Kienco Blog

Thoughts and musings about the Future of Work, Strategic Workforce Planning, and Workforce Data Science from Kienco

Isaac Asimov on MOOCs - 20 years ago

Stumbling across this video over the weekend, it amazes me how prescient the predictions of Isaac Asimov were.

For those not familiar with Asimov, he was one of the most prolific writers of all time - having written around 90,000 letters and almost 500 books.  You may know of the film I, Robot, the central plot of which was first published by Asimov in 1942.

Although I'm not sure exactly when it was recorded, Asimov died in 1992, 6 years before Google was created and 2 years before Yahoo!, Lycos, and Netscape were founded.  That context makes this interview even more astounding.

For me, two key takeaways from this video:

  1. MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) as we know them today could be only a very early phase of disruption to the education sector.  The School of the Air in Australia has been providing a model for mass primary and secondary education since 1951, and the technology that has enabled MOOCs like Coursera, eDx, and Udacity could be applied to primary and secondary education too.
  2. Asimov draws a parallel between providing people with clean water, and providing them with access to computing tools for education.  This was at a time when a 386-processor computer, without a monitor, was $2,499USD ($4,223USD in today's dollars).  With today's technology, it is within our reach to allow every person in the world to have a good education through programs like the One Laptop Per Child program, which has distributed 2 Million laptops, currently at a retail cost of around $59USD. 



Radio Shack Catalog, 1992.  Tandy 386 Computer $2499 (without Monitor) - via

Radio Shack Catalog, 1992.  Tandy 386 Computer $2499 (without Monitor) - via

Splitting HR is the wrong solution to the right problems

Splitting HR is the wrong solution to the right problems

Ram Charan recently wrote an HBR article which has sparked a lot of debate.  It's title and premise, is It's Time to Split HR into HR-A (for administration) and HR-LO (for leadership and organisation).  Charan's criticism of the unified HR organisation is:

Most [Chief Human Resource Officers] are process-oriented generalists who have expertise in personnel benefits, compensation, and labor relations. They are focused on internal matters such as engagement, empowerment, and managing cultural issues. What they can’t do very well is relate HR to real-world business needs. They don’t know how key decisions are made, and they have great difficulty analyzing why people—or whole parts of the organization—aren’t meeting the business’s performance goals.
— It's time to split HR, Ram Charan, Harvard Business Review

It's true that a career in HR often starts in a generalist role, and that in some cases their business and strategy experience doesn't grow in line with their seniority.  The crack in Charan's logic, however, is apparent in his comparison of CHROs to CFOs:

[CEOs] would like to be able to use their chief human resource officers (CHROs) the way they use their CFOs—as sounding boards and trusted partners

Nobody enters their career as a CFO equipped with the knowledge and means to "be strategic" - it's a competency that grows with experience, not qualifications (though the right education equips you with some of the tools and frameworks).  So why is it that CFOs are seen as trusted advisors, and - at least to Charan - CHROs aren't?  Nobody is advocating for Finance to split into administrative and strategy arms, because strategy without execution is meaningless, and effective strategy can't be set without deep domain expertise.

How finance develops skills in strategy

Finance professionals on an upwards career trajectory are invited to contribute to strategic discussions.  The degree to which they can add value grows over time. How is it that Finance professionals learn "how key decisions are made"?  They're there.  How is it that Finance professionals can relate "to real world business needs"?  They're constantly engaged in conversations about those needs at senior levels of the organisation.

Those HR Professionals who aren't interested in how their work can contribute to the top and bottom-line of an organisation will never be able to be effective CHROs - but they're in the minority.  It's incumbent on HR to equip themselves with the knowledge, methods, and frameworks that will allow them to be strategic - but it's also incumbent on the leaders of organisations to enable them to use these tools.


What will a job look like in 2025?

Recently Pew Research ran a survey on the impact of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics on the future of work.  1,896 experts responded to the survey, with 48% believing that automation and robotics will displace a significant number of workers by 2025.  The 52% of techno-optimists nonetheless recognised that many current roles will be displaced, even if net employment is the same or higher than it is today.

Frey and Martin at Oxford, in their "The Future of Employment" study, suggested that 47% of current work could be automated in the next 10-20 years, and many of the roles forecast to be automated are jobs traditionally held by younger workers, or lower-skilled work.  Some of the roles most likely to be automated, according to the study, are:

  • Telemarketers - 99% likelihood of automation
  • Hand Sewers - 99%
  • New Accounts Clerks - 99%
  • Data Entry Keyers - 99%
  • Clerical Work in a range of categories - 98%
  • Tellers - 98%
  • Bookkeeping - 98%
  • Payroll and Timekeeping Clerks - 97%
  • Cashiers - 97%

Imagine the "career ladder" with the first three rungs hacked off - that's the future we're heading into if these roles aren't replaced.  How will we support people entering the workforce if there are no entry-level roles?

What was particularly interesting to me in the Pew Report was:

a. That the respondents were high-profile economists, futurists, journalists, and technologists representing organisations including the New York Times, Yahoo, Google, the Institute for the Future, the European Union, The Economist, and NASA - in other words, the people who are in a position to shape the future; and that

b. Many respondents assigned responsibility for guiding the adjustment to governments, educators, or luck.  Some key responses are below:

Governments will have to collaborate effectively with technology companies and academic institutions to provide massive retraining efforts over the next decade to prevent massive social disruption from these changes.
— Alex Howard, a Writer and Editor based in Washington, D.C.
The notion of work as a necessity for life cannot be sustained if the great bulk of manufacturing and such moves to machines - but humans will adapt by finding new models of payment as they did in the industrial revolution (after much upheaval)
— Jim Hendler, an architect of the evolution of the World Wide Web and professor of computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
It seems inevitable to me that the proportion of the population that needs to engage in traditional full-time employment, in order to keep us fed, supplied, healthery, and safe, will decrease. I hope this leads to a humane restructuring fo the general social contract around employment.
— Tim Bray, an active participant in the IETF and technology industry veteran
...A technological advance by itself can be either positive or negative for jobs, depending on the social structure as a whole... this is not a technological consequence: rather it is a political choice
— Seth Finkelstein, programmer, consultant and EFF Pioneer of the Electronic Frontier Award winner
...It will require wrestling with ideologically fraught solutions, such as a guaranteed minimum income, and a broadening of our social sense of what is valuable work
— Jason Pontin, editor in chief and publisher of the MIT Technology Review

It's impossible to accurately predict the future, but it is possible to forecast multiple futures, and plan initiatives to respond to those scenario - even if we don't know precisely how the future will unfold.  It's clear that whether you believe that net jobs will be destroyed through automation or not, there is a huge transition already happening, and the pace is accelerating. Reports like the Oxford and Pew papers are a wake-up call, but they're not a solution - and we all have a role in determining whether our future is utopian or dystopian. 

What are some ways that you believe we can support people undergoing technological unemployment, particularly if the number of unemployed rises above historic levels?  How do you see work looking in 2025?  How do we support people entering the workforce, if robots and algorithms are doing all the entry-level roles?


Mopping up

Scenario planning is a critical way to anticipate and adapt to (and sometimes take advantage of) the profound changes being faced in the technology, consumer, and labor markets.  Even where you are forced to respond to the external environment, you can still position yourself to be agile enough to respond quickly and effectively.  Perhaps that's why this quote appeals to us so much!


Three Questions to ask with Workforce Analytics

Three Questions to ask with Workforce Analytics

Beechcraft 1900D Cockpit

Beechcraft 1900D Cockpit

I had the pleasure of travelling around the spectacular Bay of Plenty region in New Zealand last week, developing 2024 workforce strategy with some incredible people.  The hop from Auckland to Rotorua was on a Beechcraft 1900D, and I was fortunate enough to be in 1F - the seat that gives you the best of the cockpit, which gave me pause for thought about workforce analytics dashboard design.  Although I usually advocate for a "less is more" approach to analytics in dashboards, the dashboard of an aircraft is fascinating - every gauge, every dial serves a purpose and provides real-time, actionable data.  Many business analytics dashboards don't exhibit these properties.  A good rule of thumb when determining whether workforce analytics should be reported is to ask these three questions:

  • What?: What information is this display giving us?  Does it make sense, and can its purpose be clearly communicated?
  • So What?: Why does this information matter - what is it's connection to organisational strategy?  What's the context as to why we are reporting this?; and
  • Now What?: Is the data actionable, and if so, how?

If you're unable to answer these three questions, it may be time to take your dashboard back to the drawing board.

Mars One

Mars One

Mars One is an initiative to create a human settlement on Mars, with the first crew expected to depart earth in 2024.  Although I can't imagine applying to go on a one-way mission to Mars, I'm fascinated by the concept and intrigued by the process.

Needless to say, taking a job like this is no small commitment - you are literally giving your life to your job, and the first crew of four's commitment and preparation will determine the success of a program to colonise another planet. (No pressure).

What's particularly interesting to me is the selection criteria - although there are some age requirements and no doubt health requirements, the five key criteria are Resiliency, Adaptability, Curiosity, Ability to Trust, and Creativity / Resourcefulness.  Technical skills can be taught, even on a scientific mission - but the right persona is critical.  We see this playing out in all different industries, all round the world - what differentiates a competent member of the workforce from an exception performer is rarely a technical skill - but we typically source for and develop on technical skill alone.

What are the competencies, skills, and personas that separate high performers from everyone else in your workforce?  Knowing that, what are you doing to build HR initiatives to stack the deck towards high performance?

Medians in Workforce Analytics - when Average is not Typical

Recently on Quora, I was asked to answer a question about why organisations base pay on benchmarked Median salaries, rather than Averages.  I thought I'd repeat that answer here, with the help of a comic strip.

There are three main statistical measures of central tendency, or what is "typical" - Mean (aka Average), Median, and Mode.  There are also, according to Mark Twain, three kinds of lies - "Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics".


Let's address the three measures of central tendency first:

  • The Mean is what you get when you add up all of the values, and divide the total by the number of values.  This is usually referred to at the average.  In the salary example, this is what you'd get if you added up everyone's salaries, and then divided it by the number of employees.
  • The Median is when you rank all of the values in ascending or descending order, and pick the middle one.  In the salary example, you'd pick the salary where there were an equal number of higher and lower salaries - the salary right at the middle of all salaries.
  • The Mode is when you pick the most commonly occurring value.  For salary, this would typically happen where you have a lot of people set pay grades, and one of those pay grades has more people on it than any other.

Any list of values that has a logical lower limit and no logical upper limit should be reported as a Median, because a high value in the list will skew the results - and the measure is subject to fluctuations that no longer represent what is typical.  If the CEO gets a payrise, the mean will increase, but the median won't change.  A median, therefore, is a more typical measure of what's typical in this case.

Depending on your data, different measures can tell you a different  story - and sometimes these stories are misleading.  That's what happens  when you report Salaries, Length of Service, or any other metric where there is a logical lower limit (usually zero) and no logical upper limit.  In those cases, averages are - well, pretty average.  This is also why House Prices use median: it's more representative of what's "typical", and less prone to wild fluctuations than the average.

Which one are you?

A great image found at New Old Stock, that (perhaps inadvertently) is an interesting take on team dynamics.  Which one of these people are you?

Image Source:

Image Source: