Saturday, April 29, 2017

Scrap your company values... it's hubris

A brief conversation with a young woman, in the queue for lunch at a corporate ‘values’ day, opened my eyes up to the whole values thing in organisations. “I have my values,” she said, “and they’re not going to be changed by a HR department.... I’ll be leaving in a couple of years and no doubt their HR will have a different set of values… which I’ll also ignore”. Wisest thing I heard all day.
You’ve probably had the ‘values’ treatment. Suddenly, parachuted out of HR, comes a few abstract nouns, or worse, an acronym, stating that the organisation now has some really important ‘values’. Even worse, an expensive external agency may have juiced them up. I genuinely like organisations that have a strategy, purpose, even a mission. But the current obsession with organisational values I don't buy.
I also chaired a Skills Summit last month, where innumerable HR folk paraded their company values with the usual earnestness. An endless stream of abstract nouns, all of which seemed like things any normal human being would want in any context, in or out of work - you know the words - integrity, innovation, honesty, community....  After a full day of this stuff I was impressed by the guy who ran a small, successful software company, who stood at the podium, and claimed that his company didn't really have any stated values but felt that the whole 'values' thing could be replaced by one phrase 'Don't be a dick!". All company values can be substituted by this one phrase. The rest is hubris....  

Bullshit Bingo
Having dealt with hundreds of large organisations for more than 30 years, I have yet to find one whose values were anything more than platitudes. They are invariably a crude mixture of reactive PR, HR overreach and the crude selection from a list of abstract nouns, sometimes into an idiotic acronym. In reality - even when masked by complex consultancy reports and training - it's almost always bullshit Bingo.
Why would we imagine that HR have any skills in this area? In what sense are they 'experts' in values? For me, it is a utopian view of work and organisations. I can remember the day when organisational 'value' lists never existed. People were more honest and realistic about expectations. They came in when HR suddenly decided that they had to look after our emotional and moral welfare - always a rather ridiculous idea.
The banks were full of this 'values' culture. I worked with most of them. It was all puff and PR. People do not, and don't, buy into this stuff. They can barely recall what the values are. I have values and I'm not interested in what HR, or some external consultant, says my values should be. The even more ridiculous idea that people who don't adopt those values should be forced out is wrong and illegal.
The problem here was a shift when HR started to become the people who protected the company against their own employees - that, for example, is what compliance training is largely about - ticking boxes in case of insurance and fines. They dress this up in ‘values’ documents but few remember them and even fewer care.... The really interesting thing about 'values' in my experience is that those companies who felt most compelled to get them identified - banks, accountancies, consultancies, tech companies, pharma companies etc. - were the very companies where they were most ignored. In fact, they were counterproductive as the employees all knew they were a scam, designed to 'police' them. Try this authenticity test to your company values. Sniff out the hubris and bullshit.
Test 1: Bad acronyms - values created to fit word
If your values set is an acronym, they’re likely to be inauthentic. The net result of fuzzy HR thinking is so often the ‘bad acronym’. Chances are that someone has shoehorned some abstract nouns into a word that sounds vaguely positive, completely losing sight of the original intention. Are they telling you that their values ‘just happened’ to fall into that acronym? Actually, what happens is that at least some of the values emerge from the acronym. That's bullshit.
How about this from a Cheshire voluntary group: FLUID - Freedom 2 Love Ur Identity. Or another real example of a crap acronym: VALUE - this HR person actually went online as she could only think of Value Added….. and wanted others to fill the acronym out! They did, and she was delighted with, Value Added Local, User friendly Experience. What a load of puff. When values are created to fit a word you're engaging in an infantile exercise that treats employees like infants. Even worse is the use of middle letters, rendering the acronym, as an aide memoire, completely useless. Here’s a real example. It’s a cracker. PEOPLEPositive Spirit and Fun, HonEsty and Integrity, Opportunties Based on Merit, Putting the Team first, Lasting value for Clients and People, Excellence through Professionlism. One overlong, impossible to remember acronym with eleven nouns, and I love the way they have to use the ‘E’ in the middle of HonEsty to make it work. This, by the way, is from an HR consultancy.
It’s not that I hate acronyms (Abbreviated Coded Rendition OName Yielding MeaningS). They’re great as memorable cues. For example, I rather like ABC (Airways, Breathing, Circulation) in first aid. I also have a soft spot for funny acronyms, such as ALITALIA (Airplane Lands In Turin And Luggage In Ancona), BAAPS (British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeon) unbelievably a real organisation, and DIMWIT (Don't Interrupt Me While I'm Talking).… it’s just that I’m a fully paid up member of the AAAA, the Association Against Acronym Abuse. And let's just quietly forget Microsoft's 'Critical Update Notification Tool'.
Test 2: Alliteration test
You hear alliterative value lists all the time  - 'Imagination, Integrity, Innovation' (two organisations I know have this one set, clearly having cribbed it from the internet, or lists of 'C' words such as creativity, curiosity and collaborative. These are far too conveniently alliterative for my liking. The world is not intrinsically alliterative and if your list of values all start with the same letter - it's forced nonsense. 
Test 3: Negative test
Lists of values are often so obvious that they are hardly worth mentioning. Sure, you can say we all need to be 'Customer friendly' and so on. But who would say that being Customer unfriendly was ever on the cards? The ‘negation’ test is a useful filter. Ask whether any normal human being would deny having the stated opposite or negative value. If the answer is NO, it’s not a value but a basic, common sense belief. Human nature is a complex thing and people are too different to be corralled into value sets. Beware of BIG words like integrity, imagination, creativity, innovation…… If your values are simplistic platitudes – no one will care.
Test 4: Are they really values?
A value is something that determines a moral decision. Yet many organizational ‘values’ are not values at all. ‘Imagination’, for example, is not a moral value, neither I would argue is 'creativity'. I’m not sure that ‘Leadership’ is an intrinsic value, in the sense that Pol Pot was a leader. So, for this test, look at each value in turn and ask whether it really is a value or activity, competence or some other thing? 
Test 5: Diversity problem
There’s something odd about having diversity as a value within a non-diverse, fixed value set. Empirically, people have different sets of values. We know this from large-scale studies, such as the World Values' Survey, going since 1989, in over 100 countries. An organisation is likely to have a mix of nationalities and cultures; religious, secular, liberal, conservative, individualistic, communal. Imposing a single set of values from above may not fit with this diversity of cultures and values. If diversity of values matters, the imposition of a set of fixed values makes little sense. To live with diversity is to live with a diversity of values. At the Skill Summit, some companies seemed to imply that if you didn't fit in with their imposed values, they'd try to get you out. Really? When values become reasons to sack people, you've got to worry. Even the phrase 'Don't be a dick' worries me. Companies often have dicks in the workplace. So what? Lot's of very competent and talented people are 'dicks'. Elon Musk is a dick. Steve Jobs was a dick. Gates was a dick. Get over it. We're all different.
Test 6: Sniff test
It’s usually quite easy to expose the hypocrisy of an organisation that exhorts ‘values’ by looking at its a) tax affairs b) senior staff salaries, c) senior staff bonuses d) customer list e) behaviours. If the company plays the tax avoidance game using offshore tax arrangements, or transfer pricing – that’s almost every large tech company, Google, Apple, Amazon, Starbucks etc. etc. then add hypocrisy to their values. If the CEO earns a ridiculous amount of money but doesn’t pay a living wage to the people at the bottom, the value of their values is nil. To be more precise, if your company pays the CEO way more than x10 the salary of the lowest member of staff – question the values. If, as a bank or other organisation, you’ve missold, ripped people off and generally fiddled the markets, ripped off suppliers, don’t pay on time - don’t even mention values. I've worked in public, educational organisations and heard people rail against the private sector, while they send their kids to private schools - that's BS. Read Nagel's Equality and Partiality. It doesn't take long to work out that people's stated public values are often different from their personal values. The same with organisations. You get the idea. Subject your organisation to a sniff test. Take the values and really ask – of the people who have told you that they matter – whether they’re applied at the top of the organisation and in its financial dealings. 
In truth, everyone knows that values are actually marketing exercises, used by organisations as slogans. They have little to do with actual behaviour in organisations. They infantilise people, reduce them to ciphers. Ask the person in the street if large organisations have served society well in terms of values? Banks? Supermarket chains? Tax dodging tech companies? Tax dodging retailers like Next or Starbucks? Football organisations like FIFA? Football clubs in general? Athletics organisations? Political parties? Energy companies?Mobile hacking newspapers? Saville infested broadcasters? No. We have a crisis of values, caused by large organisational hubris and lobbying. They are the last place we, as people, look to for values. The ‘values’ obsession is just another example of overreach by HR. It keeps them occupied and gives everyone the sense that moral purpose has been served. It may even mask the reality of selfish behaviour. When I hear people discuss values, or see ‘values’ training, it’s like little-league religion. Lots of back-slapping and ‘aren’t we great’ type platitudes. We’re all different. It’s work not a moral crusade. To be honest, I find it all a bit hokey and patronising. A select group at the top come up with 'values' and we all have to march in step to those values, even though, as most of us know, the further up an organisation you go, the more rarified values become. People have values, organisations don’t.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Snapchat’s smart pivot into an AR company but is AR ready for learning?

Augmentation, in ‘augmented’ reality, comes in all shapes, layers and forms, from bulky headsets and glasses to smartphones. At present the market has been characterised by a mix of expensive solutions (Hololens), failures (Google Glass, Snap Spectacles) and spectacular successes (Pokemon Go, Snapchat Filters). So where is all of this going?
SnapChat has pivoted, cleverly, into being not just another messenger service, but the world’s largest Augmented Reality company. Its ‘filters’, that change every day, use face recognition (AI) and layered graphics to deliver some fun stuff and more importantly, advertising. It is a clever ploy, as it plays to the personal. You can use fun filters, create your own filter with a piece of dynamic art or buy one. It’s here that they’re building an advertising and corporate business on designed filters around events and products. That’s smart and explains why their valuation is stratospheric. Once you play around with Snapchat, you get why it’s such a big deal. As usual, it’s simple, useful, personal and compelling. With over 150 million users and advertising revenue model, that works on straight ads, sponsored filters and sponsored lenses (interactive filters), it has tapped into a market that simply never existed.
Snap Spectacles
Snap Spectacles was their interesting foray into the glasses augmented market – but more of a gimmick than realistic consumer product. Targeted only at Snapchat users, you can’t really wear them with regular glasses and all they do is record video – but, to be fair, they do that well. However, as with Google Glass, you feel like a bit of a twat. Not really a big impact product.
With its AI driven interfaces – point head, gesture or voice recognition, it is neat but at $3000 a pop – not really a commercial proposition for Microsoft. As for the ‘experience’, the limited rectangle, that is the field of view, is disappointing, and ‘killer’ applications absent. There have been games, Skype applications, 2D & 3D visualisations but nothing yet that really blows the mind – forget the idea of Sci-fi holograms, it’s still all a bit ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ in feel, still tethered and has a long way to go before being a viable product.
Magic Leap
Bit of a mystery still as they are a secretive lot. Despite having raised more than $1.4 billion from Google, Alibaba and Andreessen Horowitz, it has still to deliver whatever it is that they want to deliver. Mired in technical problems, they may still pull something out of the bag with their glasses release this year – but it seems you have to wear a belt with some kit attached. Watch this space, as they say, as it is nothing but an empty space for now.
Pokemon Go
We saw the way this market was really going with Pokemon Go, layers of reality on a smartphone. Photographic Camera layer, idealised graphic map layer, graphic Pokemon layer, graphic Pokestops layer, GPS layer, internet layer – all layered on to one screen into a compelling social and games experience. Your mind simply brings them altogether into one conscious, beautiful, blended reality – more importantly, it was fun. This may be where augmented reality will remain until the minaturisation of headsets and glasses get down to the level of contact lenses.
I still prefer the full punch VR immersive experience. AR, in its current form is a halfway house experience. The headset and glasses seem like a stretch for all sorts of reasons. You simply have to ask yourself, do I need all of this cost and equipment, to see a solar system float in space, when I can see it in 3D on my computer screen? There are clearly many situations in which one would want to ‘layer’ on to reality but in many learning situations, there may be simpler solutions.
So let’s look at specific learning outcomes that could be delivered and enhanced by Augmented Reality.
1. Explanations
Explanations, causes, rules, processes… delivered as text, audio, 2D, 3D images in physics, chemistry, biology, hydraulics, pneumatics, maths and so on. The superimposition of explanatory diagrams, arrows, flows and explanations, have obvious theoretical and practical applications, delivering explanations in the context of the real world. Performance support is another option with ‘contextual’ learning to increases retention & recall. The delivery of explanations, determined by your own personal needs and identified context is appealing in training.
2. Problem solving
Explore real places: museum, art gallery, virtual excursion, virtual experience, real factory and solve real problems in maths, science, language, historical, architectural and natural environment. This problem solving can be task driven in induction/on-boarding, fault finding, maintenance tasks, language learning and so on.
3. Learn by doing
We largely learn by doing but are largely taught while doing nothing. With a hands-free device you can return to more appropriate forms of learning by doing. Motion sensing & GPS helps enormously and you can’t fool it easily, which is useful in assessment. Do experiments/tasks in science, practical tasks and learn skills, cheap devices in AR could revolutionise vocational learning.
4. Social learning
Groups (Pokemobs) out in real world, searched & completed tasks showing that the social dimension in learning can be enhanced. AR, such as Hololens, does give you contact, via Skype, with others, so that they can draw and you see it appear on your display. So there are social possibilities.
5. Tutor-led
There are signs that Magic Leap have a tiny assistant that sits in your hand, then there’s Skype on AR, which can offer tutoring at a distance for groups of learners.
Tutor-led/assisted, with a real or created tutor (AI-driven bot or avatar) can make the learning more personal & adaptive.
6. Deliberate/spaced practice
Learning can be enhanced by deliberate practice. AR gives us the opportunity to practice, again and again, repeat a skill in different contexts, offer adaptive and tutor-led deliberate practice.
7. Simulations
Critical training for the police, fire & emergency with realistic augmentation of bombs, fires, damage and casualties is all possible. Control layers can be used to test & train simultaneously to deliver lessons about optimal tactics. Things can appear and happen in certain timeframes. Already used by NASA, closed, limited or open-world simulations are all possible.
8. Assessment
For vocational training one could test learners (uniquely identified) in real time as assessment would not be separate from performance. Assessment at a distance is also possible.
9. M-learning
As we saw with Pokemon Go and now with Snapchat filters, AR gives you a compelling reason to use your phone, a powerful, personal and portable AR device. It is AR that may open the floodgates to new and fascinating forms of m-learning.
10. Habitual learning
Mobile behaviour is highly habitual and AR could mean frictionless and more habitual learning. It opens up possibilities in informal learning, making blended learning and 70:20:10 realisable.
RR – Real Reality
But before you start, do the RR test – that’s Real Reality. It may be better to stick to the real physical world. Consciousness is, after all a form of augmented reality – it is reality reconstructed by the brain. A text or podcast allows us to layer in the imagination, a form of augmentation that can be more useful in learning than trite imagery. AR can be delivered via screens. You need to think carefully before letting this technology, especially in its immature form, lead you towards expensive projects that may be better delivered by more conventional technology.

Augmented reality is not one thing – it’s best seen as a way of layering, altering or interacting with reality. At present all the action is on smartphones. In a sense Google Maps and GPS-like applications are augmentations. Pokemon Go showed the potential, albeit with a flash in the pan application but it is Snapchat, with its filters that has had the most sustainable success. Their move towards augmentation has been clever and you can expect a lot more from them. I’m less convinced by Hololens and Google seems, once again, to have failed in product development with Google Glass, as there have been no further releases. As usual consumers are attracted by fun not functionality.

Friday, April 21, 2017

AI fail that will make you gag with disgust……

One of the first consumer robots were vacuum cleaners that bumped around your floors sucking up dirt and dust. The first models simply sensed when they hit something, a wall or piece of furniture, turned the wheels and headed off in a different direction.
The latest vacuum robots actually map out your room and mathematically calculate the optimum route to evenly vacuum the floor. They have a memory, build a mathematical model of the room, with laser mapping, 360 degree cameras, can detect objects in real time and have clever corner cleaning capability.  They move room to room, can be operated from a mobile app - scheduling and so on. They will even automatically recharge when their batteries get low and resume from the point they left. Very impressive.
That’s not to say they’re perfect. Take this example, that happened to a friend of mine. He has a pert dog and sure enough, the vacuum cleaner would bump into the dog on the carpet, turn and move on. The dog was initially puzzled, sniffed it a bit, but learned to ignore this new pet, as something beneath his contempt as top-dog. Cats even like to sit on them and take rides around the house.
Then, one day, the owner came back, opened his front door and was hit by a horrific wall of smell.  The dog had taken a dump and the robot cleaner had smeared the shit evenly across the entire carpet, even into the corners, room by room, with a mathematical exactitude that was superior to that of any human cleaner. The smell was overwhelming and the clean up a Herculean task on hands and knees, accompanied by regular gagging.

The lesson here is that AI is smart, can replace humans in all sorts of tasks but doesn’t have the checks and balances of normal human intelligence. In fact the attribution of the word intelligence, I'd argue (and have here), is an anthropomorphic category error, taking one category and applying it in a separate and compeltely different domain. It’s good at one thing, or a few things, such as moving, mapping and sucking, but it doesn’t know when the shit hits the fan.