We don't know what's next for business - but what we do know is how to help you be ready. This blog is all about anticipating the future and positioning you for success.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I’ll Take “The Workplace of the Future” for $1,000

Answer:  He will likely be your boss in three years.
Watson:  Who am I?

Last week many of us watched, and maybe even cheered for, contestant ‘Watson’, the IBM supercomputer on Jeopardy!  When it was all over and Watson won the $1 million prize, it was obvious that we had just witnessed a significant step in the evolution of robotic engineering.  The research that went into building and training Watson has dramatic consequences for the future of work, as well as education.  However, since Watson has a “statistical brain” and not an analytical one, probably those of us in positions managing Human Resource Departments or day care facilities are still safe; at least for today.

Technology Advances; Workers Remain Nervous
The Jeopardy! showdown pitted computer chips and bytes against brains.  Watson challenged two of the greatest Jeopardy! champions in history: Brad Rutter and Ken Jennings.  As I watched Watson win, I couldn’t help reflecting back on a Turner Classic Movie, Desk Set.  This 1957 classic comedy stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.  It‘s unique, being the first and only movie to examine the impact of the advancement of automation in the workplace, along with the fears experienced by the workers concerned about losing their jobs.  Ms. Emmy, the computer’s name in the movie, could have been Watson’s “grandmodel.”   

For IT and robotic engineering professionals, the accomplishments of Watson were certainly significant, but probably not a big surprise.  However, for those of us not as close to the progress and impacts robotics are having on our everyday world, this was definitely an eye-opener, leaving many of us with the question – “What’s next? Will a computer be doing my job in the future?”

According to Gerald Greene, a contributing author to suite101.com the contest was ‘an excellent’ test of the progress being made with artificial intelligence.  “Not only did Watson have to demonstrate a mastery over an incredible range of knowledge, he also had to correctly interpret nuances and subtleties in the English language.”  Watson, the supercomputer, is equal to 6,000 high-end desktop machines!  Apparently the breakthrough responsible for Watson’s excellent performance is a technology called “machine learning.  

And as if that isn’t enough, there’s more.  Eduard Hovy, Director of the Information Sciences Institute at the University of Southern California, whose work contributed to the development of Watson, recently shared with the Wall Street Journal that RACR (Reading and Contextual Reasoning or Reading and Contextual Reasoner – they haven’t decided on the name yet) will add a subtle but important difference to the next generation of supercomputers.  With RACR, the computer will be able to learn information and then perform reasoning functions.  Wow, and that’s going to be available in the not too distant future.  So what does that advanced technology offer to our businesses, as well as our children trying to answer the question, what job would I like to do when I graduate?

Martin Ford, a contributing writer to CNN Money writes that “automation has been kept at bay for many lower wage jobs by a human worker’s unique ability to recognize complex visual images and then respond accordingly.  But as machines and robots grow increasingly dexterous and better at seeing and understanding the world around them – that will change.”  Already robots in Japan are able to autonomously pick strawberries, selecting only the ripe ones based on color.  

More Rapid Change
We have experienced a lot of change brought on by technology since the 1960’s, causing the work environment to evolve at a rapid pace.  And it is true that as some jobs become extinct, others are created.  However, it doesn’t appear that the ratio is balanced.
  • Most companies no longer employ ‘real’ people to answer their phones anymore; it’s all automated. 
  • We’re comfortable using ATM’s and directing our own on-line banking, no longer requiring banks to employ as many tellers per bank as they used to. 
  • Airlines have embraced technology in such an aggressive way that we now book our own flights, check ourselves in, and print our own boarding passes.
  • Most workers to do their own word processing, which has allowed the elimination of the jobs once offered by central word processing centers.
  • And even our grocery stores are using technology to displace checker and bagger positions, by allowing us the privilege of using the self-check out computer equipment. 
Our economy has transitioned from a manufacturing-base to a knowledge-base.  So how does that influence the impact of these new technology capabilities on the way work will be performed?  When Mr. Hovy explains that the next generation to Watson “will be able to find answers to questions by understanding context and reasoning based on background knowledge, and be able to make more sophisticated decisions about which pieces of information are trustworthy by using qualitative ‘indirect measures,’ what does that mean to the jobs we now think of as stable? 

I’m not sure what it means other than change is traveling at light speed towards us and we have to be ready with strategic plans and actions to address the resulting impacts. If we aren’t ready with qualified employees to transition and successfully perform in this new environment, other leading technology countries will be there to offer the solutions.

So What’s Next?
Although we can envision a demand for some jobs related to the changing technologies, (see below) it’s safe to say that many of the jobs that will be required as computers like Watson evolve are unimaginable today. 
  • Programmers who understand the new technologies such as machine learning, RACR and their next generations
  • Project managers who are capable of leading technical teams with excellent people skills, mastery working with virtual teams, and methodologies to keep projects on time and within budget
  • Robotic engineers who can integrate technologies and work processes to deliver quality outcomes in an efficient manner
  • Educators to raise the bar for excellence with expanded curriculums in math and science
We are already reading reports of IBM’s success to partner Watson with Nuance Communications to “explore, develop and commercialize” the Watson computing system’s advanced analytics capabilities in the health care industry.  Can you imagine the ramifications for health care if robots begin to take the place of doctors, nurses and surgeons? 

There has also been news that the features of this type of technology will be useful in other fields such as government responses to pandemics, aviation safety, call centers, and terrorism risks.  As IBM’s CEO Sam Palmisano said, “As exciting as Watson’s victory is, we didn’t invest four years and millions of dollars simply to win a television game.  We did so because this remarkable system represents the new frontier of information science.”

HR and OD professionals, as well as business thought-leaders and academic leadership got a taste of the changes coming via the Jeopardy! challenge.  So now that we’re aware of what’s coming, how can we prepare?  Here are a few suggestions:
  1. Be aware of and stay informed to the progress being made with technologies, and the next generation of the supercomputer.  One article estimated the timing at about five years from now.  Naturally that won’t have an immediate impact on all organizations, but it will be a sign of what is to come.
  2. Build a collaborative team of business leaders, HR and IT professionals to envision how robotic technologies could play a part in the evolution of your business and link with technology partners to build these into your operations and/or stay tuned to trends in those areas.
  3. Identify and implement career paths to position employees for the next generation of jobs, especially for those envisioned as a possibility for extinction.
  4. Partner with technical and university system leaders to build curriculums to prepare workers for the future and entice technology companies to locate and bring new jobs to your locale.
  5. Embrace the new technologies of telepresence – communication tools that let people “meet” remotely with high-def conference rooms and robots.   This transition will help workers get comfortable with advancing technologies, as well as robotic interfaces.
  6. Build a strategy to raise the awareness of your workers about advancing technologies and engage them in planning for how these technologies can be utilized in your operations.  This relationship can also be helpful to transition their thinking about what these changes mean to the competencies that will be required in the future.
What are some experiences or ideas you have to help organizations and leaders prepare for and embrace the next generation of Watson-type computers headed to the workplace?   As business professionals what do you think we should be focusing on to help with these types of business transformations?  I’m curious about how the ‘robot’ workplace of the future looks to you?  Please add your comments below.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

First Do Your Planning …. And Then Follow The Plan

If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. - Lewis Carroll

A few weeks ago a friend of mine, Laurie Bacopoulos, President of CobbleStone Consulting, shared an interesting and educational presentation at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) State Council’s Leadership Planning Conference.   We had invited Laurie to speak on Project Management to our SHRM Chapter members from across the State.  These leaders are dealing with organizational challenges such as:  motivating volunteers, improving efficiencies, doing more with less, and delivering value for our members.  Sound familiar?

For over 21 years of my work career I’ve been involved with engineers and scientists, all demonstrating strong and proficient understanding of project management methodologies.  I’m grateful for those experiences and what I learned from them, as well as what I learned taking classes on Project Management techniques.  Working with my clients, I see the benefits they gain by improving their understanding of what the discipline of project management is all about.  Utilizing the tools and methodologies is a skill set that everyone can use whether working in a volunteer organization, or non-profit, private, or public sector enterprise.  It also really doesn’t matter where your position fits in the hierarchy of that organization.   If you’re working on completing a project that has a start and end date and someone (your boss or stakeholder) expects it to be done using specific resources, utilizing a solid project management approach will help increase your chances of success.

In today’s business environment, arming employees with a ‘project management tool kit’ can help the organization avoid these common operational potholes:
  • Missed deadlines
  • Poor quality of services or products
  • Miscommunication and conflict between team members and stakeholders
  • Rework to fix mistakes
  • Unclear directions that result in rework and lost time
  • Essential tasks forgotten or skipped
  • Confusion of team member roles and responsibilities
  • Duplication of effort
  • Budget overruns

Do your work groups ever run into these problems?  Enhancing corpoate culture by introducing practices that embrace project management principles could eliminate these issues and improve overall performance of the organization.

So What is Project Management?

According to the Project Management Institute, the world’s leading association for project managers, project management
is the application of knowledge, skills and techniques to execute projects effectively and efficiently. It’s a strategic competency for organizations, enabling them to tie project results to business goals — and thus, better compete in their markets.”   And who doesn’t need to do that?

Project Management starts with understanding what a project is.  A project is defined by several unique characteristics: 
  • an activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result
  • temporary in nature
  • not a routine operation, but a specific set of tasks designed to accomplish a specific goal. Because it is not routine, the project often requires people to work together who usually don’t have a need to interact – sometimes from different organizations and across multiple geographies - a defined beginning and end in time, scope and resources
Some examples of a project might include:

Human ResourcesDevelopment of a new health care benefits package
Information TechnologyIntegration of the PeopleSoft System
ComptrollerIntroduction of a new payroll and compensation system
SafetyCompliance with new OSHA regulations
Chief Operating OfficerChanges associated with innovation and cost-savings measures

5 Phases of Project Management

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK), a guide published by the Project Management Institute, represents generally recognized good practices and standards in the profession.  According to PMBOK Project Managers should follow a 5-phase approach which clearly communicates what the end result is to be, as well as who will do what and when.  The phases include:

Phase I – Initiation:
In this phase the Project Manager facilitates research and discussion required to evaluate the business need, options and solutions for addressing the need, and works with the appropriate stakeholders to define the approach ultimately selected.   This definition of approach will include the scope of the project, along with the budget, project goals, stakeholder roles, and schedule.   A Project Charter is a helpful tool during this phase. 

Phase II – Planning:
In Phase II, the Project Team develops a workable plan for implementation of the project.  Obviously considering one of our examples above – implementation of a new payroll and compensation system – you can imagine that this Phase requires a lot of time and diligent attention to details.  Depending on the size and complexity of the project, the team may use a checklist to track the sequence of the tasks to be performed, or the needs may demand a sophisticated project management computer software tool.   Either way, the planning will involve details associated with:

  • what deliverables the team’s success will be measured by
  • each task or activity that needs to be performed in order to complete each deliverable and the sequence in which they must be done
  • what resources, internal and external, will be required to complete each task
  • how much time is being allocated to the completion of each task, with an eye to mitigating any risk resulting from a task determined to be ‘critical’ falling behind schedule
  • allocation of the budget (labor and expenses) for completing each task
  • process by which changes to the agreed to project scope will be managed
During this phase everyone needs to plan.  As the project team finalizes the Project Plan, each individual associated with the project should also be applying the same concepts to their own responsibilities within the project.   These plans will help each team member focus on the specific tasks they are responsible for and integrate how those tasks align with the team’s progress towards the final project goals.

There are a variety of tools that can be utilized in this phase including: Gantt Charts, brainstorming, Fishbone Diagrams, Critical Path Analysis, and MS Excel for financial analysis, to list a few.

Phase III: Execution
This is the phase where the actual work begins.   A word of caution:  Often organizations have a tendency to sacrifice the planning phase in order to more quickly jump to execution.  The carpenter’s rule to ‘measure twice and cut once’ is a good rule to follow when anyone suggests shortening the required time for good planning.  Experience has demonstrated time and time again, that spending less time on planning results in rework, overruns and unhappy customers.   The process works for a reason – be true to the process.

Phase IV:  Monitoring and Control
The Project Manager is continually interacting with the project team and soliciting communications about how things are going.   What’s working well, what problems are being encountered, and what potential project risks need to be mitigated.  Depending on the length of the project, this type of interaction may be occurring daily, weekly or monthly.  This is the phase where the Project Manager (PM) is assessing where the project is, compared to where it was planned to be, including planned vs. actual costs and deliverables.  This phase continues until all the deliverables have been achieved and the project is considered complete.   Of course, there can be reasons that a project is stopped before it is completed.  These reasons are usually out of the PM’s control.

As you would suspect, Phases III and IV require the PM to utilize excellent interpersonal, communication and conflict resolution talents.   These abilities are useful in the other phases as well, but as the project begins and progresses, the PM will have more involvement with team members and must influence them to stay on schedule and within budget while delivering quality work.

Phase V:  Closing
This phase is often overlooked, as some organizations see the delivery of the final outcomes as the end of the project.   However, it’s very important to follow the PMBOK model all the way through Phase V.  Often without the correct attention to project closure the organization will continue to experience resources being consumed to support project activities which are no longer necessary, and often by this point it is without a return on the investment.  

During closure the Project Manager ensures that the entire project plan has been completed.   This is a great time for the team to celebrate its accomplishments, as well as to facilitate an honest critique of what worked and what should be done differently the next time.  The team members need to be re-assigned to other projects or work tasks, and the deliverables should be signed off by the customer.

So What’s Next?

The recession has taught us all how to do more with less: at home and at work.  Encouraging the development of strong project management skills within an organization can re-enforce the abilities to accomplish more with fewer resources.  While staffs and budgets are leaner and meaner, project management practices could improve the organization’s abilities to:
  • meet and exceed customer expectations
  • maximize the use of limited resources (time, talent, funding, space, technology, etc.)
  • complete projects on time and within budget
  • transfer knowledge about what was done and lessons learned for future references
  • build confidence and good business practices across work teams 
Recently I’ve been noticing more organizations asking consultants to share their project management experiences, and at the same time have also seen more job postings requiring project management skills.  Could it be that organizations are beginning to understand that Project Management skills aren’t just for engineers and IT workers?  If they are, great!  But let’s not forget these skills are important for existing employees as well.  Introducing project management skills, for project managers and non-project managers alike, into the organization’s professional development and training plans can improve the abilities of work teams as they are more aligned with a unified concept of the project work process, the terminology, the methodologies and tools, and the purpose of this type of approach.  All of this leads to a higher probability of project success and team performance.  What firm wouldn’t want that?  

Laurie, who is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP), suggests that “when utilizing a framework built from established project management standards, Project Managers also have the opportunity to demonstrate their competencies associated with tenacity and determination, organization and attention to details, risk and relationship management.”   Reviewing the five-phase approach you can see how these additional attributes complement the Project Management rationale.

As our economy continues to be defined as ‘knowledge-based,’ what are your thoughts about the relevance of improving project management skills within our organizations?  What experience have you had with project management and do you see a benefit?   What programs and/or certifications have you found helpful?   I’m curious to hear what you think.   Please take a moment to comment below.  And, if you found this blog helpful, please forward it as appropriate.