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Archive for the ‘Personal Musings, Hard Truths, and the Like’ Category

robot3Gartner Research in a recent report predicted that a third of all jobs will be lost to automation within a decade.  And within two decades, according to economists at Oxford, nearly half of all current jobs will be performed with machine technology.  This alarming tidbit was revealed in a recent (Feb. 25, 2015) front page article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “Jobs and the Clever Robot.”

The traditional view, that technology helps people is being challenged today.  Historically, while technology replaced people, those people learned new skills and trades that often as not yielded better, higher-paying, less physically demanding jobs.  Think of the transformation of agricultural employment moving into the industrial revolution of the 19th century.

Moreover, even more recently (in the 20th century) MIT economist David Autor points out, automation, rather than killing jobs indiscriminately, commandeered such middle-class work as clerk and bookkeeper at the high and low ends of the market.

Today, computers do legal research, write stock reports and translate conversations.  They generate online ad campaigns for car dealers and churn out government required bank documents.  These are relatively high-end jobs that are now being replaced via automation.

The fear today is that there may be a very limited number of ‘steps up’ or reeducation that can take place any more to replace these jobs lost to robots or automation.  And if that’s so, then what we’re witnessing is the hollowing out of the hallowed middle class.  And that, in turn, could lead to an even greater polarization of jobs and incomes – creating a more deeply ‘tiered’ and increasingly separate upper and lower classes of rich and poor.

Even jobs like truck driver are at risk.  We’ve all heard about Google’s driverless car experiments.  According to Henrik Christensen, head of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s robotics program, “most truck drivers won’t have those jobs ten years from now.”

There are some counterpoints, the Journal article points out.  For example, bank ATMs spread quickly across the U.S. over 30 years, but the number of tellers has only recently declined.  But Scott Stern, an MIT economist, believes that technology may have reached a tipping point.  He once thought the latest wave of automation would crest gradually, like prior technological transitions.  But advances are moving at a faster speed today, he notes, with unpredictable results.

A key underlying question: How close are the breakthroughs that would enable robots to interact with humans in complex tasks?  The answer to that question may well determine whether employment and income trends become worse.  Some say computing capacity is the only barrier.  The world, notes the Journal article, “is building vast pools of data and computing muscle that… will soon enable machines to do jobs that previously required skilled people.”

Yet others say scientists are far from translating common sense, sight and dexterity into a string of code and that, absent that, computing power won’t help.

We can only hope they’re right, but still, isn’t it only a matter of time.?  The ultimate challenge is whether man can stay sufficiently ahead of the machines to preserve all those jobs and livelihoods.  You can’t put the genie back in the bottle.

It would be hard to understate how much is riding on the outcome.

 

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Dunbar numberAbout ten years ago, before the explosion of social networking, anthropologist and psychologist Robin Dunbar conducted research on the Christmas card sending habits of the English.   Dunbar wanted to know roughly the size of a person’s average social circle – remember, this was pre-Facebook.  He figured that the effort required to buy, sign, address and post envelopes was a rough proxy for the value of a person’s social network

Because of the need to keep these posts brief, I’ll jump to the conclusion by noting that the total population of the households of the average card mailing was 153.5, or roughly 150.  Dunbar was not surprised.

For two decades anthropologists and researchers like Dunbar have consistently discovered groupings of 150 members nearly everywhere they looked, according to a recent article in the January issue of Bloomberg Businessweek.  Hunter gatherer societies tend to cluster around 150 members.  In Western military history, the size of the smallest autonomous military unit, the company, has generally hovered around 150.  Hutterites, a sect similar to the Amish, always split when they grow larger than 150.  Even the makers of Gore-Tex employ a management structure that breaks a division up and builds a new office whenever it exceeds 150 people.

Dunbar posits a simple explanation: in the same way that we humans can’t, say, breathe underwater or run a 100 yard dash in three seconds, we also cannot maintain many more than 150 meaningful relationships.

The reason — and the size of our relationship span — appears, researchers believe, to be related directly to brain size.  According to Dunbar’s writing in the Journal of Human Evolution, while it’s nice to be smart, big brains demand a lot of energy and require years to grow to full size.  Dunbar theorizes that “big brains evolved to solve the problem of social life.”  Living in large groups confers significant advantages, the chief one being protection against predators.  But living together is also difficult, what with competition for food, security and access to mates.  This is particularly true of course for primates, like us.

Taking it one step further, Dunbar concluded that there is a dizzying amount of data to be processed in the social network he describes.  When Dunbar (in 1992) plotted the size of the neocortex of each type of primate against the size of the group it lived in, he found the larger the neocortex, the larger a social group it could handle.  Basically, as brain size increases, so does social group size.  When Dunbar plugged in the human neocortex ratio to determine a predicted human group size, he came up with 147.8.

While Dunbar was not the first to posit that “social dynamics explained the evolution of higher intelligence,” his simple math was impressive and convincing to many in the scientific community.

This “Dunbar Number” has made Robin Dunbar an intellectual celebrity.  He’s authored books, spoken at TED and is sought out by the likes of the BBC and others while remaining employed at Oxford.  There are more nuances to the 150 number (for example, the scale of numbers beginning with a group of “closest” friends numbering 3 to 5, widening to a close circle of 12 to 15 — those who death would be devastating to us — and so on), but those are for another longer post perhaps.

For now, it’s simply worth noting that “like all good theories, it explains constraints, constraints in nature” explains venture capitalist Jerry Murdock, an investor in Path, a service that allows people to post photos from their phones, message one another and comment and search through friends’ material.  No surprise then that Path limits its networks to no larger than 150 people.

It might also suggest that if you have many more than 150 Facebook friends, you’re probably pushing the boundaries of your definition of “friends.”  Or  just really popular.

Oh, and in honor of Valentine’s Day today… tell your closest friend you love them.  I know I will.

 

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Today we take a slightly off-topic detour, before we launch into a new series of ERP posts. (Beginning with our next post, we’ll be taking a hard look at the impact of ERP software in the distribution and wholesaling arena, courtesy of a new report recently published by Aberdeen Research.)

Today’s slightly off-topic post is still of general interest, I think, to our base of manufacturers and distributors, because it’s about some timely and topical topics: namely, the success factors behind U.S.cities that are actually creating jobs today.

The keys lie in two areas near and dear to our hearts: entrepreneurs and education.  In this case, a recent article in the November 29th Wall Street Journal (p. A3) points up some interesting correlations that have led to certain cities (notably, Austin, Texas, among others) growing jobs.

You can read the article yourself if you’re a Journal subscriber, but if not, the gist of it is this: They’ve found that a great way to create jobs for people who didn’t go to college is to attract highly skilled entrepreneurs “and watch the companies they start hire lower-skilled workers.”

Even as manufacturing dwindles as an employment base, it turns out that an effect is happening in the tech and service sectors that is similar to what previously happened in manufacturing: jobs – even highly intellectual ones – tend over time to get broken down into increasingly smaller and more granular tasks.  Just as assembly lines one broke down manufacturing production into discrete tasks manageable by individuals, these high-tech and high-intellect jobs are going the same way.

So, by attracting entrepreneurs, who in turn are hiring the best and the brightest, cities end up creating even more jobs for the lesser-educated — say, those with an associate’s degree.  Towns (like Austin) with faster growing influxes of population tend to grow even faster still, and take great advantage of this phenomenon.

The article points out that forty years ago, the disparity (in the percent of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree) between the 10 most and 10 least educated metropolitan areas in the U.S. (among the top 100) was about 13%.  Now, it’s more than double that.  In a sense, the smart (cities) are getting smarter.  Metro areas with the highest percentage of workers with at least a bachelor’s degree have generally fared better in the downturn, too.  The article cites cities including Boston,Washington DC area, Madison, Raleigh-Durham, andPortland, ME as its top five. 

And of course, these so called “brain hubs” go beyond generating new mid-skills jobs: they’re also generating higher incomes.  There’s a whole new crop of new middle-skill, middle-income specialties that are growing the employment base, spreading the wealth, and creating new job opportunities in these cities.

But it all starts by nurturing entrepreneurs.  Cities that create the right environments (a whole other topic…) are sowing the seeds for their own long term success… in growth, in income and in quality of life.  And one feeds upon the other.

 

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There appears to be a disconnect among Americans between how we think of ourselves, and how we really act.  At least that’s what’s being reported in the “2010 American Time Use Survey” released by the Dept. of Labor, and as reported recently in a number of outlets including the Wall Street Journal. 

The survey covered over 13,000 people conducted by the Census Bureau, including a range of demographics across people both employed and unemployed.  Across this group, the time allocated to “leisure activities” has increased recently.  The average person spent just under four hours working (remember, the survey included both the employed and the unemployed).  Sleep accouned for 8 hours and 23 minutes per day… television accounted for another 2 hours and 31 minutes.

Economists had hoped, after the recession hit, leaving millions jobless, “that in lieu of work Americans would spend more time on productive activities,” noted the WSJ article.  Good luck with that.  As one concluded, “the amount of time spent watching TV and other nonproductive activities remains extraordinarily high.”

According to the report there are a few hints that some people are choosing to brush up on their work skills or learn new ones: there was a four minute increase between 2007 and 2010 on the time spent on educational activities.  To be fair, the Census Bureau reports that changes in time spent on activities over time tend to be very small, meaning that a few minutes are considered significant.

Still, this would seem to confirm what Geoffrey Godbey, professor emeritus atPennsylvaniaStateUniversity, calls “a disconnect between how Americans see themselves and what they actually do.”

As the Journal notes: “Although during the recession’s aftermath many Americans have expressed the perception that their workloads have increased, the number of hours worked in fact has stayed fairly consistent.”  For full time workers, “your life has stayed pretty much the same”, Professor Godbey stated.

But some things apparently haven’t changed: On average, women report spending five fewer hours on leisure per week than men.  In other words, while women are working longer, they haven’t cut back on the housework.

Sometimes, perception (at least our own) isn’t necessarily reality.  And sometimes the reality is less comforting than we thought – at least, apparently, if you’re a woman.

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Today we revert to a humorous vein, with precious little to do with ERP or software or technolgy.  Still…

To avoid saying that I stole this humorous listing of the ten worst things we say in business these days – or, the latest bad jargon – I will immediately give attribution for today’s purloined offering: today’s examples come from the Focus Research Group, whose editors channeled their own inner Dilbert to present you with today’s Ten Worst List – the original article may be found here.

How many of these do you recognize?  Worse still, how many do you use?

Boil the Ocean – taking on a task so difficult, you might as well try to, well… boil the ocean.

Disambiguate – a pompous word used in place of “clarify,” typically uttered by a clueless manager who doesn’t want to reveal himself as an imbecile.

Game-changer – a new product or strategy designed to bring about tremendous profits or success.  Its popularity soared after P-Diddy used it in a rap in 2010.

Moving forward – or: “from now on.”  Adds allure to the concept of what our decisions might lead to in the future.  And as Focus Research says… “lends itself to the fantasy that new office policies will make them business literature legends.”

Net-Net – A more urgent form of “get to the point.”  In case “What’s the bottom line here?” isn’t good enough.

Socialize internally – Talking to your co-workers, simply put.  Does it seem like everything these days has suddenly gone ‘social’?

Value add – Anything that improves a value or service.  This one’s big in the tech sector.  Done right, it can actually make sense, as in when you invest money and the ROI exceeds the investment significantly – that’s actual “value add.”  Still, I love Focus’ example, full of wonderfully abstruse jargon, and quoted verbatim: “While the rest of the team circles back to discuss the accuracy of the flowcharts, I’ll be working on several value adds for the current project.”

Low hanging fruit – (Admit it, we all use it.)  Going for the easy score.  The quickest route to winning the easy sales.

Screw the pooch – A polite way of saying you really messed up.  I first heard it used by Tom Wolfe when describing an early space flight of Gus Grissom’s in The Right Stuff when things didn’t go as planned, and presumably, Grissom was to blame.  This is reserved for the guy who dropped the ball on the deal.

Action items – An exaggerated name for ‘tasks.’  Feels a lot more important than completing your list of tasks, doesn’t it?

 

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As we close out April, we say good-bye to National Poetry Month.  It’s only fitting then to close out this month’s posts with a tip of the hat to this annual exercise in recognizing the power of poetry — the brief, printed cousin of prose – and of course, its value to today’s CEO or executive.  After all, this is, largely, a business blog.

I’m brought to mind of all of this by a recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “What John Keats Can Teach a CEO” penned by Danny Heitman, author and columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate.

Heitman relates how he was among a handful of professionals recently asked by a local magazine reporter to recommend a few favorite books about business management.  Rather than, as he says, give “some variation on ‘Leadership Secrets of Atilla the Hun’ ” his answer took a different turn.  “I find that poetry helps me do my job better,” Heitman told the reporter.  “Good poems teach you how to write simply and clearly, which is a must for most businesses.”

His comments reminded me of my own study of poetry back in my university years, an unspecified number of years ago.  In the interest of full disclosure, I must herein admit that I, too, majored in Poetry (technically, English for the degree) in my more studious years.  It’s a strange route, from poetry author (minor-ly published) to software CEO / entrepreneur.  But in truth, not as strange as it sounds.

Turns out, being a “generalist” – the provenance of most general studies and English majors – is one of the best backgrounds you can have for seeing the big picture… for communicating with others… for having insights about how the parts fit with the whole… and how to bring disparate parts together for a common objective.  In the end, a Poetry Major might be just the ticket to the executive suite.  Certainly, it seems apropos of the small business universe.

Besides, it turns out a lot of smart people mixed poetry and business.  Among the best known, Wallace Stevens combined careers as a highly acclaimed writer/poet with that of (of all things) an insurance company executive. 

As to the challenge of saying a lot in a few words, look no further than Keats, as Heitman points out in his article, or Robert Frost or Emily Dickinson.  To those, I would add Ted Hughes, John Berryman, Gary Snyder – poets closer to my own generation or style, give or take.  Hughes in particular taught us the subtle nuance of language and the fierce power of words.  His wife, Sylvia Plath, a pretty well-tuned wordsmith herself, plumbed the depths of her angst and anguish with words that cut like a knife – and ultimately, in a very real sense, killed her.

But to return to task: the clarity and brevity embodied in the best poetry teach us to respect, not to mention think about, the very real and creative power of words. 

And while it may seem counterintuitive, both the art of poetry and the art of business are very much deeply creative acts – more so than one might think at first blush.  Indeed, when you think about it, poetry and business have much in common: each requires creative thinking, making much with little, and often sleepless nights.  The insights of both help influence the texture of our lives and livelihoods. 

So let’s give National Poetry Month its due, as its days wane with the close of April.  But don’t expect to see Congress adopt a National Business Month any time soon.  Unlike poetry, business and the art of making money appear to have more than their share of vocal advocates already.

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Today I am escaping quietly from my workplace office.  With any luck I will be off paddling a canoe on some quiet pond, alone with my thoughts.  That’s because today is one of those secretive, hush-hush, whispered benchmarks in one’s life – at least for me, today, in my life. 

In case you haven’t guessed it yet, today’s post has nothing to do with our usual software or ERP or technology or business topics – and everything to do with the fact that today, I turn 60.

There I said it.  Didn’t think I’d have the courage to do it.  But it’s out there.

Turns out, every day three hundred and thirty of us boomers turn the big Six-O.  We grew up in the 50s, were radicalized in the 60s, rocked in the 70s (doing our best to ignore with casual insouciance the scourge of disco).  We mostly focused on careers or success in the 80s and probably succumbed to a bit of excess in the 90s.  Most of us got busted in the Oughts, at least financially.

And before we knew it, we got smacked upside the head by sixty.

Relax, someone said.  Sixty is the new 30.  Yeah, right.  Tell that to my joints.  Still, speaking strictly from a personal perspective, I am totally grateful: I do my pushups and pilates and still run four times a week, I feel pretty good, pretty much all the time, and I have nothing serious to complain about.  But still… sixty?  It sounds old even to me.  And now, I am one.

They say at 60 that you can expect to live to about 80 or so.  That’s depressing.  One-fourth of my life left?  Nah.  I’m thinking 100.  Having forty years to go feels somehow more comforting.  (Ask me again at 80.)  Besides, as Abe Lincoln said: It ain’t the years left in your life that matter, it’s the life left in your years.  Amen Brother President.

Still, isn’t it funny sometimes to reflect on events that happened “after our time” (defined loosely as anything that occurred in say the last 2 or 30 years) – only to find all too often that even these events were “before the time” of some younger person we’re addressing?  Ouch – that’ll make you feel old.  I often work with young people and I can’t help laughing when some post-counter-cultural reference I make goes sailing over their heads – something that in my life just happened, like… yesterdayWhat do you mean you never heard of Taxi? (let alone ‘Taxi Driver’) or Apocalypse Now? or Born to Run? or Lee Harvey Oswald?  Feeling old yet?

The irony of 60, I think, is that inside our heads, we’re still (pick a number…) 19? 26? 5?  That is, we still think pretty much as we did when we were kids. We remember things from our youth (usually more clearly, it seems, than we remember events of only a year or three ago — ironic, huh?).  Often we even see the world through those same childish eyes – plus or minus the collective wisdom and accumulated bruises of a few ensuing decades, of course. 

The point is, deep down inside, we really haven’t changed much, have we?  It’s like going to your high school reunion: I haven’t changed, but whew, those others guys sure are looking older/balder/greyer.

Of birthdays, my father (who is a spry 87 if I may say so) always says “It’s only a number.”  With an attitude like that, no wonder he’s my hero.

Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.  Every day above ground is a good day.  Bring it on…

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