Monthly Archives

8 Articles

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

You work too hard

You work too hard

70% of employees work more than their contracted hours. This is according to a new study from my client Tarkett, who I’ve been working with for Clerkenwell Design Week, an absolute festival of interior design. Why are we all working so hard? And is it productive?

Think about your role. Do you add most value based on your throughput of work? Or do you add more value with creativity, insight and inspiration? Either is a valid answer. The reality is probably somewhere between the two.

But look at what is happening to the sheer throughput side of our work. Even those who don’t believe that automation is going to take swathes of jobs, generally accept that we can progressively outsource the more mundane aspects of our work to machines. Technology can accelerate our output and allow us to focus on the things that really matter. The uniquely (for now) human capabilities that allow us to really add value.

So think: are your best creatively when you’re overworked? Listen to Leonard Mlodinow on ‘elastic thinking’ at a recent RSA talk and he’ll tell you a good state of mind is critical to these skills.

Factor in the potential shortage of jobs in the future — perhaps even more realistic if you believe David Graeber’s ‘Bullshit Jobs’ analysis and consider those might be the first to be automated away — and a small number of people doing excessive amounts of work looks even less sensible.

Tomorrow’s workforce is going to be made up of people valued for their human skills, not employed as cheap robots, as is often the case today (see Paul Mason’s point about car washes moving from automated to manual). Future-ready organisations should be starting now to focus on mapping desirable outcomes — sustainable success — much more closely to human skills of creativity and insight, than to sweat and toil.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Slow down to speed up

Slow down to speed up

Sometimes everyone needs a new perspective. Someone else’s take on your challenges. I’m a big advocate for bringing external perspectives into your business, but as so often happens, I had let my own arrangements slip. I fixed this last week.

In the first meeting with my new adviser, Penny Haslam, she questioned things that I’d taken for granted, offered criticisms I hadn’t considered, and helped me take decisions that I’d been equivocating over for far too long. She also pointed out (though she wasn’t the first) that I use a lot of long words like equivocating. Something else for me to look at.

Speed kills

One of the questions Penny asked was why I do two blog posts each week. I didn’t have a great answer. I started it because I thought amassing a rich array of content on the website would drive greater search traffic. Turns out I was wrong: my topics are too diverse and my keyword discipline too poor for that to work. It was just habit.

The problem with this is that two posts takes up two of the most productive hours of my working week. Sometimes they are aligned to work I’m doing anyway. But increasingly I keep things like my presentation scripts back for subscribers rather than releasing them for free. This means that to produce two posts I’m having to cast around for original thoughts beyond the issues I’m working on directly.

So this will be the last week that I produce two posts. I will still be trying to post new material for subscribers a few times a week, including all my slide decks, scripts where I have them, videos of my talks, and audio of media interviews where they’re relevant. But the public blog will drop to one post, and the podcast will hence move to fortnightly rather than weekly.

With the time released, I will work more on the material I do produce, ensuring it connects and adds value for you, the reader.

What are you doing too much of?

So often, habits form around our day to day processes, to the points where we stop questioning the reasons behind them. What do you do that no longer adds value? What are you doing too much of when you could be using the time better?

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future of work: What matters?

Future of work: What matters?

I’m working on a talk on the future of work at the moment, to be presented alongside my client Tarkett at Clerkenwell Design Week. The core of this talk is about the alignment of what is good for organisations and what is good for the people that work for them.

The UK has something of an adversarial history in this field, at least over the recent past. The rights of workers are often perceived as being at odds with the needs of the business. The result is constant combat with employers begrudgingly releasing greater flexibility, leave, pay and other benefits.

Of course, not every organisation operates like this. There are companies in the UK, and many more abroad, who take a more collaborative approach, recognising that the organisation can benefit when workers are happy and engaged. This is no panacea, as I’ve noted before: happy workers often risk complacency. But it’s increasingly clear that a more collaborative relationship will be the right approach for the future.

The reasons for this are manifold, but I will pick on two.

Human interactions in an hourglass economy

Firstly, there is the changing nature of job roles. The UK has exemplified the ‘hour glass’ shift away from middle-skilled jobs, into high and low skilled. Where other countries have seen much more of a shift into high skilled work, in the UK the split is roughly even.

What is important to note about both groups of jobs is that they involve interfacing with people as much or more than machines and will do so increasingly. Middle-skilled jobs often involved knowledge of specific machinery, whether it was a lathe or a typewriter. The growth in low-skilled jobs is more about knowing people: care, service, food and drink. At the high end, even roles like software development are increasingly collaborative rather than solo pursuits.

If you’re going to build a business that is driven by human interactions, then it pays, over the long term, to underpin those interactions with a genuine enthusiasm for the work.

Maximising productivity

The UK’s poor productivity is a much discussed subject. Why do we toil more hours here for less reward? If we are to tackle this, then more flexible work seems to be part of the solution. Consensus now is that far from limiting productivity, flexible working actually boosts it.

The conversation about flexible working is usually tied to issues of family, helping people to balance work with home life. But I think there is a real conversation to be had about allowing people to work when they are most productive. We’re all different and 9–5 is a very poor fit for some people’s body clock, me included.

7AM to 11AM I am generally at my best, creatively, working at a furious pace. But after that I need food and a nap before continuing. This might be acceptable in a Silicon Valley tech firm (though they probably expect most people to be there from 7AM to 7PM anyway), but it’s not exactly normal in a UK business. At least, not yet.

Too often we are focused on outputs, not outcomes, to borrow a favoured phrase from impact consultant, Monika Neall (whose husband I happen to be). We worry about people being present and completing assigned tasks, not what they actually do for the business.

Give people more responsibility for results and control of their hours, and they will both me more engaged in the business and deliver more.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The bandwidth between us and our machines is falling

The bandwidth between us and our machines is falling

There aren’t many people still working who remember passing instructions to machines via punched cards. But that’s what we used to do. Humans would go to great lengths to translate a problem into a format a machine could understand, encode it in punched cards, and ensure the machine had the contextual information it needed to produce an answer.

Since this time, our instructions to machines have become progressively less explicit. With the WIMP (windows, icons, menu, pointer) era we started to click on what we wanted and let the machine (and the developers) do the work translating commands into easily-recognisable icons.

This moved further in the touch era, with machines applying their growing power to interpret touches from our fat fingers into recognisable commands. Now with voice, we have reached a point where huge amounts of processing work goes in to make sense of our voice commands, and does it surprisingly well.

What is also clear with voice is that the return channel is also lower bandwidth. Where the 19in screen on my desktop PC offered a huge amount of real estate on which to display a response, and hence could give me choices, a voice interface can comfortably only really offer one option.

This again is the progression of a trend: building experiences for mobile devices has always been about maximising the value of a limited amount of screen space. Part of the value of personalisation technologies in a mobile context is that they can increase the chance that what is displayed on the screen is what the customer might actually be searching for.

The impact of this is that we are relying on machines to make more decisions on our behalf. We are trading choice for convenience, or trust that the answers being offered to us are right for us, and not the best answers for the provider of that information, service or product.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal there has been lots of discussion about what happens to our personal data, albeit it has little effect on people’s actual behaviour, as I predicted (with help). There has been lots of discussion about the narrowing of our circles of influence as we are increasingly targeted with search results and news articles that fit our existing views. But I’ve seen very little discussion of the levels of power we are giving up over our buying decisions. And I think it’s definitely an important conversation.

##

This article is based on a talk I’m giving at the EpiServer Ascend London 2018 event. If you would like access to the full script and slide deck, check out my Patreon campaign at patreon.com/bookofthefuture

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Flying car reality check

Flying car reality check

I started this morning early, talking to James Max on TalkRadio about Uber’s latest announcements on self-flying drone taxis. At its second Elevate summit, the company announced partnerships with NASA and five aerospace companies to design, build, and test such vehicles, as well as some design mockups of what they could look like.

A few things were clear from the announcement, if they weren’t already.

Firstly, this is not a tomorrow technology, it’s at least a decade out. Partly the tech just isn’t ready: we need better batteries, lighter materials, quieter rotors, new safety systems, more reliable object detection and more. Partly, we’re not ready: the regulations surrounding this are many and complex, we don’t yet have confidence in robot pilots, and we haven’t even started thinking practically about what these devices might mean for our lives and work.

Secondly, this is not an ‘everywhere’ technology. The flying taxi isn’t a straight replacement for its wheeled alternative. Door-to-door flying is impractical in built-up areas. More likely these vehicles would have to land on a nearby pad. Yes, there may be many more of these than there are airports — eventually — but you’re still going to need last mile transit from the pad.

Where is it for then? I can see a business case for these devices doing short suburban or intercity hops. Uber is aiming for a range of 60 miles with a five minute recharge time. In the UK that might be a quick trip from Manchester to Liverpool or Leeds, around larger cities like London, or from London to Brighton. The speed of this travel might make it an attractive alternative to rail or road, particularly for business travel, and when a self-driving car can complete the trip.

In places like the US, with giant sprawling conurbations like LA or the Tri-State area, this form of transport really comes into its own. Rapid connections between business districts might be enormously valuable there.

This of course assumes that physical travel remains a realistic proposition in the face of rapidly-improving virtual communication. I’m confident that this is the case: the bandwidth of personal interaction face to face remains exponentially greater than that which can be achieved in any current virtual space. Replicating it will take time, and even then, I think our cultural attachment to physical interactions will mean it retains added value.

For now then, watch this space. Self-flying taxis are absolutely practical in a defined set of scenarios. But they won’t be replacing your commute any time soon.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Tomorrow is tactile, not sterile

Tomorrow is tactile, not sterile

What is a phone for? It sounds like a daft question. It certainly would have done twenty years ago. A phone is for calling other people, right? It’s a second rate alternative to seeing them in person, that has advantages of range and convenience.

Today, of course, a phone is rarely for calling other people. It’s for listening to music, browsing social networks, playing games or watching films. Cue the complaints of commentators around the world that no-one talks anymore, that we’re all lost in our screens.

There is certainly a measure of that. My only conversation on my regular train journeys up and down to London this week, was to help someone else connect their screen to the Wi-Fi. Maybe in the past I might have chatted more to other passengers. Maybe that would be ‘a good thing’.

But look at how we actually use our phones, particularly the youngest group of adults, and I think the picture is rather rosier than usually painted. Four of the top five iOS apps for 2017 were communications apps. Not solo pursuits like video streaming, or even books, or news. But ways to interact with other people. Our phones have become a more common medium of communication, often acting as a broker for physical interaction — as dating apps have become — but the virtual world remains clearly subordinate to the real.

Invisible digital

This is not a brief respite in an long decline. I don’t believe the direction of travel is downward. Our technology is becoming more transparent, not more opaque. There will be a digital layer to our reality for most of our waking (and possibly sleeping) lives within a few short years. But this technology enables us to design interfaces and interactions that are natural and derived from our long-developed experience with the physical world. Instead of staring at screens we will have digital information naturally inserted into our physical world. And our need to interact with it will be progressively reduced as we hand over more decision making to semi-autonomous systems: exception management replaces remote control.

This terrifies many, particularly those with clarity about the security implications. They are right to be scared. But I don’t think this fear will slow the direction of travel: we will simply have to address the threats as we go.

Direction from the vinyl groove

Swallow down this fear though, and I think the picture is largely positive. More things will be digital and virtual. But just as has happened with music, there is a counter trend when this happens. We’re happy for the day-to-day to be low friction and virtual, but this almost enhances our desire for richer experiences: live music, and vinyl.

Tomorrow is not sterile screens and pallid human automata. It’s rich, tactile and human.

##

Like this? Get more when you subscribe at subscribe.bookofthefuture.co.uk.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

TSB: When tech is everything, failure is only human

TSB: When tech is everything, failure is only human

There’s a new technology event coming to the North next year, and I have the pleasure of chairing it (watch this space for more information). This week, we brought together two steering groups to help us to shape the event in terms of its format and content.

In talking about the potential audience, one point came across clearly: technology is everything now. It permeates every aspect of business and life. It’s hard to discuss tech in isolation from its applications, and for a broad audience, it’s only the applications that are interesting.

Case studies

The success or failure of those applications — which everyone agreed is the most interesting part — is often little to do with the technology itself. It’s about how the technology is applied. It’s about how humans chose to develop, integrate and deploy it.

This reality has been brought into sharp relief by the ongoing TSB saga. Without getting into too much detail, TSB has left many of its customers with incorrect information and no access to banking by bodging the transfer from its old platform — leased at great expense from its former parent, RBS — to its new one, provided by new parent Banco Sabadell.

The old platform was famously poor, as evidenced by RBS’s own digital woes. The new platform looks better on the face of it, but transitioning nearly two million customers is no small feat. TSB appears to have tried to complete the process in far too tight a timescale, in a bid to end the fees it was paying to RBS more quickly.

The big questions

The questions I get asked on local and regional radio in the wake of these disasters are my bellwether for the mood of the nation. What are people really thinking, and who — or what — are they blaming? In the wake of the TSB disaster (though incredibly, it’s still not over as I write), their answer is in part the company, but also the technology. People’s existing scepticism about online banking and our general reliance on technology is amplified and validated.

The point I always try to get across in these cases, is that the failures are human. Technology always has vulnerabilities to failure or corruption. The more we use, the more vulnerabilities we will have. But there’s a reason why we use these technologies: they allow us to do more and be more. The benefits outweigh the risks, as long as people do their jobs in mitigating them.

Technology is not a weakness, it’s a strength. In fact it’s arguably the defining strength of the human race: the systematic application of our understanding of the world. We can do it well or we can do it badly, but that’s on us, not the inanimate (for now) objects.

##

Like this? Get more when you subscribe.

Tom Cheesewright