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The Voices You Choose

The following is a guest post from our board member, William Tincup.  I’ve been having interesting conversations with William for over 5 years.   Whether I’ve agreed with what he was saying or not, he always makes me challenge my assumptions.

Like most parents, my parents cared deeply about who I hung around with when I was growing up.  You know the drill: Who was a supposedly “good influence” versus those who were a “bad influence.”  I really didn’t pay much attention to their warnings. Sometimes I would hang out with guys that I knew were bad for me, sometimes I hung with guys that I knew would be a good influence on me. Sometimes, I was the bad influence. More often than not, I was perceived by adults and kids as the guy to stay away from. In some ways, I encourage that perception. And it didn’t help matters that I did and still do make a terrible first impression. Not much has changed in this respect during my 43 years on the blue planet.

What has changed is my appreciation for surrounding myself with voices that are different than mine.  I’ve rarely been the smartest guy in the room and now, more than ever, I’m comfortable with being the weakest link in the room. Please let me explain and forgive the political references henceforth.

Mass perception of Bill Clinton was that he surrounded himself with “smart” people, folks who may agree or disagree with him, but would logically argue positions – kind of a “best idea” wins environment.  Smart people, smart ideas: bring your A-game and be prepared to argue your points. In this perceived scenario, the President was but a bit player in a much larger ongoing internal debate. It’s assumed that he won his fair share of arguments; it is also assumed that people around him convinced him of their ideas.

Okay, probably all kinds of things wrong with the perception versus what really happened behind the veil. I was clearly NOT in the room but I do read the USA Today on a daily basis. <sic>

Now, let’s juxtapose that with the perception of George Bush.

The mainstream perception of President Bush is that he wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer and that his presidency was mostly run by people other than him. The perception is that he surrounded himself with folks that were like him, people he already had a lot in common with resulting in less internal debate, dialogue, and disagreement.  In sum, a group of people that already had shared values, shared outlooks, shared everything. To the outsider, this might look like cronyism. Suffice to say that if the perception was close to the reality, meetings during the Bush presidency were probably fairly efficient.

I have no idea if either of these perceptions represent what really happened behind closed doors. My guess is that neither perception is totally accurate BUT thinking about these important historical figures provides insight into who I choose to surround myself with and whose counsel I seek.

If you can, stop thinking about your love or hate for either Clinton or Bush for a moment: no more politics.

Please think about your workplace, your environment, your version of your White House and then answer these three questions?

  • Who do you listen to?  <all workplace voices>
  • Who’s in your inner circle?  <internal>
  • Who’s on your personal advisory board?  <external>

We all make choices in terms of who we filter in and out. We do this by determining what content to consume, what authors to trust, what speakers to listen to, what blogs to read.

We also make choices related to how we build the team around us: How we select the team, interview them, hold meetings, etc, etc, etc.

We consciously surround ourselves with voices. These voices permeate everything we do at work.  So, how do you choose the voices you listen to and by default, don’t listen to?

Of course, this has been on my mind for quite some time. So, when I received the call from Joyce in December about my interest in joining the WFI board of advisors, I immediately said hell yes. My reasoning was simple: Every single person that is involved with WFI is smart and passionate about the workforce of tomorrow. And as you look at their bios, you’ll notice they are decidedly different than me.  So I get to hang out with smart, passionate, innovative people… um, how fast can I say yes to that?

I believe we are greatly influenced by the voices around us. Maybe my parents were right all along… damn that’s hard for me to say…

Let’s Talk About Spaceships

The following blog post is courtesy of our board member David Creelman.  He explores the impact of increasingly sophisticated robotics on the future of hourly jobs.  Readers may also want to check out this recent article from the Atlantic Monthly regarding one American case study of how the tough management decisions get made regarding the trade off between workers and robots.

The 1950s and 60s were full of dreams of spaceships, ray guns and robots.  Spaceships and ray guns won’t have a lot to do with your business, but the robots are beginning to appear in ways that will ultimately transform the hourly workforce.

The robots are creepier than imagined in traditional science fiction.  Heli-swarms and hellish big dogs are both impressive and oddly frightening. The lesson is not that you’ll be greeted in Wal-Mart by a buzz of intelligent mini-copters but that the technology has reached a point where we can create smart, coordinated, highly mobile robots. The underlying technology is not fantastically expensive and it is only a matter of time when robots, like smart phones, become ubiquitous. Many, maybe even most, of the hourly jobs that exist today will be replaced or transformed by robots.

Big Dog Robot

A hint of the potential for transformation comes not from a robot but simply a humble tablet that promises to replace a significant percentage of restaurant waiters.  Perhaps half of a waiter’s job is taking orders and collecting payment. Those tasks are done much more cheaply, and probably slightly better, by a tablet.  Cheap computing and cheap communication will be enough to take jobs away from a lot of waiters. Cheap computing, communication and robotics will take jobs from many more.

The business implication is to keep an eye on opportunities to redesign how work is accomplished with the help of cheap robots. Some will argue that robots in the workplace is not a new phenomenon, but computers in the workplace were not a new phenomenon in the 1960s but their impact was limited. We’ve seen what cheap ubiquitous computers do to the world. We can expect a similar transformative effect as these robots swarm out of the laboratories.

If you could design your processes from the ground up based around robot swarms rather than hourly workers what would they be like?

For workers, the implications seem disturbing. If robots take all the jobs, what will be left for people to do? The history of economics is encouraging in this regard. Somehow we eliminated almost all the jobs in agriculture which employed the vast bulk of the population and didn’t end up with mass unemployment.  Yet, it could be a tough time of transition.

For all of us the lesson is that the world is shifting once again. It is still a decade away but the workplace will be reinvented by the rise of the robots. We must be agile, coordinated and intelligent—just like these new robots who we will be sharing the workplace with.

The conclusion of the Atlantic article is that managers are squeezed between shareholder expectations, foreign competition, and humane concerns.  In this article, it’s the more educated workers who can manage the machines whose job security is more certain.  Is it the responsibility of organizations to invest in the development of workers vs. replacing them with more cost effective machines?

Retail Customer Service Still Counts

According to this recent study from the Axsium Group and Empathica, over 50% of North American retail shoppers do not feel that employees appear to be genuinely interested in serving them.  Eighty percent of respondents indicated a positive impact on their shopping experience when staff appear motivated and eager to serve them.  According to the study, “At one retail client, customers who were offered a helpful suggestion of an additional product to the initial product they were considering experienced higher rates of satisfaction and had a basket size 31 percent larger than those who did not receive a suggestion during their store visit.”

So what do retailers need to do differently to create a more engaging (and higher value) shopping experience for their customers?  The key finding of the aforementioned study is that well trained and engaged employees are the principal driver of customer experience and higher per customer spend.  Creating those well trained and engaged employees begins with hiring people who are interested in doing the jobs.  Their managers need the tools to onboard them, train them and coach them.  Providing them with flexible schedule options is another key driver to retaining them.

In this recent Stores story about JoS. A. Bank, Andrea Boling, vice president of human resources discusses the various ways in which Kronos has helped them improve not only the efficiency of their hiring process, but also improved the job fit of the candidates they hire.  She cites the following returns on their implementation of the Kronos Workforce Talent Acquisition solution:

  • 27 percent reduction in turnover of retail employees
  • Increased employee productivity
  • A one- to three-day reduction in time-to-hire
  • Average sales associate tenure rose from 2.2 years to 3.4 years
  • Store managers who had been with the company for less than a year dropped from 22.2 percent to 16.9 percent
  • Net sales during this period increased 23.3 percent

I recently blogged about highs and lows in my recent retail experiences.  What are your stories from the trenches?