Category Archives: innovation

Forming a Different Kind of Alliance

Trust. Loyalty. Lifetime employment. I think most of you would agree these words don’t really apply to today’s workplace.

ThinkstockPhotos-181678934As Ben Casnocha pointed out during his keynote yesterday at the SHRM Talent Management Conference—conveniently taking place this week just a few city blocks from the ERE Recruiting Conference I also attended—companies such as General Electric used to treat employees like “family” and offer them lifetime employment. But as we all know, factors such as globalization and technology forced employers to abandon such approaches decades ago.

Casnocha, an entrepreneur who co-authored with LinkedIn Founder and Chairman Reid Hoffman and Wasabi Ventures Partner Chris Yeh a book titled The Alliance: Managing Talent in a Networked Age (published last July by the Harvard Business Review Press), noted that a General Electric executive once described job security as one of GE’s prime corporate objectives. The year: 1963.

It’s hard to imagine anyone saying that today, right?

More recently, Casnocha said, many companies have embraced the other extreme: the free-agent model. True, he explained, that model does provide both employers and employees with the upside of greater flexibility; but it doesn’t build the kind of relationships that are needed to innovate.

“Would you do your very best work knowing you might not have a job the next day?” he asked.

For those of you who haven’t read The Alliance, Reid, Casnocha and Yeh make a compelling case for a third model that treats employees as “allies.”

“Think about any great alliance between countries, companies and people,” Casnocha said. “In an alliance, both sides commit to adding value. It’s a relationship that’s characterized by mutual trust, mutual investment and mutual benefit.”

Both the employer and the employee need to be adaptable in order for such a model to work, he added.

Employers, Casnocha said, need to “look the employee in the eye and say, ‘We’ll help transform your career, even if that means your career takes you to a different company someday.’ ” As for the employee, he or she “needs to say, ‘If you can make my LinkedIn profile look more impressive by having worked here, I will do great work [for you] and make a meaningful contribution to the company … .”

In his talk, Casnocha also touched on tours of duty, in which employees embark on a specific “mission.” (Once one tour of duty is completed, a new one is then defined.)

Alliances are especially effective, Casnocha pointed out, when it comes to “super-talented employees” who can really move the needle in your company. “What fires [these] employees up more than anything,” he said, “is the opportunity to transform themselves, the company and the world.”

To be sure, it’s a collaborative effort.

Casnocha told the story of one manager who printed two copies of an employee’s LinkedIn profile (so both the manager and the employee would have copies). Together, the two went through the profile, circling those parts that mattered most to the employee and writing in how that person might like to see it read two or three years from then.

On the subject of millennials, Casnocha asked: Which is better for their careers: Giving them a new title? Or telling them that you’re going to help them have conversations with three of the most important people in the industry?” (Hint, it’s not the first. Because, as Casnocha explained, people can take their networks and relationships with them when they leave.)

HR’s Role in Fostering Innovation

100843802 (1)How do you define innovation?

Chris Hunsberger asked that (rhetorical) question of the 550-plus attendees within minutes of kicking off his keynote talk yesterday morning at the 9th annual HR in Hospitality Conference & Expo at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

A quick Google search will bring you nearly 270 million different definitions, explained Hunsberger, the executive vice president of HR and administration at Four Seasons Hotel & Resorts.

So there are a few different ways to define the term. But, in essence, innovation is about “creative problem solving,” he said, “and doing things in new and different ways.”

Indeed, doing things in new ways is a necessity for any organization with hopes of succeeding in 2015, said Hunsberger, who is, by his count, 75 days into his new role, after 34 years in operations at Four Seasons, where he has spent his entire professional career.

To illustrate the importance leading companies (and their HR functions) place on doing things “a little differently,” Hunsberger pointed to organizations such as Zappos and Netflix.

Zappos, of course, has famously offered employees financial incentives to leave the company, in part as a way to separate those who are truly committed to the organization’s success from those who are simply working for a paycheck.

Meanwhile, Netflix is piloting a program that allows employees to set their own holiday schedules.

To further demonstrate his point, Hunsberger also offered a few “short stories of innovation” from within Four Seasons.

In search of innovative ideas from employees, Hunsberger and the leadership team asked senior leaders throughout the organization to arrange and oversee “innovation sessions” focused on identifying opportunities to improve the guest experience, for example.

At one of these sessions, the Boston-based hotel’s team came up with an idea for “15-minute room service.”

“We obviously get a lot of feedback from guests, and many felt room service was too pricey and, at an average of 30 minutes to 40 minutes, took too long. So the Boston team had the idea to develop a 15-minute room-service menu,” said Hunsberger.

Leadership loved the idea so much, he said, that “we rolled this out as a global initiative in about 90 days, and we even had a competition to see [which hotel] could come up with the best menu.”

In addition to drawing raves from Four Seasons guests, the 15-minute room-service initiative “really allowed our team to think about innovating,” he said, “and doing things in a new way.”

The Challenges of Walking While You Work

Good news for those of you who believe that treadmills and office desks go together like peanuts and chewing gum!

New academic research based on a 12-week study of overweight employees by an Oregon State University researcher found that the increase in physical activity from using a treadmill desk was small and did not help workers meet public health guidelines for daily exercise.

And while their positive effects may be small, introducing treadmill desks in the workplace also can pose big logistical challenges that may not make such a program feasible for many companies, said John M. Schuna, Jr., an assistant professor of exercise and sports science in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU.

In a small study of treadmill desk use by overweight and obese office workers, Schuna and his colleagues found that workers who used the desks increased their average number of daily steps by more than 1,000, but did not record any significant weight loss or changes in Body Mass Index after 12 weeks. The employees only used the treadmills about half the time they were asked to, averaging one session and 45 minutes a day on the machines.

“Treadmill desks aren’t an effective replacement for regular exercise, and the benefits of the desks may not justify the cost and other challenges that come with implementing them,” Schuna said.

His findings were published recently in the “Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.” Co-authors include Damon L. Swift of East Carolina University and several researchers from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The research was supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana.

Interestingly enough, researchers faced several challenges with the study, including difficulty recruiting employees to participate. Initially, more than 700 employees of the company were targeted for recruitment, with roughly 10 percent of them expressing interest in participating. Some of those employees were deemed ineligible for the study for a variety of reasons, while others did not receive approval from a supervisor.

They also found work considerations often kept employees from using the desks, even though the company had approved and encouraged employees to participate in the program. Employees shared the treadmill desks, which required scheduling the time they would be using them.

Schuna said the findings from this study indicate that future research on exercise in the workplace should focus on interventions that avoid some of the pitfalls that come with treadmill desks.

“We need to identify some form of physical activity that can be done simply and at a low cost in an office setting,” he said.

Preferably while sitting.

The Hanging Gardens of the Future

greenIf you’ve always wished you could have visited the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World,  perhaps you’ll take heart from “Organic Grid+,” the winner of an architectural contest to design the “Workplace of the Future.”

Designed by London-based architects Sean Cassidy and Joe Wilson, Organic Grid+ is intended to meld together innovations such as green walls, open-plan offices and vertical greenhouses into a soothing, healthy, light-filled space. The proposal would entail attaching  multistory vertical greenhouses — or “sky gardens” — onto existing skyscrapers in which employees could both work and … harvest fresh vegetables for their lunch. As they write:

… Sky gardens provide fresh food for employees to enjoy, as well as natural cooling and acoustic buffering throughout the building. The intrusion of green spaces into the structure itself also generates a more welcoming and overall pleasant atmosphere in which to work, ultimately boosting morale for those inside.

Naturally, there are potential downsides: John Metcalfe of The Atlantic’s CityLab blog writes that “What’s worse than chatty coworkers interrupting your flow? How about a dude harvesting zucchini from a vertical garden falling and crashing through your desk in a hollering heap?” Putting aside the snark, however, innovations such as green walls, office gardens  and workplace farmers markets are becoming increasingly popular — although still rare — as a way to not only provide relief from the drab concrete and industrial carpeting of the traditional office space but encourage healthier living by employees. Who knows: in the future maybe we’ll be bringing gardening gloves to work in addition to our smartphones and travel mugs.

Say Hello to Your New Robot Boss

robot 1Earlier this month, HRE reported on the phenomenon of “de-skilling,” a term that’s really just code for “replacing employees with automation.” And while no one likes the idea of being usurped on the job by a robot, a new study suggests that some workers would be just fine with having one for a boss.

That’s what researchers from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab found when they studied groups of two humans and one robot working together in a manufacturing environment. In fact, the authors found that human workers participating in their study actually preferred taking orders from an automaton, and that handing over the reins to a robot was the most efficient means of accomplishing the task at hand.

In this case, the task at hand was assembling Legos, in an experiment that replicated a factory setting. Only the human workers could put together the Legos, which had to be brought from a “fetch” station to a “build” station. While only humans could assemble the Legos, either a human or robot could fetch them.

“In our research we were seeking to find that sweet spot for ensuring that the human workforce is both satisfied and productive,” said Matthew Gombolay, a PhD student at CSAIL, and lead author of the study, in a statement.

“We discovered that the answer is to actually give machines more autonomy, if it helps people to work together more fluently with robot teammates.”

Gombolay and his team reached this conclusion by assigning groups of two humans and one robot working in one of three conditions. In the manual scenario, all tasks were allocated by a human. In another, fully autonomous environment, all duties were assigned by the robot. In the third, semi-autonomous setting, one human consigned jobs to him or herself, while a robot gave tasks to the other human.

The fully autonomous condition proved to be the most effective in terms of getting the job done, and the method most preferred by the human workers, who were more likely to say the bots “better understood them” and “improved the efficiency of the team,” according to the authors.

If this all seems a bit strange, and maybe even a tad scary, fear not. This MIT experiment isn’t the first step toward a workplace run by cold, lifeless cyborgs, said Gombolay.

Putting a robot in charge, as the MIT team did, simply means that tasks are delegated, scheduled and coordinated via a human-generated algorithm, he said.

“Instead of coming up with a plan by hand, it’s about developing tools to help create plans automatically.”

This algorithm, he said, can also conduct on-the-fly re-planning, enabling the instant development of an alternate schedule for a task if a new part arrives or a machine malfunctions, for example.

Down the road, similar algorithms may have utility for human/human collaborative efforts such as scheduling hospital resources; search-and-rescue drones; and even situations involving human and robot cooperation, in which the robot could aid with discrete building and construction tasks, Gombolay added.

Hmm. Such applications could very well be useful in some industries, and may still leave some work for humans to do in the future as well. Maybe we don’t have to cede total control to our new robotic overlords just yet.

Time with the Boss

Have you thought much about the amount of time you spent with your boss this week? Or this month? Or perhaps more importantly, how much time your direct reports spent with you? Probably not. But if the findings of a new study by Leadership IQ are correct, these may very well be important questions to ask.

122399147On Wednesday, Leadership IQ released research, titled “Optimal Hours with the Boss” (downloadable here), showing that employees who spend six hours per week with their bosses (either in person or through phone and email) are 29 percent more inspired, 30 percent more engaged, 16 percent more innovative and 15 percent more intrinsically motivated than those who spend only one hour per week. For each added hour of interaction, the study found, inspiration, engagement and motivation increased. Until the six-hour mark was reached, that is—at which point, with the exception of innovation, the trend line reversed direction.

And what if you happen to be a senior executive or middle manager? Surprising to me, the study found these executives experienced their highest levels of inspiration when spending seven to eight hours per week interacting with their leaders, while middle managers felt their highest levels of inspiration when spending nine to 10 hours per week doing so.

To arrive at these findings, Leadership IQ surveyed 32,410 American and Canadian executives, managers and employees from January through May of this year. Respondents were invited to complete an online assessment that included seven-point-scale questions, such as “Working here inspires me to give my absolute best efforts” and “I recommend our company as a great organization to work for” and “I keep generating great ideas every week to help the organization improve.”

This morning, I spoke with Leadership IQ Founder and CEO Mark Murphy about the findings, and why the percentages jumped as noticeably as they did, but then, for the most part, declined once they hit six hours.

Murphy suggests things such as coaching, mentoring and other forms of interaction are only good up to a point—in this case, around six hours—but then begin to feel to the subordinate like micromanaging. “Yes, I need your coaching, I need your mentoring, I need you to talk to me, I need you to fill me in on the organization’s strategies,” he says. “But once you’ve done that, I don’t necessarily need you to stand over my shoulder.”

And why is the ceiling so much higher for executives and middle managers?

Murphy suggests one possibility could be that, because of all of the downsizing and elimination of organizational layers that have taken place in recent years, executives and managers feel they’re now at greater risk. If there are fewer executives and managers (and layers in organizations), he says, the decisions being made are going to have a greater impact, and “executives and managers are going to feel there’s going to be a higher price to be paid for any mistakes that they make.”

With this in the back of their minds, he says, “it’s likely these executives are going to want a little more time with the CEO, other executives and the board to be sure that what they’re about to do is the right action—that it’s completely aligned with the organization’s strategy.”

Obviously, there’s no easy way to way to address this issue. But Murphy suggests HR might want to do the following: Re-evaluate how your organization addresses interaction time. “Do we know that leaders are having conversations with their employees?” and “Do we have a way to measure this?”

Not that you’re looking for another question to add to your engagement and satisfaction survey, but finding some way to take the pulse of such interactions might not be a bad thing.

New Report: CEOs Focused on Employees for 2014

dv1954038This just in from the Conference Board, from its CEO Challenge 2014 report based on a survey of CEOs, presidents and chairmen from more than 1,000 companies around the world: Human capital — how best to develop, engage, manage and retain talent — was named the leading challenge among 10 choices, followed by customer relationships, innovation, operational excellence and corporate brand and reputation.

The findings represent an acknowledgement by global business leaders that people really are their greatest resource, says Rebecca Ray, report co-author and Conference Board senior vice president of human capital:

Though particular strategies vary from region to region, business leaders are working to optimize their greatest resource — their employees and those who will lead them. This emphasis on people-related issues makes perfect sense in a still-uncertain economy. Building a culture that supports engagement, employee training, leadership development and high performance is something companies can control, and can mean the difference between growing market share and simply surviving in 2014.”

Interestingly, this year’s survey included a question on “hot-button issues” CEOs were most concerned about. “Big Data” was cited as the No. 1 hot-button issue, a topic that’s addressed by my colleague Mark McGraw in this recent story. Other hot-button issues cited by respondents included “diversity in our leadership ranks,” “potential economic depression in Europe” and, for U.S. respondents (perhaps not surprisingly), “healthcare benefits for employees.”

Breaking down the findings region by region, the report finds that “improve performance management processes and accountability” rose to the No. 1 strategy in China, which is facing a slowing growth rate, as well as in Asia as a whole. The report also found that three of the top five strategies for innovation are predicated on human capital, with “create culture of innovation by promoting and rewarding entrepreneurship and risk-taking,” “develop innovation skills for all employees” and “incentivize key talent for innovation.” Even our cranky HR Technology columnist, Bill Kutik, acknowledges in his latest piece that CEOs seem to finally be coming around to the importance of the people in their organizations.  All in all, it appears that CEOs will be keeping their CHROs close by for the foreseeable future.

Rise of the Robots

robotsFrom Oxford University comes new research that doesn’t bode well for us fallible human beings.

In a recent study, Oxford professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne analyzed 702 jobs listed on a careers website—along with the skills and education required for these positions—and evaluated how easily these roles could be automated, and what factors prevented these jobs from being computerized.

In doing so, they found that 47 percent of jobs in the United States are at risk of being automated within the next 20 years, with administrative, transportation and logistics, production, services, sales and construction jobs among the most likely to be done by a computer.

The top 20 jobs most in danger of being computerized in the years to come included telemarketers, mathematical technicians, insurance underwriters, tax preparers, brokerage clerks, loan officers and insurance appraisers, according to the Oxford report.

“Our model predicts that most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labor in production occupations, are at risk,” the authors wrote in the study report.

“These findings are consistent with recent technological developments documented in the literature. More surprisingly, we find that a substantial share of employment in service occupations, where most U.S. job growth has occurred over the past decades, are highly susceptible to computerization.”

Overall, low-skill and low-wage employees figure to be most affected by the coming robot revolution. But these workers may still be able to find a place in the workplace of the future, the authors say—provided they sharpen the type of skills that computers can’t develop.

“Our model predicts a truncation in the current trend towards labor market polarization, with computerization being principally confined to low-skill and low-wage occupations,” the report notes.

“Our findings thus imply that as technology races ahead, low-skill workers will reallocate to tasks that are non-susceptible to computerization, i.e., tasks requiring creative and social intelligence. For workers to win the race, however, they will have to acquire creative and social skills.”

Bersin Envisions a More Distributed HR Function

IMPACT_2013_Final_LogoJosh Bersin, principal, CEO and founder at Bersin by Deloitte, delivered a content-rich, provoking opening keynote at Bersin’s Impact 2013 conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., Tuesday morning. The message was, in essence, that businesses and their HR functions need to do business and HR completely differently than even just a few short years ago if they’re going to compete in the global marketplace.

His vision, if you will, involves a more distributed network of HR expertise, localized for every state, country and culture. No more preaching HR from above.

Some of the top drivers of change, he said, are clear gaps in leadership, skills and education — borne out by research, Bersin’s and others’; an explosive role of technology; and disparities in economic growth and opportunity, country to country.

“Successful global interconnectedness,” he said, “means understanding what true localization really is.” He offered some examples of companies that have learned the importance of understanding what doing business in a different culture really means. Ford, for instance, before it introduced its highly successful Ford Figo in  India, knew its people had to learn what the road conditions were, what colors would sell, etc.

For HR leaders, embracing the challenges of doing business globally will mean understanding and transforming the learning culture, optimizing local talent acquisition and localizing the leadership pipeline. “High-performing leaders in certain cultures have characteristics specific only to those cultures,” Bersin told attendees.

From a business standpoint, he told me privately after the keynote, HR leaders need to embrace a more distributed HR, veering away from the old Centers of Excellence model toward one involving Networks of Expertise. The future of HR, competing in a global business world, he said, needs to “be a model where local HR specialists are trained enough to tweak [programs and initiatives] at a local level and HR leaders are creating standards based on integrating skills and information” throughout the corporation, not innovating and then passing it on down the chain.

In fact, he even went so far as to say that the concept of the HR business partner needs to be rethought and redefined. “Business partners need to be held more accountable,” he said. “They need to be more powerful and [need to be] experts locally,” much the same way houses aren’t built by generalists, but by specialists — each contributing the best of what he or she can do.

To help HR-leadership expertise along, his company introduced at the conference its Bersin by Deloitte Playbooks, step-by-step programs to help business leaders and their teams tackle current HR, talent and learning challenges — locally throughout the world — based on Bersin’s WhatWorks research.

 

Benefits Pros Getting Game Faces On in Preparation for 2014

As attendees gathered into the general session room for the opening keynote at the Human Resource Executive Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, the energy in the room felt much different — more charged, more urgent, more focused — than any other that I’ve been in over the last few years.

Even before keynote speaker Dr. Ron Leopold started his remarks, people were in their chairs early, ready to go—pens and notepads out, smartphones charged. I assumed they were just anxious to hear Leopold answer the question he’d posed in his session title (which he even admitted was selected to get tongues wagging), “Are benefits forever?”

However, as the session progressed, I realized attendees weren’t seeking paydirt on Leopold’s query and they weren’t looking to sit in a drum circle for a “PPACA therapy session,” as one pro in the room tweeted.

Rather, as the clock ticks down to mere months before practitioners face the full force of health care reform the attendees this morning wanted solutions. They wanted strategies. And by the looks on their faces, they weren’t leaving until they got them.

I had a lightbulb moment. I realized that employers are no longer panicked about PPACA. They are purposeful.

Following the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the health care reform law and the re-election of President Obama, us benefits communicators have been waiting for that shift from employers for a while now. We’ve been waiting patiently—some of us more so than others—for you to turn flimsy ideas into firm plans. Mostly so that we could stop writing stories about how you’re all in “wait and see mode,” and start writing about strategies about how to work now that you’re in “decide and do” mode. That makes our jobs waaaay more exciting, and also more meaningful.

As Leopold noted, “Most employers—according to most survey and research data—have decided to ‘play’ [under PPACA’s employers mandate], but it’s a different playing field.” From my vantage point, what brought practitioners here to Las Vegas for HBLC is much more than to spend three days in 90-degree weather (although it’s a nice bonus). They’re here this week because they understand, as Leopold said, “The answer to PPACA isn’t in the health plan alone, [and] even if employers get out of the health care business, they’ll never get out of the productivity business.”

So, to succeed on that new playing field, employers know they need some new plays. For example, I ate lunch with a woman today who is at HBLC seeking new ideas for her organization’s wellness program. I asked her about the current offering, and it sounded like a rousing success—in five years, the plan has garnered more than 50 percent participation using a well-structured blend of incentives and challenges to keep employees engaged. It also features employee health fairs where employees and their families can receive biometric screenings, so employees’ engagement via the fun stuff still can lead to actionable health conversations with their physicians. Further, it’s a collegiate environment, so she and her team leverage the school’s kinesiology students to serve as personal trainers for employees.

I know employers that would love to have resources and participation levels like that, I told her. What exactly was she looking to change?

The impact of PPACA has the organization considering self-funding, she said. So, instead of just wellness carrots, “it may be time to bring in sticks, too.”

Like Leopold said, employers are playing, but on a whole different playing field. I, for one, am encouraged that here at HBLC, HR/benefits pros understand that and are prepping new and improved benefits playbooks for game time come January.

Kelley M. Butler is the Editorial Director at Benz Communications, a consulting firm specializing in benefits communications. Formerly the Editor-in-Chief of Employee Benefit News, Kelley has been covering news and trends in human resources and employee benefits for more than 12 years. Follow her updates from HBLC on twitter at @kelleytheeditor.