Kienco Blog

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

Forget 3D Printing - Skype Translator might be the disruptive technology of our time

Forget 3D Printing - Skype Translator might be the disruptive technology of our time

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, written in 1978, features an animal called the Babel fish - “small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe… if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language”.  

The etymology is from Genesis and The Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9).  In that passage, all of humanity had a common language - and using that language decided that they would build a city with a tower that reached to the heavens.  As this was a threat to divinity, they were scattered and their language confused:

If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them.  Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”- Genesis 11:6-7

I’ve been using Google Translate for years now to communicate with family in South America (to say my Spanish is limited would be generous), and it’s a fascinating case study in Big Data.  But I’ve been also following Microsoft Research’s work in this space since their early preview of the technology on the Microsoft Research blog.  What they have been working on is a powerful combination of three major technology advancements:

  1. Speech to Text;
  2. Automated Translation; and
  3. Text to Speech.

When you join these three technologies and add them into a well-adopted communications technology, you have a babel fish - and Microsoft has announced that they’ll be launching one n the form of “Skype Translator”, which will translate spoken languages in close to real time.  (And answer the question about why Microsoft bought Skype).

I talk and think a lot about disruptive technologies and the future of work, and it strikes me that a common theme in these technologies is that they are removing artificial barriers to location, time, cost, or access.  A true babel fish would remove all of them.  Although there are technologies that I believe will change a swath of industries over the coming years - 3D Printing, robotics, artificial intelligence, and big data amongst them - it’s possible that at a global scale, removing global language barriers might yield the most profound changes of all of these.

The convergence of these technologies with online labor platforms and remote work make a truly global workforce possible, if not likely - how will it affect your organisation?  What about your life?  Let's go back to that quote from Genesis - "nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them."  Technologies like this truly open up new possibilities for people, organisations, and society.

p.s. You can see a video of Microsoft Translator in action here, and sign up for the early preview here.

Picture: The Booth, Ryan Maguire

Update: Techcrunch reports that the invite-only preview opens today

Balancing Analytics and Futuring in Strategic Workforce Planning

Balancing Analytics and Futuring in Strategic Workforce Planning

Health Workforce New Zealand has today released two Workforce Planning reports, "Health of the Health Workforce 2013-2014" and "The Role of Health Workforce New Zealand".  Particularly interesting in these reports is the recognition that traditional approaches to Workforce Planning don't work in the context of a changing external environment:

Traditional workforce forecasting will not serve us well when we plan for a workforce to meet this demand. Experience shows that it is unhelpful to try to estimate the number of health practitioners the system will need because precise calculations are invariably wrong. When projections base demand on existing workforce models, they predict a health care system that is increasingly unaffordable and difficult to sustain.
— Ministry of Health. 2014. The Role of Health Workforce New Zealand.

Today across a swath of industries, rapidly evolving technologies, workforce dynamics, and consumer dynamics means that simply extrapolating existing trends is not enough: all of the data we have is about the past, but all of the decisions we make are about the future.  That's why in order to put the "Strategic" into "Strategic Workforce Planning", you need to apply futuring techniques like environment scanning and scenario planning alongside workforce analytics.

Health Workforce New Zealand's reports can be found at

This time, it's Personnel - now on Amazon

This time, it's Personnel - now on Amazon

The sequel to the international bestseller Humane, Resourced is called "This Time, its Personnel" and is now on sale for digital download on the Amazon store here.  In a few short days, the book has already become the top selling UK HR book.

The book has been edited by David D'Souza, with foreword by Linda Gratton, Professor of Management Practice at the London Business School and a well-known futurist.  The book features a collection of blog posts from Human Resources thought leaders around the globe, including my very good friends Christopher Demers from Texas ("the happiest man on LinkedIn"); Amanda Sterling and Tash Pieterse of #NZLEAD from New Zealand; and Hassannah Rudd (like all good things from New Zealand, now claimed by Australia).  I am honoured to have authored one of the chapters too.

All proceeds from book sales go to charities chosen by the contributors.  I hope you enjoy it. 

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!