The Blessed Typo

I had occasion this week to query an order from Amazon. I was sent a notice of dispatch for something I had not ordered. I did the usual checks to make sure the account had not been compromised, and set about querying the order and organising a return.

And so it began.

A few years ago, there was some interesting research into the notion of the uncanny valley. The dissonance that occurs as you become unsure whether you’re conversing with an algorithm, or a person.

The system is efficient – you know the routine. Then you get to the part where you have a non standard problem, and a chat box opens. The responses were efficient, but mechanical and I found myself wondering what I was conversing with. It’s a strange feeling, wanting the reassurance of being paid attention to rather than being efficiently processed.

And then – A TYPO!! – and a quick correction.

Algorithms don’t do typos. Algorithms don’t do vulnerable.

The whole tenor of the exchange altered. I was dealing with a human somewhere. It changed the nature of my questions (have you noticed how we fall into “machine speak” in chat situations?) which in turn changed my host responses. I got a satisfactory result to my issue, and felt acknowledged.

There is a space – a liminal space – between things – notes of music, responses in a conversation, gaps between thoughts. They are hugely powerful – they contain the all the emotions from fear to joy that will determine what happens next.

As yet, algorithms don’t do liminal space. They respond, but don’t leave space for empathy.

AI will have a huge impact, but we need to recognise context.

When I have a non standard problem, I don’t want a more senior algorithm, I want a human. And I want to know I’m conversing with one.

The Fire Carrier

Every business is started for a reason, and whilst making a profit is a key factor, it is rarely the causal factor. Most of us who have started businesses have done so as a result of an inspiration, an idea, a cause, or perhaps because we want to make a mark. Whatever the reason, it’s at the heart of the business. It’s the spark.

As the business grows, it changes. We recruit people who weren’t in at the beginning. We adopt processes to make life more efficient, but maybe a little less personal. We end up with important customers, suppliers and investors and shape our business to their needs. The business becomes professionalised.

The spark remains, but the business develops more and more layers that bury it deeper.

Before long, the balance changes. The business becomes distant from the spark that generated it and it becomes an end in itself, rather than means to an end. The business can become the master, rather than the servant.

The spark remains for a while, and can always be brought back to life if attention is paid to it.

Attention is a distictly human attribute – it suggests engagement and curiosity. A sense of being seen and acknowledged. It fans the spark.

The North American Indian Tribes always had a “fire carrier” – a senior member of the tribe whose role was to carry the embers of the campfire to the new campsite when the tribe moved on, in order to start the next fire and keep the original fire alive.

Maybe we can learn from that. Our businesses move on to new areas, but unless somebody is carrying the fire, the spark will go out.

Who’s your fire carrier?

Working for what?

I’ve found myself increasingly curious about how changes in technology (particularly AI) will affect the way we work.

There are forecasts that suggest around 50% of routine jobs might be replaced by technology by 2050. Like all forecasts, the likelihood it will be wrong does not distract from the direction of travel we are headed in.

So, I have found myself wondering about how we work, and put the graphic below to help me think.

In some domains, we work to live, are compliant with what the boss requires of us, providing she fulfils her part and pays us adequately. If it pays well enough, and we are motivated by money, we move to ever greater competency, even mastery of our subject. We may not hold bankers in high regard, but there’s no doubting they are clever, masterful people.

On the other hand, we all know people who are driven by something more profound than money. They work in all sorts of sectors, not least teaching, nursing, and the charity sector. Some are complaint, doing what is asked of them in support of what they believe in, whilst some are revolutionaries in the making. People who become iconoclasts, genuises even, in pursuit of what they believe for its own sake.

If the Oxford report (link above) is anything like right, it looks like the jobs most at risk are on the right hand side of the graphic – whether low level routine jobs, or currently highly paid knowledge intensive jobs that are largely routine in nature (A lot of the legal and accountancy professions)

It raises the question – if those jobs go, how do we get people who work on the right hand side over to the left hand side? To contribute to the greater good? (It’s true of course that we all spend different amounts of our own time in the different sectors depending on our circumstances. It’s more difficult to be a “lefty” when there’s a mortgage to pay and children to support – but it doesn’t last forever.)

How do we create the opportunities and support to help people spend more time, as the opportunities present, on the left hand side?

The answer has major implications for the way we educate and train those coming into the workforce. At present, we still do it like our economies will continue to operate as they do now. We can be pretty sure they won’t.

We have an ageing workforce in the UK, so opportunities to “go left” seem likely, although the way some organisations in the left hand side (e.g. third sector) may have a long way to go to be attractive to people who have both time and choice.

I was talking with a senior executive in a financial institution recently. They had a concern about the rate at which automation would erode routine jobs, giving them a large chunk of people to potentially be made redundant, at an enormous cost, financially and reputationally.

We face potentially momentous changes, the answer to which will not be to “tweak” the current operating models.

This is a big deal. I’d be really interested to know what you think, and what you’re noticing.