Census questions

Boring title, eh? Do population statistics intrigue you? Does the break-down of those statistics into race-based fractions intrigue you more?  Some people would answer no to the first question and yes to the second.  Those people will find the report called  The New Metro Minority Map from the Brookings Institution, of interest.  Since I can tell from the WordPress stats I monitor that only a small percentage of you actually click on the links I embed in my posts, I’ll provide a brief synopsis of the article by saying this.  Basically, the report concludes that the United States has tipped over the point where whites are a majority of the population.  Hispanics, Blacks, and Asians are now, narrowly, a majority.  These kinds of reports feed all kinds of analyses by governments and private agencies for all kinds of guidance and recommendations.  That’s all good.  All I want to say about this is, the analysis is good but let’s not worry about what the data may or may not say.

I look around me at the office and I see people from Jordan, India, Sri Lanka, and Sweden (and that’s all within a 20 foot radius).  If I go for a short walk to another area of the floor, I say hi to people from Hong Kong, Taiwan (a guy who this weekend is marrying someone from the Middle East), Philippines, Mexico, Germany, Jamaica, Poland, and Turkey.  You get my point.  There are a lot of people who represent a variety of ethnic, cultural, and national groups.  We all play well together.  We don’t even notice that we don’t look or sound alike, until we read a headline about a report such as the one above.

Social media explosion

For the doubters of our world, it may be time for you to drop your last defenses and adopt a new way of interacting with the world around you.  As the pony express gave way to mail, and the telegraph gave way to the telephone, society has shifted the way it operates and has embraced social media (Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc.).  See this report from the Pew Research Center.  It’s the latest of their annual surveys of social media adoption in America and it shows that 65% of online adults use social media.  There are lots of other interesting statistics in the downloadable report, in particular how women have embraced it to an even higher degree than men. But the most astounding stat of all, to me, was how the growth exploded in the last six years, going from 5% of online adults to today’s 65%,

I draw a very simple conclusion from this. The world is remarkably connected and while social media can be credited with exponentially extending it, it can’t take credit as the trigger.  It’s human nature to want to interact with others.  Social media are simply the enablers on a grand scale. 

Specialization can be good, or not

In the July-August issue of The Harvard Business Review is an article by Thomas W. Malone, Robert J. Laubacher, and Tammy Johns that describes how modern technology advances are transforming the workplace.  That is no surprise.  We need only look around how our tools and processes bear no resemblance to the ones we used only 10 short years ago to know that something big is going on.  Their point is that Hyperspecialization, which is the division of work into small tasks that are performed by ever more specialized workers, creates more speed, quality, and cost advantages.  Let’s hope they’re on to something that turns out to be better than the bleakness that is painted by that sentence.  It sounds like an assembly line to me, and having once worked on one, I can say that while I clearly understood the cost advantages of having armies of people doing one specific thing in sequence, it’s not something I wanted to do for any longer than that summer between high school and university.  The human spirit is too easily dulled by such repetition.

I encourage you though to read the article.  As befits the HBR, the writers argue intelligently and persuasively.  And it made me think about specialization versus the alternative, people being individually responsible for a far greater amount of the end product.  A comparison might be this.  Houses these days are constructed by many, many individuals, each being responsible for a piece of the product.   There is no question it is the only way to create many houses quickly and more cheaply but does it mean quality also is higher?  Not always.  But more importantly, there is a much higher degree of pride and satisfaction in the work done when a staff member owns responsibility for more of the output.  Again, through personal experience, I can say this is true.  I built my own cabin in the woods of Northern Ontario entirely with my own hands, from foundation to roof, from floor to ceiling, from kitchen cabinets, to the brick of the fireplace wall.  Sure I could have hired scores of people to do all that, but where is the sense of satisfaction and fun?  Why even attempt if you can’t see how what you did made anything of meaning?

Google, Kirk, Spock, and us

Patrick Pichette, Google’s CFO, in an interview with McKinsey Quarterly, recently said that 15% of the queries Google processes everyday are brand-new.  What he means is that despite the ubiquity of our world’s favorite search engine and the almost complete reliance most of us have on Google to give us answers to virtually everything, and despite access to vast to-the-horizon data centers filled with information ready to be algorithmically crunched, the most elegant user interface on the planet still receives millions of questions each day that it has never seen before. That’s not to say it can’t answer the questions; it just means the answers are not as easy to serve up to the questioners.

I suppose the geek in me is why I find that statistic so interesting. Here’s why…. it strikes me as a positive signal that human curiosity, and the ability to think in complex ways, is alive and well.  Just as Star Trek’s James T. Kirk was occasionally able to pose a question to Mr. Spock that he was unable to answer, humans find the opportunity every single day to ask of the biggest brain in history questions it has never been asked before.  Just like Spock, Google uses sophisticated logic to deduce the best probable answer.  It’s still up to us though to be like Kirk and make the final decision.

Software: an optimistic view

Marc Andreessen’s op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal received a lot of commentary and retweets today, and rightly so.  His premise that software is gobbling up the world, and that it’s a good thing, may seem to some to be counterintuitive and provocative.  He’ll likely face a lot of criticism for his article. He cites solid examples from many sectors of our economy, and he illustrates that while software was introduced to speed up processes or otherwise make things more productive, it has in the meantime transformed entire industries, and in some cases, destroyed decades-long business models.  He also poses some tough questions for investors and regulators of how valuation can be done reliably and accurately.  Because (he argues) software has the potential for far-reaching positive societal effect, in order to accelerate further innovation there needs to be an update to how the securities industry looks at valuing software companies.  He contends that by doing so, the industry could be unleashed to expand and produce even more. Better to read his argument than to rely on my two sentence representation.

However, this post is not meant to be a rehash of what was presented in today’s WSJ.  I highlight it here to make a bigger point about  optimism, and how it’s an often sneered-at attitude.  Why is that? Why do some people seem to prefer gloom over hopes and dreams? One can say lots of things about optimism, and optimists… some of it valid… but if you give it a bit of thought you would likely agree that optimism really is the only attitude that can propel the world positively forward.

One less reason for me to turn on the TV

Google announced today that they now provide weather forecasts through Google Maps.  So now that we’ll be able to check comprehensive, combined weather and location information completely over our mobiles, we’re getting closer and closer to the day where I will have zero reason to turn on the television.  With the exception of a couple of on-demand shows, the televisions in our home remain quiet and dark for probably 99% of time in any given week and month.  We get most of our news information online or the radio, or even via the traditional newspaper.  Better yet, I wait for weekly and monthly periodicals to get more intelligent reporting and analysis of news events.  Getting weather information was always something for which we looked to the TV.  Maybe not so much anymore.

I bring this up to make a point about the importance of maintaining relevance.  I’m not just talking about the rapidly fading relevance of traditional television broadcasting (that business model had its heyday, made many people piles of cash, but it got lazy and slow. Its managers and owners didn’t think to look around and pay attention). Maintaining relevance is true for individuals, as well.  The world constantly changes in the 360 degrees that surround us.  It’s always been so; it just seems more rapid now that there are so many ways to hear about the changes.  The key is to pay attention, to initiate required personal improvements and not wait until someone tells you that your relevance has waned.

Customer Service Stories – part II

One of my more popular posts (based both on comments and on the viewer metrics that WordPress collects) was called Customer Service Stories.  Clearly, that topic cuts across just about every societal and geographic boundary so I can’t resist offering up another story.

A friend was in town visiting the offices of Eloqua, my new employer.  This friend is from a company I used to work at and since I’m the Director of Premier Support, I thought it would be nice to take her and one of her colleagues out for lunch.  We zipped around the corner to a restaurant that specializes in healthy and delicious sandwiches/wraps/crepes, salads, smoothies, and soup.  I’d been there twice before and felt it would be a reliable choice to take clients.

I ordered a sandwich while my lunch mates mulled the choices on the extensive menu.  When they finally placed their order, the unsmiling girl informed the one that she couldn’t have any avocado with her “Turkey and Avocado Sandwich” since they hadn’t had avocado at the restaurant in a week.  (I passed bushels-full at a nearby green grocer on the way to work that day) But, she said, they would be able to substitute something else.  An alternate order was placed, this time for a crepe. “We don’t serve crepes anymore.  We haven’t for a long time.”  This was said as we all gazed up confusingly at the crepe menu above her head.  The girl waited.  “Okay, then I’ll have a tuna wrap and a soup.”  “You can have the wrap but we don’t have any soup today.”  I looked over at the soup pot, the one with the sign reading, “Home-made Soup” leaning against it.

Well, you know what happened after that.  No, we did stay and eat whatever food we managed to finally get but there is no doubt that the restaurant will never see me again, nor any of my customers and friends.  And the restaurant industry wonders why the failure rate is so high.

Trying to keep up with the kids

On the same theme as my last post, the youngest generation seems to adopt technology concepts at a speed that’s hard to comprehend.  Maybe children’s brains really are wired differently.

In a discussion we were having last night over dinner, one niece said to the other that eventually it won’t matter what device you use as an e-reader since all the books will be online.  She meant the Cloud.  Knowing what I know of trends and where things are going, I couldn’t disagree with her but I wasn’t expecting her to scoop the Wall Street Journal and its army of reporters.  Today’s paper discussed that very topic.  Amazon announced they would sell electronic books to consumers that they would be able to read online and not need to download.  Books in the cloud.

It’s amazing what you can learn from kids.

Teens and social media

I saw a really great post on our company site today called why teens don’t use twitter.  It seems young people find Twitter to be deficient in many ways and shun the platform.  Coincidentally, I was sitting with my 11-year old niece yesterday as she logged on to her email account for the first time this year (she’s an active Google chat user so it’s not like she’s a techno-neophyte).  She had 166 unread emails and she was both surprised and unconcerned.  And to complete the marginalization of that particular communication vehicle from her life, she decided to send her friend an email and in the process turned to ask me, “Why do I have to write a subject?”

Email, Twitter, and probably many other tools many of us find indispensable border on useless for the youngest social media generation.  Facebook, Google Plus and other more robust social media platforms are where the young play, almost exclusively.

Social media and the occasional need to unplug

I unplugged last week, went north with my wife to our cabin in the woods near Parry Sound.  We brought our two nieces with us for a week of peace in the pure air and sunshine of cottage country, accompanied by the call of loons during the day and wolves at night howling at the crescent moon.  Without electricity, life completely slows to the pace of a moment. It’s de rigueur to say we should “live in the moment” but as we all know, it’s not as easy as it sounds.  Being away though at a place where electricity is sparingly used for lights (because I installed only a small solar power system) and water is collected as it falls from the sky, a person can’t help but be mindful of how he goes about living the day.  It’s very therapeutic.  Too bad our decision-makers can’t bring themselves to completely unplug and go away for awhile.  It makes you wonder that if they did, whether we would still have the real and manufactured crises we have.

It’s only slightly related but I read an article in today’s Wall Street Journal called, Social networks can’t replace socializing, in which the author, Jonah Lehrer, argues that we should treat skeptically the notion that social networks can effectively imitate face to face conversations.  I agree. I’m a fairly active user of social media but I don’t ever consider it as enjoyable as having conversation with friends over dinner, for example.  There’s no way technology can master or adequately represent the nuances of human facial expression or voice intonation, let alone the shared experience of consuming food and wine.  Mr. Lehrer goes on to cite other predictions of the past where communication technology was inevitably going to make obsolete the need for face to face communication.  The predictions seem absurd now and so will the latest one that Facebook and Google + will eventually replace the need for people to physically meet.

Why are these ideas related?  Because, in the end, humans need to unplug at times, whether it’s by removing themselves to a remote cabin in the woods or by calling friends over for beer and BBQ ribs on the back deck.  There’s no way social media can replicate these things and as Jonah Lehrer says, “…  the winner of the social network wars won’t be the network that feels the most realistic. Instead of being a substitute for old-fashioned socializing, this network will focus on becoming a better supplement, amplifying the advantages of talking in person.”