Future of Work, Sense Making

The changing influence of culture and technology at work and the battle for the mind

I work in a field that frequently deals with changing the culture of work through managed change engagements. They are most often aligned to new technology adoption or digital transformation efforts. In all this work, the typical influencers present themselves: people, technology and process.

I’m exploring the first two in this post and assuming people as being synonymous with culture. Mindset is a relatively new component I also delve into. This is an essay capturing recent observations on the changing influence of all these elements. You may get more questions than answers ;)

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Sense Making

An explorers guide to the new era of work

The explorer

There’s a long list of traits prevalent in the explorer, people that are naturally inclined to overcoming challenges and seeking new discoveries in any field, place or time. Those traits that stand out for me are the joy of mastering new skills or knowledge, an insatiable desire for uncovering truth and new things and stoic perseverance.

No matter how you define it, you sense whether you have it from an early age. I remember as a little boy, wondering the savannas of Southern Africa where I grew up, feeling like Livingstone even though I was only in open fields (veld as its called) immediately surrounding my home. In the early days few houses had been built where I lived and it was more savanna than suburb.

And far from new lands, wild animals and indigenous peoples it was ants nests, puddles with tadpoles spawning, old ruins and early constructions of the new house being built in the twilight hours, after the builders had left for the day, that I was exploring.

I spent hours there. In the holidays it stretched into days.

The joy and thrill I felt has never left me and I know I am not alone in this feeling.

It has guided me in everything I have done since. Leaving the country of my birth to explore London with my new wife a month after we married. A changed career from advertising to technology supported by new studies there. Again leaving for new lands, this time The Netherlands, for new work opportunities and to build a family, three wonderful children all born there. Then after 7 years, back to the UK starting my own business which I ran successfully for a similar time period. Since then it has been forging new paths in customer success management, in itself a new career type.

Being an explorer is part nature part nurture. From a work point of view, my experiences transcended into making me an accidental intrapreneur.

I’m not sure we (as workers) have a choice any more.

I remember reading an article back in 2013 by John Hagel, John Seely Brown, Tamara Samoylova called Unlocking the passion of the Explorer.

It resonated powerfully with me. It captured the essence of what I was and how I approached things. I’m an explorer. I’m passionate.

It captured beautifully the era we live in and the shift we are undergoing, especially in the world of business.

In my mind, the shift refers to the transition between the industrial era into the one we are now in, the digital era.

The Digital Era

Digital explorers have advantages over our industrial era forebears. In the digital era, things can be measured more easily (response and feedback loops are immediate and traceable). It’s all manifested through data. Insights are the outcomes you achieve once you have sifted the data tea leaves. The digital world is more open to more people and experimentation is rife. Experience is more malleable and accessible to more people.

Digital explorers can learn more quickly by doing. They create meaning as they experience. They are data driven and entrepreneurial. They learn from and are driven by others like them who share their learning openly.

Oh what a joy to be a digital explorer 🚀

I put this daneldoodle together to characterise some of the different traits I think are important. Other than the traits needed, whatever you think they may be, the one other factor that you need to consider is speed and agility.

So get cracking fast or face extinction. Being a digital explorer has to be a given in today’s business world if you want to be successful.

And build the capabilities of the explorer that will allow you to discover your place in the next era.

The Next Era

As the industrial era ended, so too will the digital era.

We are well into the digital era and feeling the early impact of the next era.

The next era will be characterised by intelligence, automation and creativity.

The intelligence will be artificial. The automation will be machine led.

The creativity will be human led.

Explorers of all era’s but even more so in future, will have to rely on their imagination, their passion, their humanity and most importantly, their creativity. Things machines are not great at.

I’ve written more about that here: The post robotic AI age and the role of creativity and innovation

Customer Success

Role of Self Service in Customer Success

Customer success teams were put in place in technology SaaS and subscription companies to ensure that customers are successful in their use of the technology they invested in. They have become a core part of ensuring the customer derives long-term value and ultimately stays with the vendor (in other words renews the subscription).

But has the vendor and customer become too reliant on them?

I am a customer success manager. Far be it for me to be talking myself out of a job. But actually that is the point. If I could get to it (that point) I would have done my job I think.

Especially with technology products you would think that the technology itself would play a major role in helping users use it and get value out of it. And with the advent of AI, machine learning and automation, even more so.

Enterprise technology is quite a different beast though. The complexity of organisations means that technology use and adoption is not straightforward. It’s dependent on many environmental factors. Like culture, organisational complexity and maturity, etc.

Factors that technology is not good at dealing with but humans are. These have to be factored in, so to speak, in terms of how you ensure use and value creation of a technology in an organisational context. So I don’t see human effort going away anytime soon.

Still, lets look at how technology can and should help to alleviate burdensome tasks best left to machines.

In my mind, a lot of the help technology provides is ultimately geared towards the user being able to self help or serve. And its not just about the end user but also those responsible for end user adoption – the people customer success managers typically work with. I’ll call them adoption managers for sake of clarity. They are typically the ones served by Customer Success Managers most directly but as you will see in the next section, I certainly am driven to make them as self sufficient as possible too.

Technology’s role

By this I mean two things:

  1. What role the technology itself provides with things like built in help and support from onboarding guides to a help manual that can be contextualised with key features as well as be generally available to users.
  2. What role any other technology provides to support the end users and adoption managers. For example, as part of recent hackathon efforts at Microsoft where I currently work, the team and I all won first at a local UK level and then at a global level, for a solution intended to support customer success managers and adoption managers. We called the solution Journey because that is what adoption typically is. Here are a couple of slides from our pitch deck which hopefully explain:

The origins of the idea and also current manual efforts are documented in this post I shared on LinkedIn: Co-owning success with Office 365 customers

Validation has come from winning the hackathon awards (at the global level we won in a field of over 24 000 competitors and 5 000 entries). We also received solid validation from customers we are working with on the current manual efforts mentioned and all new customers we introduce it to.

So it seems there is appetite for this gap in the market. You can watch a very short demo of what we pitched and won with and answer 3 short questions in a follow up survey here if you like – it would help with further validation.

AI and Automation

According to a study on Customer Service trends:

The future of customer service is about giving customers more control and better access to operations, so they can build their own experiences in real time. To do this, in addition to investing and moving customer service to cloud-based operations, they focus in on how to work better with automation.

I am totally in agreement with this as I wrote in this post: The Future of Customer Success is Not Human. Even though the context of the study above covers customer service trends which is very different to customer success, it is still broadly applicable. The domain is the same.

I think these activities are going to continue to expand in use and value, especially to alleviate customer success manager efforts where they are overloaded and too much is expected of them and where bureaucracy has crept in.

Technology can help reduce bureaucracy

In the post where I wrote that the future of customer success is not human, I quoted a study on bureaucracy. It has customer service, in which again I would suggest customer success falls, at the top of the rankings of roles and fields where bureaucracy has crept in (list of rankings pasted again here). Being a practitioner I would concur with that and the point I made then and again now is that technology can help avoid this.

Of course a large portion of the problem stems from overzealous management ptractices which is not something technology can help with. But by and learge I see it as a valuable counterbalance.

What needs for human intervention will never go away?

Assuming that technology can take up a lot of slack and reduce bureaucracy, what does this leave the customer success manager and those responsible for adoption to do?

Well it will be to focus on those intractable problems that I mentioned earlier technology will not be able to help us with and will become increasingly needed. Thorny problems and challenges that can be overcome to improve the customer experience. Those that require and will take imagination, creativity and innovation and will focus on the challenging art of managing people.

I have two separate posts on these topics that elaborate on that if interested.

Sense Making

Creativity jumps in top ten skills 2020

At least according to this World Economic Forum report: The 10 skills you need to thrive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

top-10-skills-2020

Something to add to my new trend report – intro to that here: The post robotic AI age and the role of creativity and innovation

#creativity #trends

Sense Making

The post robotic AI age and the role of creativity and innovation

You’ve all heard the news. Jobs will come under fire if not already so. Machines, robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI), are going to take over. The Matrix, Terminator, could all those movie scenarios have had it right?

What happens if it’s all true but the ending is not a tragic one. Can we find a happy coexistence with machines? In an alternative scenario, machines would be our servants and tackle the hard tasks they are brilliant at. Retaining, processing and repeating rule-based information. Complex calculations in milliseconds. Massive infrastructure and mechanical jobs that require strength, are dangerous and may even need to happen on other planets and atmospheres.

And whither humans? With land, capital, and labour safely being managed on our behalf, might humans be able to realise their full potential? Creative powerhouses constantly renewing and improving, stimulated by human interaction and fired by endless imagination. With time to put that strength to work.

All questions I have pondered leading to this post.

It’s important to start somewhere. A diagram is one of my favourite ways to synthesise thinking. So I drew some lines.

post-robots-ai-creativity-innovation

An explanation of the diagram

I hope it’s straightforward enough. I struggled with this for a while and am still not sure I have the right angles. I’m not referring to the arrows :)

I grappled with how to characterise the trajectories of the three arrows. I mean what did they constitute. I concluded that they were learning priorities. Whether by humans or machines, they were directions of learning intent.

By machines I mean AI for the most part. In the case of super AI even more so. By definition it is self learning and its intent is to become super intelligent.

Robots are something that are going to take over physical work. They have mechanical capability more than intelligence. Their intelligence will come from computers that drive AI.

Together you could see them as a whole – machines.

If all projections on AI are correct, then its trajectory is due for a massive jump soon. Capacity to learn as well as intelligence will rise exponentially.

Human learning is different. Learning directions and priorities are often imposed. By schools that teach who are often lead by organisations that hire based on skills taught.

I have distinguished between STEM based learning directions and creativity based.

STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (as an educational category). This has dominated learning priorities for at least the last fifty years. As mentioned, institutions of all kinds impose it.

Creativity, if seen beyond the narrow confines of education in the arts, has lagged. That in my view, should change and I’m not the only one. I’m suggesting we will need to see a massive increase in learning emphasis, both at school and at work.

Creativity is as important as literacy. Sir Ken Robinson

I assume there is going to be a need for humans to take care of the machines. Even if humans will not remain on a par, they will have to maintain their STEM focus. They will need it to maintain the machines – at least in the near term. So the STEM based learning trajectory continues roughly on par with past trends.

As for my vertical axis, here too I grappled. I was thinking what is the point of all this activity. For the moment I have couched it in the familiar. Innovation and productivity are after all the holy grail that many organisations aspire to achieve.

So that will do for now on my current standpoint. My hypothesis in essence is as follows:

Machines are self learning and will become super intelligent. There will soon be an exponential rise in their capability. They will outstrip our current STEM based capabilities. We will no longer need the capabilities as much since we can rely on machines. Mastering our creative capabilities is the next frontier. We will use them to put ourselves and machines to work and solve the biggest challenges humanity face. We need to start preparing now.

Below I describe some of the main influences on my thinking so far.

Main influences on my thinking so far

Tim Urban: The Road to Superintelligence

I attended a Tim Urban talk at Transition, an event my company hosted last year. We didn’t record and share the full presentation. Luckily this Google talk he gave was and he spoke about the same topic.

He makes compelling arguments simple, as he is know for doing. A couple of things stood out for me. That we are at the cusp of exponential growth in AI’s capability for self learning. And the distinctions between standard and super intelligence blew me away.

The latter especially lead me to believe we are not thinking big enough about AI. In essence he showed me the limits of my imagination.

He didn’t project futuristic outcomes, he only shed a light on the possibilities. Extrapolate from only recent progress and a super intelligent future is hard to deny.

Don’t want a robot to steal your job? Be creative

The title is not mine – here is the article: Don’t want a robot to steal your job? Be creative. The title alone is what nailed it for me. Then on reading it several points jumped out. The first was this one:

Cheap computing power and rapidly advancing AI mean that machines already outperform us on tasks that involve retaining, processing, and repeating rule-based information.

Then their point about STEM learning which I incorporated into my diagram and thesis.

creativity-vs-robots-nestaThere was also the link to the NESTA report (pdf). This provided rich, research based evidence. The results confirm that “creative occupations are more future proof to computerisation”.

They also define a far broader concept of creativity than common perception holds. That it’s more than the arts. It encompasses “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something”.

The part in italics is what stood out for me .

That lead me to Richard Florida’s paper: The Creative Class and Economic Development (pdf).

Modern Organisations Hierarchy of Needs

Independent of all this, I wrote a post some time ago that seemed to resonate with many from all the likes and shares it received (in the thousands).

Based on Maslow’s model I positioned the Modern Organisation’s Hierarchy of Needs. Creativity and innovation were at the pinnacle of organisational actualisation.

What I left out was the AI and robots element. I’m convinced I should include it. I propose to remodel the hierarchy and include these considerations. I’ll make this a core part of my trend report. I’ll use it to advocate how organisations should change to refocus their efforts.

modern organisation hierarchy of needs

Any feedback at all on my initial thinking would be great. Please add a comment.