in our family, and regularly enjoy watching the films – old and new – again and again. At different times over the last 6 years, my young children have made us re-watch time and again – Monsters, Inc., Aladdin, Frozen, Hercules, to name a few. To say I’m bias in favour of Disney is an understatement.

What is clear from having been immersed in the whole thing is that Disney really wants you to have just the most unforgettable experience. Even when they get things wrong, they will try to rectify them so that they’re better. And when they get it right, you just enjoy it all. But that focus on the joy of the customer – that’s key. And I’m not just talking about the children. As parents it’s hard to not enjoy it all.

It’s not just the theme parks that create that joy. It’s everything else that Disney do, too. The films are clearly an important part of how they make their money. And with many of their films being high-grossing films, they invest a lot of time, energy and money into making them delightful and a joy to watch.

And over on their regular channels they’re providing a complete range of content for children of all ages. They’ve kind of got the whole child lifecycle covered when it comes to content and toys. And they’ve got many adults hooked in too with their films, franchises and various marketing and product memorabilia.

Even digitally, their apps are aplenty, and they’re out there in social media doing all things a modern company needs to do.

Being in the Disney parks, what I always get amazed at is the attention to all parts of your time being there. You can’t escape the cost of things, so you just accept you’re going to spend money. The rides are well designed and mostly family friendly. Few are designed for adults only as they kind of know that you’re there to do the rides as a family. Walking around the parks and you always find something to keep you occupied – be it a marching band, characters to meet, or a good spot for a photo, you enjoy pretty much most aspects of what you’re doing.

And it all makes me think that there is a business in creating joy. Disney are a behemoth of a company, and they have done incredibly well with multiple mergers, acquisitions, and general worldwide domination. What we don’t know about is all the behind the scenes stuff – culture, leadership, working practices, fairness of pay, all that stuff. What we see, though, is the outcomes. And for there to be such strong outcomes, there has to be an environment and culture which drives people to do and achieve them. It’s hard to think that you could produce a film as delightful as the live movie Jungle Book if you were in an environment where you didn’t enjoy the work, hated your colleagues, were paid poorly and you didn’t believe in what you were doing.

One of the things most people seek is a sense of happiness and joy. Disney help move that along and make it happen in different ways. Their business is kind of predicated on that journey. If we believe that people are more productive when they enjoy what they do, and the outcome of what you do brings joy and/or meaning to others, it is possible to create a culture where that happens.

But, of course, they’re Disney. Most UK based companies can’t adopt their methodologies, and I’m not proposing that. There are, however, companies who are focusing on the wellbeing and enjoyment people have at work. Company’s like are helping to show that you can have a work environment that is all about fun and being productive. That’s a pretty good mix right there. HR Tech company Bright HR are showing the same can be achieved too – they have Nerf battles in their office! They’re just two examples, and they serve to show productivity can be achieved when people are having fun, and it’s not a detrimental or poor thing to focus on.

Many company’s, though, don’t know where to start with things like this. And what’s important is that it’s not about grand change. As with all things, if you want to make things better, it’s about improving a number of small things that help make things that much better.

The challenge of change

I was fundamentally challenged in 2016. Much of what I thought I knew about how the world works just didn’t follow the rules. The events in the UK and the USA will be analysed for years and decades to come. Historians will look back in careful detail and provide insight on why these events came to be.

I’m left challenged by these events because they have changed the social dynamic.  And it has shed light on human behaviour that many of us just didn’t expect to be as mainstream as we thought it was. Maybe mainstream isn’t the right word – but certainly we’re now witness to behaviour the likes of which many of would rather dismiss as being true.

We’re facing a challenge with the president-elect. He uses Twitter to pass comment and apparent policy in a way no-one has ever thought was feasible. Such an action can be looked at in one of two ways. Those of us who are advocates of social media and the openness and transparency it brings to a person and their thinking should welcome this type of leadership. Except it isn’t leadership. It’s nothing more than messaged being broadcast. It’s not dialogue and it’s not intended to be. It’s demagoguery at it’s most heightened. But it does show how powerful social media has become as a way of providing a voice to those who didn’t know they could do this.

There are now more clear divisions in society and they’ve provided a clear look at just how polarised many of us are on so many things – and many of those things are contradictory! What I have been trying to find a path through is to understand these divisions and what they represent. I’m no more than an armchair psychologist on such things. I have no answers but it does all provide for very focused debate and development of thinking.

How many of us thought that we’d need to challenge what we knew about politics? About misogyny? About sexual orientation? About the ‘needs of men’? About disabilities? About our neighbours? Our cousins? Our family members? Our friends?

There are companies out there who are doing the right things by their people. They’re being actively inclusive and not afraid to do so. And there are a good many who don’t know what that means or how to be better.

See, one of things that has become apparent – to me – is that with all the advancements with the Equality Act and the likes, we never really helped people build empathy with others. We just showed people how to not be offensive to others. That’s not the same as being inclusive. We’ve only just begun to really understand that inclusion is a long way off for many of us. Our understanding of inclusion in society now needs to be better articulated and better fought for.

And in the UK we’re left with public commentary from the likes of Katie Hopkins and Arron Banks. As Julian Stodd has commented in other places, how lucky we are that we can know these voices exist. They provide voice and articulate their thoughts with disturbing clarity, giving strength and validity to those who can’t do the same. That’s a worrying thing for sure because they claim to be the voice of the majority. Where the truth is more closer to them being the voice of a loud minority. There are plenty of people standing up to them and their thinking and comments.

And what do we know about change? That we’re all affected by it and it takes times for us to all work with it and be better from it. The events of 2016 will keep us reeling for years to come, possibly longer.

I’m ready for 2017.

Designing empathy into compliance training

I’ve been thinking about how smart people are recently. I’ve also been thinking about how easily people get swayed by arguments and are influenced in their thinking. And, as I wrote last week, I’ve been thinking about how learning is complicated. Owen Ferguson wrote a good piece thinking about this in a different way where he advocated for complexity in our thinking.

As I’ve been thinking about all these things, it occurred to me that in the olde world of training delivery on compliance training, one of the reasons it fails so often is that people just don’t care about it. The only reason they’re made to care is because of some esoteric reason to do with consequences – so people comply, but not because they care about the topic.

The problem with compliance training has always been that it just has no bearing on people’s day to day activity. I’m not proposing I’ve got the solution in this blog, just some thoughts on how we can do things better.

Things like the following:

We know that people are influenced by what other people do more than creating a business case for doing something. That’s why you read signs in hotel rooms like “most people who stay here reuse their bath towels”. They used to read “save the environment and re-use your towel”. Except, most people can’t relate to that message. Not in the same way most people will think “Oh I better do what other people are doing so I’m not the odd one out”. We’ve got strong aversions to standing out from the crowd and from breaking communal norms, and in the main we don’t.

Lesson to be learned? Instead of writing how compliance training is compulsory, use insights from social psychology and behavioural economics to get people to comply. For example:

  • “Most people who completed the e-learning on data protection, completed it in 20 mins.” You help people see that completing the e-learning doesn’t take long, and most people are doing it (apparently)
  • Try some sort of open completion records – let others see how teams are doing with completion. People’s competitive nature is likely to be more motivating to do better than other teams. Some companies out there have even gone to the lengths of gamifying their compliance training.

We know that if you repeat a message over and again, people will remember it – regardless if they understand it. This is how modern politics works, and why advertisements are constantly being shown. In a world of too much information, people’s attention is limited, so you need to repeat something at least 7 times before people hear the message in the first instance.

Lesson to be learned? This is where the idea of developing campaigns is more effective than single communications. People need to be reminded that their appraisals are due? They need to be told that in multiple ways, through different media and with different approaches.

We know that giving a cause for a person to focus on, improves the chance they’re going to respond positively. That’s why charities often present the case of one person or the photo of one person in their adverts and marketing. The case of “Izzy living without a book to read” is more compelling than “help provide books to children”.

Lesson to be learned? Make the compliance relevant by highlighting how it helped a person. Don’t write “completing your health and safety training means we will successfully comply with audit”. People can’t relate to the audit – it doesn’t mean anything to them. Instead, write something like “Bernie, in Sales, spotted a loose tile in the hallway and reported it to be fixed. It was resolved in 2 days. Complete your training today.”

I want to build on this further, though. What’s missing from nearly all forms of compliance training is that it’s not designed to build empathy with people. Instead it’s often talked about in terms of business benefit. Not enough thought or smart thinking is applied to help people know how it matters to an individual, when it clearly can. We’ve banged on the drum so much that we need to let people know why it’s important to the business that we do things, that we forget that it should also be important to the individual.

When we make things important to people and individuals, is when we help empathy be built. With respect to topics like Equality and Diversity, it has to be better than saying “it can help people be more respectful of one another”. Yes, that’s important but it’s not enough to help people truly relate to it. And it also has to be better than “it can help people learn how to not be offensive to others.” Again, that’s a good thing, but it’s just not enough of a human motivator.

This also challenges us to go beyond thinking about ‘resources and not courses’. What I mean is, if you read a guide on anti-slavery, and it’s clear that it breaks the law, how does that build empathy? If you watch a video about the impact of being vigilant against slavery is that enough of a solution that you don’t need a training course? If you go through a slide deck which outlines the company process about anti-slavery practice, how does that help you connect with it on a practical level?

Our challenge with compliance training is always that you want people to comply! We want them to forego their freewill and just abide by the rules. And of course, people just aren’t compliant. So, in the civil domain, we penalise and we place heavy consequence on non-conformance. Where, in the corporate domain, what we need to build more is about how actions impact on others.

And yes, part of this is about the culture of an organisation. Is it the culture where designing empathy for compliance will help people make better choices?

So, that’s my thinking at the moment. I want to be more concerned about how we build in empathy to compliance training so that people are better people for doing the thing. The thing might be training, but I’m guessing that if we design with empathy in mind, we’ll help people know how that makes a difference to someone directly – and that training may not have been needed as a solution at all. As always, I’m not bashing training, I’m just mindful that if what we need to do is help people achieve an outcome, and if learning is complicated, then that also means identifying the right solution for achieving an outcome – and that solution can be multi-faceted.

Very interested to know about your thoughts on the above. Do comment below.

Learning is complicated

This tweet from Don captures something I’ve been thinking a lot about recently.

There is a lot of stuff being written about learning solution design, effective training models, top tips for learning, micro-learning and variations of these. It’s all good information for learning professionals who want to understand how learning solutions are being designed, and the variety of methods people can use to deliver those solutions.

My concern in these is that we’re desperately trying to reduce the learning process down to simple, bite size chunks of information. And, as Don says above, humans are complicated. The process of learning is complicated and more often than not, we in L&D try and dumb down our audiences.

What do I mean? I mean what we do is we take really helpful and insightful models and theories and whittle them down to understandable chunks of information for the masses.

The thing is, as humans, and as social beings, we can’t help but learn pretty much every moment of every day. Humans excel at taking in information and doing something useful and productive with it. We think at speed and act at speed.

The workplace is a fast moving place. Products are being developed, processes are being refined, skills and knowledge are being honed, all in the pursuit that we can have efficient and profitable organisations. That’s not always the outcome, but it’s nearly always the intention.

When Nick-Shackleton Jones says we should focus on ‘resources not courses’ he’s onto the crux of what learning is about in the workplace. People don’t have time to ‘learn’ at work. Not in the way the human learning process takes place. The learning process takes time, commitment to learning and development of thinking. As much as we might rail against the education system, what it understands well is that people need to be immersed in a subject in order to learn it and become knowledgeable in it. Expertise develops when you go beyond that initial process and focus intently on your subject matter. That’s what learning looks like.

On a side note, it’s also what grates me about modern political commentary by the ‘what do experts know brigade’. We have such open access to information and knowledge that we can know about most things within minutes. That’s just a cursory level of knowing though. The learning only happens when we take the time to understand the nuances of various subjects, the implications of certain choices, and the research into what can and can’t work. That’s how we learn. The biggest downfall of open access to information and knowledge is that people aren’t given the skills to know how to explore a topic further, relying almost exclusively on short articles and the likes.

Back to the ‘resources not courses’ mentality – what this drives is that we help people at work perform – because that’s what they’re paid to do. Building in learning into that process is obviously an element of how that happens, and that’s where the role of L&D if fundamentally changing.

Learning is a process and combination of exposure to content, awareness of self, reflection, hypothesis making and testing, research and evidence gathering, action and challenge. If you think about your typical training course – be it digital or in-person, that’s not what we help people with. I’m not bashing training courses. They play an important role in the learning process. They’re just largely inefficient because that’s not how people actually learn.

My call to action for L&D practitioners is to better consider how we describe the work we do, and not over-inflating nor over-conflating what we do. Humans are complicated. Psychologists, economists, philosophers and essentially anyone interested in the human condition are still trying to better understand what it means to be human. We know a lot about the human condition and accordingly about the human learning process. What we’re also learning is that there are a number of models and theories we need to know about in order to support the learning process. It’s a fallacy to think one model or theory has any more prevalence than another.

When it comes to workplace learning we need to bear in mind that we’re only ever concerned with an aspect of human learning. This is no reflection on how skilled a trainer, facilitator or learning solution designer you might be. This is an acknowledgement that all we’re really doing in the workplace is enabling people to perform better.

And we all know what that means…

As a facilitator, one of the hardest things I have to deal with is helping others articulate themselves so they’re being clear on what they want to say and to whom they’re saying it.

Most people have a belief that they are likely to offend someone if they speak their mind, so they don’t and they speak in vague language instead. They try and couch what they want to say in words and language that is trying to say something but doesn’t end up saying anything.

I guess some of this is the British stiff upper lip attitude. We’ll just crack on and hope to not offend anyone along the way. 

But teams don’t work that way. Especially when people have things they need to say. They end up expressing themselves in all sorts of weird and wonderful ways. Things I’ve heard and seen often over the years:

  • And we all know what that means
  • We have a blame culture
  • It’s not my opinion but…
  • Someone not engaging in the team discussion
  • Behaviours that suggest some people are not willing to speak up

And so that’s where I think the role of a facilitator really comes into being. In providing safe and healthy ways for people to express themselves, to say what they want to say and need to say, to be heard. And those of us who philosophise about such things, will understand those are human instruments. We need those to happen in our lives for us to be well.

It’s one of the challenges I see online. People express themselves poorly when they’re in anger and frustrated and they’re seeking ways to express themselves in ways they can’t see a better way of doing. 

Which is one of the things I enjoy about Twitter chats like #ldinsight or #failchat. They have a community of people who can help you to be more articulate. There’s a group of people present who are mindful about words and language and the influence they have on day to day living.

Just some thoughts and reflections today. Nothing more.