Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Disconnection means death

Disconnection means death--and connection means life.  This is the theme of the three most powerful books I read in 2018.

The first is Yuval Noah Harari's provocative and brilliantly crafted Homo Deus: A brief history of tomorrow (Harper 2017), in which the title of this post is embedded thusly: "Eventually we may reach a point when it will be impossible to disconnect from this all-knowing network (think Internet-of-all-things) even for a moment. Disconnection will mean death" (p. 349).  Importantly, his word choice 'may' means this is not a fait et compli future.  Paradoxically, one way for Homo Sapiens to persist in the face of ever-encompassing 'Dataism,' is to not let consciousness be completely separated from intelligence.  That is to say, we need to consciously disconnect (at least in part) from the super-intelligence systems we are creating, if we want to preserve our humanity.

Meanwhile, global and local tribalism is disconnecting us from one another and it seems to be increasing at an alarming rate.  Amy Chua's account of Political Tribes (Bloomsbury 2018) describes the age-old and enduring human tendency to bond together, unfortunately often 'against' the 'other.'  This form of disconnection from other humans puts the entire global community at risk.  This successful author describes historic blunders around the world, not so much as ideological, but rather as tribal conflicts.  Through this lens, American tribalism is not just about different deeply held belief systems, but also a simple, blunt dynamic of 'us' vs 'them.'  Reconnecting this disparate band of brothers will require a narrative of unity, of a super-group. Not super as in superior, but rather 'super' as being above the self-interests of the sub-groups. New storytellers are out there. We just have to keep looking and listening.

Raising our sights toward a more humanistic and simultaneously more competitive business future, in 2018, Tom Peters produced another call to action called, The Excellence Dividend: Meeting the tech tide with work that wows and jobs that last  (Vintage 2018). In his inimitable style, the master storyteller takes on the bleak outlook for humans in a tech-driven future. By his own admission, his thesis has not changed in the 30+ years since In Search of Excellence was published.  Essentially, the point that Tom makes is that people still matter, mostly because only people, and people-centric technology can produce excellent products and services.  Price pressure notwithstanding, people still want the human touch as consumers. And, we certainly want it in our workplaces. The hopeful message is that in the face of uncertainty, we can still strive for and deliver excellence, which is its own reward as well as the most rewarding way to run a business.  In Tom's words, "Excellence is a way of life that sustains us and inspires us day in and day out, minute in and minute out. There is no 'long term.'  There is only the way we act when we step out into the corridor after a meeting--or, yes, the quality of your next four-line e-mail. ... The manifestation of excellence--or not--in our moment-to-moment behaviour is the bedrock beneath the bedrock" (p. 44).

Not surprisingly, we humans are better off when we find ways to connect and worse off when we focus on our (surprisingly small) differences as a way to divide ourselves.  That sort of disconnection indeed means death--on all sorts of levels.  By contrast, seeing and celebrating difference is the one form of intelligence that makes us truly human.

This brings me to the most powerful talk shared with me in 2018.  This comedy routine cum oratory masterpiece called 'Nanette' by Hannah Gadsby is at once provocative, stirring and uplifting.  Her concluding comments include a plea for us all to challenge the dominant power narrative that marginalises so many within our various human societies.  The counter-narrative must be one of connection.  Now, more than ever, for us humans, connection is life.

Friday, June 1, 2018

The One Device We Can't Live Without

Yesterday, I forgot my phone as I left home. By the time I remembered it, I was almost to the train station 15 minutes from my house and too far to go back for it, as I had to meet my class.

I'm sure this has happened to others and, like most people I found that living without a smartphone changed my day.  While I remembered my lecture and one other meeting that day, I was at a complete loss as to what my schedule was for the week ahead.  Even though I rarely make phone calls, if I wanted to make one, I had no contact phone numbers that day.  And, of course, I had no maps, no Siri, no camera, and no email contact as I traveled to and from work.  Actually, the list of things I was not able to do without a smartphone is endless.

Coincidently, I had just finished reading an excellent exploration of the background and (amazing, but now taken for granted) features of smartphones in Brian Merchant's book, The One Device: The secret history of the iPhone (2017, Little, Brown and Co, New York/London).  In this tightly written epic, all roads lead to the iPhone, but not before reminding us that humans have had 'a century-long drift towards being always connected, always available' (p. 39), including an 1879 vision of FaceTime. And, the scientist/inventor, Nikola Tesla told Collier's magazine early in the last Century, 'We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance. Not only this, but through television and telephony we shall see and hear one another as perfectly as though we were face to face, despite intervening distances of thousands of miles; and the instruments through which we shall be able to do this will be amazingly simple compared with our present telephone.  A man (sic) will be able to carry one in his vest pocket' (p. 43).

Merchant then takes us on a physical trip to the Cerro Rico silver mines Bolivia and goes on to trace the origins of some of the 'rare Earth' metals contained in an iPhone. In total, there are 30 chemical elements that make up 129 grams of the iPhone's weight, but which are only worth $1.03, according to the chart on page 56 of my hard-cover version of the book.  It may sound dull, but it's fascinating in Merchant's narrative.  While straightforward and revealing, his purpose in the mining story is not to judge, but to inform us as owners of resource implications of these everyday luxuries.

The engineering and industrial design threads are even more captivating. Whether you're a technical person or not, the historic development of features like 'multi-touch' interfaces, 'gorilla glass' and 'lion' batteries are fascinating accounts of marvellous technologies that we all use and seldom appreciate. Indeed, most, if not all, the brilliant technologies incorporated into the iPhone were invented long ago by companies all over the world.  Many sat dormant for years after prototypes failed to excite executives, just as Steve Jobs himself was not originally interested in developing a phone. In fact, he hated phones, until he saw what was possible if the phone was re-imagined and reinvented, which is what Apple did, at first without and then with Steve's blessing (and obsessions).

The human and organizational story in this history is no less intriguing, informative and inspiring.  Though never officially sanctioned by Apple (as one might expect), the author tracks down many key members of key teams and others associated with and/or close enough to the action to relate the intensity and extreme pressure the engineering, human interface, design and programming teams were under once the iPhone project moved from a renegade movement to a massive master endeavour within One Infinite Loop and Apple's partners.

Speaking of partners, there is an eery account of Merchant's chance (unsanctioned) access into Foxconn, whose scale and secrecy is surpassed only by Apple itself.  By his reckoning, the author estimates that in one quarter (based on 2015 figures), workers spent 1,152,000,000 hours screwing, gluing, soldering and snapping together iPhones.  Besides the visceral reality of the place, the economic reality is that, unlike Ford's Model T, at Foxconn, Merchant found no one who was assembling iPhones could actually afford to own one.

Even though the component technologies had long been in the making, the actual concept and design of the iPhone was audaciously ambitious.  The notion of simply putting a phone into the company's wildly successful iPod product line was tempting (and there was a team devoted to that mission), but in the end, Apple's leadership decided to put the Mac OS into a phone, which is what made the smartphone 'smart' and not just another phone.  Ultimately, Steve Jobs made this and other major calls, but only after agonising and debating with others over competing priorities and practicalities.  The politics and some might say insane commitment of the folks involved in the development cannot be overstated. Those who love Apple mythology won't be disappointed.  There are fables and fairytales, heroes and, of course, there is Steve Jobs.  The various teams were locked down and pushing themselves to the limits, and paying the price in terms of divorce and lost family time.  Most were of course proud of their unfathomable success in the end.

Why should we care about the 'one device'?  Besides a story of the convergence of many extraordinary technologies, the smartphone that Apple gave the world cleverly brought computers to our daily lives in a way that had never been done before and which has changed our lives.  But, Brian Merchant reflects on how 'human' this one device also is.  In his words, '...it's worth thinking about the computer--especially this, the bestselling computing device of all time--as being powered by human work.  Because the iPhone, more expertly than its many predecessors, hides the immense amount of effort and ingenuity that's gone into it.  As the screens get sharper, the apps get more addictive, and the phone becomes more seamlessly integrated into our daily routines, we're drifting further away from grasping computing as the work of human beings--at a time when they are in fact the work of more human beings than ever' (p. 378).

While smartphones are here to stay, the iPhone itself will be surpassed by other devices. As Henri Lamiraux who oversaw the software engineering for the iPhone reflects, 'It's not like you created something, a piece of music that's going to be appreciated for a long, long time. It's just going to disappear and be replaced with something better, and be gone' (p. 380).

That may be so, but until it's replaced with something better, most of us won't go anywhere without ours.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Special Issue 'Connectivity In and Around Organizations' - Call for Papers

Organization Studies

Special Issue: Connectivity in and around Organizations

Guest Editors   
Darl G. Kolb, Graduate School of Management, University of Auckland, New Zealand
Marleen Huysman, KIN Research Group, VU University, The Netherlands
Kristine Dery, Center for Systems Information Research, MIT, Australia & USA
Anca Metiu, Senior Editor, Organization Studies, ESSEC Business School, France

The journal is seeking papers for a Special Issue that reflects and considers the impact of ubiquitous and near-constant connectivity in and around organizations.

In 2008, Organization Studies published an article entitled, ‘Exploring the Metaphor of Connectivity: Attributes, Dimensions and Duality’  (Kolb, 2008). A lot has happened in the world of connectivity in the past 10 years. Following the BlackBerry (‘CrackBerry’) era, the release of the iPhone in 2007 accelerated the ‘smartphone’ era. To be sure, the topics of mobile communication practice (Dery, Kolb, & MacCormick, 2014; MacCormick, Dery, & Kolb, 2012; Mazmanian, Orlikowski, & Yates, 2013; Sergeva, Huysman, van den Hooff, & Soekijad, 2017) virtual work and collaboration (Fayard & Metiu, 2014; Kolb, Collins, & Lind, 2008), work-life balance (Bakker & Leiter, 2010; Mazmanian, 2013), perceptions of proximity (Leonardi, Treem, & Jackson, 2010; Wilson, O'Leary, Metiu, & Jett, 2008), cognitive and socio-emotional effects of hyper-connectivity (Carr, 2010; Turkle, 2011) have received considerable attention in the years since the past decade. However, with some notable exceptions (Bakker & Leiter, 2010; Flyverbom, Leonardi, Stohl, & Stohl, 2016; Leonardi & Barley, 2010; Orlikowski & Scott, 2008), theoretical developments have been relatively sparse in this relatively new, yet important field of inquiry. 

We believe the time is right for a dedicated collection of scholarly work that advances our theoretical and practical understanding of the unprecedented connective context within and around organizations. Our intent is to produce a provocative and memorable Special Issue of Organization Studies. We therefore invite refreshing scholarly discourse on what constitutes connectivity (what it is and/or what it means), including its antecedents, its social materiality and the conceptual relationships that underpin and/or define connectivity, thereby offering advances in theory. Meanwhile, we expect critical evaluations of some of the ‘consequences’ and implications for practice. We are also seeking empirical studies that illuminate the subject and provide evidence and evocation for theory-building or theory-challenging.

Objectives of the Special Issue:
·         To advance our understanding of how connectivity affects organizational life
·         To stimulate dialogue and debate on connectivity as a dimension of contemporary life
·         To offer fresh, empirically-based insights into the practice of connecting with others through technology

We invite papers that will address, but are not limited to the following themes:
·         new perspectives on mobile human-computer interaction,
·         advancements and/or challenges to socio-technical and sociomaterial theoretical lenses,
·         the integration of work and non-work dimensions of life,
·         the stresses and strains associated with work-life integration, and
·         isolation and alienation that accompany and contradict increased connectedness. 

We are particularly interested in papers that provoke new ways of thinking about questions such as, but not limited to:

·         How do face-to-face organisational processes and practices compete for attention with ubiquitous personal connective technologies?
·         Who decides when and how much organizational members connect or disconnect?
·         What are the implications of near-constant connectivity on health and wellness?
·         The paradox of autonomy: How do independent individuals still work collaboratively?
·         How are work practices co-evolving with connective technologies?  
·         How are organizational structures co-evolving with connective technologies?

Papers may be conceptual, theoretical and/or empirical in nature, with a preference for empirical-based theoretical work.  While qualitative research may be most appropriate for supporting new theoretical directions and critical perspectives, quantitative research is also welcome, as long as it addresses new questions and contributes to the conceptual conversation in straightforward (accessible) language.

The scope of papers is intentionally broad, but papers should have a bearing on ‘organizational’ phenomena, as per the overall purpose and general guidelines of Organization Studies. Manuscripts submitted to a Special Issue should to adhere to Organization Studies Aims and Scope and contributor guidelines: http://www.uk.sagepub.com/msg/oss.htm#HOWTOSUBMITYOURMANUSCRIPT

Bakker, A. B., & Leiter, M. P. (2010). Work Engagement: A handbook of essential theory and research. New York: Psychology Press: Taylor and Francis Group.
Carr, N. (2010). The shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read and remember. London: Atlantic.
Dery, K., Kolb, D. G., & MacCormick, J. (2014). Working with flow: The evolving practice of smartphone technologies. European Journal of Information Systems, 23(5), 558-570.
Fayard, A.-L., & Metiu, A. (2014). The role of writing in distributed collaboration. Organization Science, 25(5), 1391-1413.
Flyverbom, M., Leonardi, P. M., Stohl, C., & Stohl, M. (2016). The management of visibilities in the digital age. Interntional Journal of Communication, 10, 98-109.
Kolb, D. G. (2008). Exploring the metaphor of connectivity: Attributes, dimensions and duality. Organization Studies, 29(1), 127-144.
Kolb, D. G., Collins, P. D., & Lind, E. A. (2008). Requisite connectivity: Finding flow in a not-so-flat world. Organizational Dynamics, 37(2), 181-189.
Leonardi, P. M., & Barley, S. R. (2010). What's under construction here? Social action, materiality, and power in constructivist studies of technology and organizing. The Academy of Management Annals, 4(1), 1-51.
Leonardi, P. M., Treem, J. W., & Jackson, M. H. (2010). The connectivity paradox: Using technology to both decrease and increase perceptions of distance in distributed work arrangements. Journal of Applied Communications Research, 38(1), 85-105.
MacCormick, J., Dery, K., & Kolb, D. G. (2012). Engaged or just connected?: Smartphones and employee engagement. Organizational Dynamics, 41(3), 194-201.
Mazmanian, M. (2013). Avoiding the trap of constant connectivity: When congruent frames allow for heterogeneous practices. Academy of Management Journal, 56(5), 1225-1250.
Mazmanian, M., Orlikowski, W. J., & Yates, J. (2013). The autonomy paradox: The implications of mobile email devices for knowledge professionals. Organization Science, 24(5), 1337-1357.
Orlikowski, W. J., & Scott, S. V. (2008). Sociomateriality: Challenging the separation of technology, work and organization. The Academy of Management Annals, 2(1), 433-474.
Sergeva, A., Huysman, M., van den Hooff, B., & Soekijad, M. (2017). Through the eyes of others: How onlookers shape the use of mobile technology at work. MIS Quarterly, 41(4), 1153-1178.
Turkle, S. (2011). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.
Wilson, J. M., O'Leary, M. B., Metiu, A., & Jett, Q. R. (2008). Percieved proximity in virtual work: Explaining the paradox of far-but-close. Organization Studies, 29(7), 979-1002.

Download pdf.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Humans and machines should co-evolve

When I was asked recently to speak on the subject of whether robots are taking our jobs, I said that’s a given.  If you’re wondering if robots will take our jobs, the answer is ‘yes.’  They already are.

Planes have flown with autopilot for over 100 years, and we’re rapidly extending the list of professions under threat from accountants and lawyers, to medicine and engineering.

If you’re wondering if robots will take your particular job, the answer is ‘it depends’ on how routine your job is (The Economist, 2016).  Hint: If your job is routine, no matter how interesting and intelligent you are, you’re at risk of being replaced with automation and/or machine intelligence. 

In short, if you think a computer can do your job, it probably can.

We love our machines
Back in 1982, we were living in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a little casita next to our landlord’s house.  Our landlord was a professional editor and author, who had purchased one of the first generation word processors (a Kaypro, I believe).  And, I remember telling my writer friend, ‘John, I’ll be the last generation that won’t use a computer.’  And, I meant it. 

Five (5) years later, I bought my first Macintosh (a Mac Plus) when I started working on my PhD and that computer became more than just a machine. It shared its secrets with me as I learned basic programming.  It was there for me when I felt I couldn’t go on. It watched over my work while I was sleeping.  It holds the place of highest honour on my office bookshelf.  Machines in general, and computers in particular, are a part of our family. An extension of ourselves.

So, this is a story not about slaying mechanical dragons. It’s about the quest to be better humans, who happen to work with machines.

Let’s face it, computers are simply better than we are (or will ever be) at certain things.  They land planes more consistently, they are better at facial recognition, they are more accurate at medical diagnoses, and they can of course beat us at games like chess and go.

Worrying about the potential downsides of machine intelligence and automation can blind us to the incredible possibilities and opportunities that such technologies may offer us in the future. We buy and sell, hire and fire, promote and demote with a huge degree of human bias (error). The good news is that machine intelligence is going to be able to help us out.

Rather than worrying about what machines can do, we should worry about what machines can’t do, in part because we still need to build better machines, and in part because that gives us a hint as to what we humans must continue to do well for our part in this co-evolution.

What are humans good for?

Walking down stairs
Even though robots can do amazing things, what they can’t do is equally astounding, like walking down a stairway. (See Nicolas Carr’s Automation and Us). So, let’s celebrate the agility we have as humans, and take care of our human bodies. 

Ever struggle with astrophysics?  Me too. Most of us find math difficult because our cognitive brains are less developed than our social brains. 

As one neuroscientist puts it, our comparatively large brains were developed to solve complex problems, but they were not the problems of thermal dynamics, they were social problems, like who was in charge in the tribe, how to deal with tribal politics, how to build inter-tribal relationships and so on.

      We are social all the way down: Collaboration is a particularly human skill and our social needs are driving us to use technology—maybe too much. 

      Social mediation may be worse than automation: While many people see automation as the worse-case scenario for humans in relation to machines, media over-use and over-dependence is just as bad as or worse than machine intelligence. 

      We used to worry about how much TV people were watching, but nowadays screen time has become far more pervasive than TV ever was.

      It’s not just that we look at screens so much, but that software and devices mediate—that is go between—us and the world around us. 

As comedian Aziz Ansari says in his book, Modern Romance, when observing on-line dating behaviour, he found that too many people spend too much time working on their profiles and not enough time dating! 

At some point, we have to look up from our screens, if we want to live life to the full.

Cultural intelligence
In a world of diversity and difference, humans are uniquely able to seek common connections between ourselves, even though we differ from one another. In a world of mindless tribalism and nationalism, it is important that humans continue to seek connections with others who are different from us. 

IBM’s Watson can make a highly accurate diagnosis of an illness, but only the attending physician can sense the patient’s will to live.

            Health ‘care’ means just that, ‘caring’ for people, even while using intelligent systems to         diagnose, and telemedicine (sensors and tablets) to gather data. We must preserve the human qaulity of kindness and compassion.  

Sadly, when we humans interact, we act more like machines than humans. For example, when I rent a car, the rental company’s representative spends the first half of their time with me gathering routine data, and the second half trying to on-sell insurance and other add-ons.  Why can’t better apps do these things and let the car renting human serve as a host or guide, welcoming me to their city and sending me off toward my final destination with style and grace?  Instead, we have turned ourselves into robots.  As Nicholas Carr observes:

“Industrialisation didn’t turn us into machines, and automation isn’t going to turn us into automatons. We’re not that simple. But automation’s spread is making our lives more programmatic. We have fewer opportunities to demonstrate our own resourcefulness and ingenuity, to display the self-reliance that was once considered the mainstay of character. Unless we start having second thoughts about where we’re heading, that trend will only accelerate.” (Carr, pp. 198-199).

The problem is most organisational work doesn’t involve inquiry or critical thinking. As Josh Bersin says in his Deloitte report,
“The future of work is not simply about using technology to replace people. The real “future of work” issue is all about making jobs “more human”—redesigning jobs, redesigning work, and redesigning organizations so that the “people side” of work has even more importance and focus than ever.”
Computers are good at providing answers, but humans are better at asking questions.  
Coupled with the rapid and radical advances in computation, we need to not just preserve, but continue to grow and develop the human character traits of curiosity and courage, coupled with compassion. These are the principals that underpin programs like Outward Bound.  Along with programming skills, we need education to focus on the attributes that makes us more resilient, more resourceful and more ready to make the hard calls when analysis has reached its limits.  Human character, however, is not just about stoicism or tenacity, it's about being both resourceful and interesting
Here's a test: Your friends would never think of taking a long trip without their smartphone, but if they wouldn't take you on a long trip, why not?  
What can we learn from robots?  What can we teach them?

Lifting the bar:  Don’t expect less from machines, expect more from them!

As Tom Peters says, when software doesn’t deliver, it’s not your fault.  For those of us who were not digital natives, we believe that we are idiots when a computer doesn’t do what we want it to do. Things are getting easier for the app generation, but computers still need to get better.  If my healthcare is going to be delivered remotely via a sensing, analytical nurse-bot, then it needs to be pretty darn good.  I don’t want it to be 80% right, or even 90% accurate (even though I would accept that from a human doctor).  Strangely, and unfairly to machines, we need our machines to be better than we are in order to trust them. And, that requires us to be smart and fussy consumers and ‘employers’ of machine intelligence.

What could possibly go wrong?

Things will change, possibly slower than many predictions, but more rapidly than we can prepare for. Headlines in the past year or so have emphasized the link between robots taking our jobs (technological change) and the economic ramifications, in particular the growing income gap in most developed countries.  This has triggered related discussions on universal basic income, and so on.  All this is good, but social changes are unlikely to evolve as fast as technological ones, unless there is a social revolution that accompanies this technical revolution.  If that happens, all bets are off.

Things won’t change – the tendency toward ‘winner-take-all’ economics in technology might see 1 or 2 companies dominating the robotics sector and progress slows; in NZ we understand how duopolies work, and globally in the 1990s we saw how one company’s dominance of the PC world meant that software development slows, or actually gets worse, when there are no rival options.  So, we need smart and fussy consumers of machine intelligence and competition among providers, or we risk having less smart robots.

Shit will happen
The notion of ‘normal accidents’ introduced by sociologist Charles Perrow suggests that when you have complex systems, there is not just a chance, but a high probability that something can and will go wrong (read, for instance, Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, on high frequency trading).  Machines make mistakes too!

A happy ending

One way to think to about it is not so much that machines and humans are in a zero-sum game, where a job is either held by a human or lost to a machine.  Perhaps a more salient metaphor is that of co-evolution, wherein humans and machines are both evolving together, like some believe dogs and humans have evolved in relation to one another. 

As Garry Kasparov says, the fact that machines are getting better and better offers a chance for humans to get better and better.  “Machines have calculations. We have understanding. Machines have instructions.  We have purpose. Machines have objectivity. We have passion.” 

 As Peter Drucker has said, “We don’t know the future, yet we create it.”  When it comes to automation and machine intelligence, humans and technology will co-evolve, but whether humans continue to develop our unique qualities is totally up to us.

You can listen to this talk given at the University of Auckland 'Raising the Bar' event on 29 August 2017. Podcast.

Or, on my Nine to Noon interview with Kathryn Ryan, 5 September 2017.

Bersin, Josh, of Bersin Deloitte (2017) “The Future of Work: It’s Already Here... And Not As Scary As You Think,” JoshBersin.com, September 21, 2016, http://joshbersin.com/2016/09/the-future-of-work-its-already-here/

Brynjolfsson, Erik and McAfee, Andrew (2014). The second machine age: Work, progress and prosperity in a time of brilliant technologies. New York: Norton.

Carr, Nicholas (2014). The glass cage: Automation and us. New York: Norton.

Colvin, Geoff (2015). Humans are underrated: What high achievers know that brilliant machines never will. New York: Penguin.