Does Google make us stupid?

Escher's Relativity in Lego by Andrew Simpsom from idigit_teddy via FlickrDoes the internet change our brain structure?

Nicholas Carr thinks so.  I must confess that I haven’t read his book.  I should but I imagine MRI scans could give us a definitive answeer.

I know a lot of people, such as appear on BBC Radio 4 would agree.

While we wait for hard neurophysiological evidence, I’ll suggest that this perception is an illusion.

  • Reading on the web is different.  Those who are very good at working with paper have had to go back to noobe status.  I can’t text (fast) either.  I type fast but I can’t text.  Learning anything takes time and of course, we protest when we have to go down a snake back to Go..  But the fact is our discomfort.  Our discomfort is not evidence that our brain will get scribbled.
  • I have become more impatient with long dense text.  Is that evidence that the internet shortens our attention span?  To this I answer, so?  Why should I wade through some wordy gobbley-gook.  Why not deliver the information more efficiently?  And for the information of those who have learned to wade through verbiage – this is not normal behavior!  We know attention wanders after 10 to 15 minutes.  We know managers have an average task time of 10 minutes.  (I didn’t say it ~ this is a classical result from Mintzberg). Doctors in Britain get 10 minutes from calling your name to returning you to reception.   If we realistically want to communicate with busy people we need to show them what they need in a flash.  Get over it!  We have the tools to communicate better.  Let’s try them.

The internet gives us better manners (well sometimes)

I am writing this post though to quite deliberately link to Dan Erwin who makes an important point.  The internet helps us understand that truth is not certain.

You have your opinion and I have mine.  Not because we cannot communicate but because see the world from slightly different places.  When we take both views into account, we have a fuller picture.

Gen Y have learned to look at a more complete picture through using the internet.  As a result, they should be better leaders and managers and doctors and artists.

Actually, not all of them learn that many views matter.  Some seem to think that if there are many views, any view is truth.

That’s not the case.  Every view is part of the truth.  Every view is valid but only part of the story.

In social science, we call this social constructionism.  In social activism, we call this diversity.  In appreciative inquiry, or positive organizational scholarship, we look for multiple voices and see what picture we make when we listen to all the voices.

I like the way Dan Erwin makes the point and I wrote a whole post so that I don’t lose the link!

It’s over! Not even cats are interested in mice, mazes and cheese. They haz an iPad!

Our changing times: interaction has got so easy the cats get it!

This is how much we have changed.

Baby Boomers:  Looked for the cheese.

Gen X:  Ask: who moved my cheese?

Gen Y: Looks for there mouse

Gen i:  Is polite to their elders and asks “What is a mouse?”

But you will have to be old to follow these references.  At least 2 years old anyway.

  • A year ago, we noticed kids automatically touch screens expecting them to be interactive.
  • Last week, YouTube trended a two year old ‘got’ the iPad within 30 seconds.

There is something profound in this sequence.  Cat’s play with iPad’s.  Mice? Cheese?

I suppose I am a little relieved.  I live in England and English cheeses are really good.  Cheeses are made to be enjoyed at the end of a long day in the company of friends. So maybe changes in the world order improve my lifestyle.  More cheese for me.

But change the world order has done.  The game of mice in mazes hunting cheese is over.  Not even the cats are interested now in mice, mazes and cheese.  They haz an iPad!

Oops! Should have bcc’d that email!

My first email newsletter  .   .  .

Last weekend, I set up the first email update for the members of Olney100, the community website that we run on the Ning platform for the town of Olney in England.

The broadcast facility in Ning doesn’t allow formatting, so I downloaded the membership list into a CSV file and imported it into my email.  After a hard afternoon designing the newsletter and trying to keep it short, useful and readable in 10 seconds, rather tired, I sent it out.  Oops! I put the group name into CC and not Bcc.

Data transmitted in error

Only one person wrote to complained, and one of course, was sufficient to alert me to the error of my ways.   My apologies.

Interestingly, one of the members also made this mistake this week in his business.  In his case, he had received an inquiry and he replied to everyone on his mailing list.  As it happened, the person making the inquiry was a competitor who was delighted to receive a list of qualified leads and promptly wrote to them all offering his services.

My young friend received a lot more complaints than U – 5% of his list.  His customers are generally younger than mine, and a lot more aware of the norms and law of the internet.

Dealing with data misuse

This is the way he responded.

1  He apologized immediately and unreservedly to his customers.

2  He checked the Data Protection Act and copied and pasted relevant portions into a ‘cease and desist’ notice which he sent to his competitor making it clear that is is an offense to make use of electronic data for purposes other than it was intended.

3  Then he thought some more and recalled that the impersonation of a consumer by a business is also an offense.

Internet laws are much stricter than people realize.  And so they should be.  The rules for driving a car are tighter than the rules for walking on the pavement.

How many dodgy firms will be called to account through internet law?

It strikes me that there may be a parallel between internet law and tax law.

Very few people know that crooks are required to pay tax on their ill-gotten gains and that equally, tax officials are bound over not to report our nefarious dealings to the police or any other authority!

Governments are generally quite zealous about collecting taxes and do inventive things, like audit drivers of flashy cars, the keepers of yachts and persons whose conspicuous consumption exceeds their declared income.   This leads to crooks, like Al Capone, being busted not for crookery, but for tax evasion.

It strikes me that firms who sail close to the line and entice people to purchase their services with false claims might similarly find themselves, not being busted for fraud, but being busted for trying same wide-boy behaviour on the internet.

Gen Y know the rules and will enforce them!

Sharp operators need to watch out.  Gen Y are quite savvy and know the rules!

Have you seen any dodgy activity around electronic data recently?

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2nd tip for looking at the future value of professional qualifications

Olney Snow Feb 2 2009 Family Lunch at Much Ado...
Image by joolney via Flickr

Doing well by doing good

On January 21st, just in time to see the inauguration, I connected up the wi-fi at Much Ado, my favourite deli and cafe in Olney.  We watched Obama’s inauguration and the owner of Much Ado, Matt Prosky, was so inspired, he invested in a brand new netbook so customers are able to check their emails while they have coffee.  Bliss!

Today, I followed up what seemed to be a surprising bill from BT and with the help of James in Glasgow, we ended the afternoon by reducing Much Ado’s bill for internet services by 400 pounds (about USD600) – that is 400 pounds less than what they paid before they offered their customers wi-fi!  So they’ve recouped their investment in the netbook by twice over!

I love it.  Much Ado did right by their customers, and gained.

Good business does not mean being tight

So many people in business confuse controlling costs with being mean and cut-throat.

Of course, it is really important to control costs in businesses – we all know that.  When margins are as low as 3 or 5%, which they often are in retail (or even less), taking care of the pennies does indeed take care of the pounds.  I go even further.  I think controlling costs is an act of beauty.  It is almost as a form of reverence and worship, as I heard a lecturer in Islamic finance say on Radio 4.  It’s fun to plan a job of work and to execute it smoothly and within budget.

But controlling costs isn’t a matter of being “tight”.  Businesses do well when they do good. Business do well when they create value and wealth.

How will the internet affect businesses?

I’ve been puzzling over my own challenge to think through the impact of the internet on my profession. It is hard.  I like the idea of branding work with flowers.  I chose a red carnation for myself, meaning I carry a torch for you.

A second technique might be to do something for free just because you believe in it.  That helps us find the core of our business – though possibly a coach would help you see it more easily (I’m not touting here – I am strictly entrepreneurial ).

My favourite deli doesn’t offer wi-fi per se.  They offer hospitality shaped by the place and time in which they work.

What you do for free is probably your competitive edge

What do you do for free because you know it is right?

That’s probably the ‘competitive edge’ that distinguishes you from non-professionals who offer a similar service.  That’s probably the subterranean skill which underpins your profession.

If you can tell me what you do for free, then I can ask the next question.   How do we express that skill in the days of the internet?

Yes this works.  How can a psychologist, for example, express commitment to their clients with internet mediated services?

What do you do for free because you know that it is right?

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Who will earn more and who will earn less because of the internet?

Is the internet good for you?

Was it this week that we had the media telling us that Facebook would give us cancer?  And a professor telling us that the internet makes us scatty?

Well, I won’t go where angels fear to tread, but I do know this.  The world has changed in a fundamental way and it is very important THAT YOU GET IT!

The internet has changed the way we make a living and before you go off and spend 5 to 10 years getting a qualification and doing low paid jobs to get experience, have a look at the business model of the profession you are entering.  Will your profession survive the intenet?

And don’t ask recruiters and HR officers either.  They rarely know the answers.

Ask experienced people who are responsible for strategy in their field and don’t join up unless they can ask clearly!  Invite people who have a hig profile in your future career to talk to your school, university or service club, and ask the questions you need to ask!

Managing risk

At the heart of any profession or occupation is the management of risk – yep that thing that bankers didn’t seem to understand.

Very simply, we cannot know everything in the world and when we have an unfamiliar decision to make, we turn to professionals for advice – doctors, lawyers, teachers, plumbers, and even, bankers.  Even my lowly purchase of a loaf of bread at the supermarket is the purchase of advice.  I am trusting my supermarket to sell me something wholesome and good at a reasonable price.

But how do we know who we can trust?

We have several mechanisms.

  • First is a system of licenses.  A body, like the British Medical Association gives a doctor a practising certificate, for example, to indicate the doctor has the training and knowledge that we expect.
  • Second is a system of audits & inspections.  Chartered Accountants like KPMG and Deloittes check the financial affairs of a business and tell us if it is a going concern.
  • Third is the business model itself.  Newspapers, for example, would verify information is correct before they printed it and it was for that verification that we would pay a shilling or a dollar for our paper, though we often felt that we were buying the content.  They are motivated to get information correct so they stay in business.

The internet adds another way to manage risk

The internet has changed the game of business, and importantly the careers available to us, because it adds, among other things, an additional way to manage risk.  This additional mechanism for managing risk affects how consumers get advice and who gets paid for giving advice.

  • Google Search, for example, allows us to pull up information from all over the world in the blink of an eye.  For many particularly simple matters, we can find information for free and save ourselves the fees of professional advice.  Knowledge has become more easily available and much cheaper.
  • Twitter provides recommendations with equal speed and allows customers to speak to each other. The wisdom of crowds gives us assurances that previously were only available from auditors and inspectors.
  • Blogs, YouTube, Flickr make us all citizen journalists.  Collecting and transmitting data is now so cheap and easy that events like a plane ditching in the Hudson are transmitted as they happen.  No paper or TV service can report events so quickly.

But there is so much rubbish on the internet

Indeed there is.  And it is very important to treat the information for what it is.  IT IS NOT information provided with a stamp of approval from a professional body or a well established business.

This is frightening for many people.  And so it will be until they think clearly about what is happening and act accordingly.

We have two tasks therefore.

  • First, understand how to verify information on the internet.
  • Second, to understand how the internet changes the value of various professions and how much people in those professions will earn in the future.

A lot of people write about the first task.  I am interested in the second.

How does the internet change the value of various careers and the salary you can expect to earn?

Whether you are in a profession or ‘old school organization’, or if you are changing careers and thinking about your next move, these are the questions that I think you should ask.

5 questions to ask about the value of information in your profession or organization

1   Why did you want to go into this career?

When you chose this career, what value did you believe you would add to the world?  Why did you undertake the qualifications instead of just opening up your business?  What did the qualifications teach you that cannot be taught elsewhere and freely on the internet?  How are the systems of knowledge maintained so the knowledge of your profession is deeper and more valuable that information on the internet? To what extent is the profession protected artificially and will these artificial barriers be stripped away by the internet?

2  How do you maintain integrity?

What are the promises that your profession makes to the public and are these promises genuine?  For example, do you send someone to jail for breaking these promises?  What areas of malpractice does the profession look out for?  How do you check that your core promises are being honoured?  When your customers are able to talk directly to each other, what aspects of your service can they inspect better than you can? If they are able to check themselves, of what value is your guarantee?  What aspects can they not check and is the responsibility of your profession?

3  What does your online profile say?

Are you on professional groups like Facebook, Twittter, LinkedIn and Xing?  If we Google your name, can we find you?  What issues are Googled by your clients/customers/patients and what do they find? How do you maintain your profile?  How good is your understanding of information traffic on the internet and the way Google chooses what to show people?  How is your profession learning about the internet and the way it is developing?  How is your profession managing the conversation about the internet among your members?

4  What is your ‘authority’ on the risk management issues which have been the basis of your profession?

What are the issues on which your profession is expert, experienced and willing to help other people, albeit for a fee?  Who in the internet world defers to your opinion and how do they link to you?  How does your profession monitor your online authority?  How do you manage your online authority?  How do you manage the way one member of your profession competes with another for internet domination?  How do you ensure that your clients/customers/patients get access to well debated information and ‘honest authority’, so to speak?

5  How do you help your customers/clients/patients find the information they need and make intelligent choices?

What choices are your customers/clients/patients making on a daily basis?  What information do they use?  What do they search for?  How does information find them and are they able to process it safely and to their advantage?  How has the internet changed this process? And how have those changes, and ongoing changes, changed the basis of your business model?  How you make a living, in other words, and how future members of your profession will make a living?

Your comments?

This is the first time I’ve written about these issues.  So I’d be very interested in your views – or comments – or indeed questions.

How do you think the internet changes our work and our long-term potential to make a living?

What questions should we be asking leaders of professions and encouraging our young people to ask before they invest in an expensive training?

Should you google a candidate in a selection exercise?

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There is much talk about whether employers google candidates, whether they should google candidates and whether it is legal to google candidates.

As a work psychologist, whose original speciality was personnel psychology, I know heaps about selection. So I ask the question differently. What are we hoping to gain?

Yes, before I meet someone, I look them up on the internet. Before I go to a job interview, I know more about the interviewers than they realize. But if I were the interviewer, would I look up the candidate? I am afraid not, and this is why.

The art of selection is

  • to identify variables on which we vary reliably
  • and to identify which of those, correlate with difference in job performance.

To find anything that varies with job performance, we must be first find out what variations there are in job performance that are themselves reliable and meaningful.

Collecting information on people ad nauseum just clutters the process. If you want to use Google and Facebook in selection, you need to show me that what you are looking at is reliable and relevant.

Otherwise you are gossiping. Harsh words, I know, but go back to the numbers.

We deal with weak effects. Generally we deal with effect sizes of around 0.2 or 0.3 and we account for 4-9% of variance on the job. The grandest claims are 25%. Muddy that prediction and you are left with nothing but randomness. Moreover, you are likely to create adverse impact (select on a like-me basis and open your company up to valid charges of discrimination).

In selection, we stick to variables that we know are relevant to job performance and that we can measure reliably. If it cannot be done, then it cannot be done. That is the professional and ethical position.

So, what are we really worried about?

People aren’t daft. So, what is going on when we try to select minutely?

Organizations take people and make them live in closer proximity than if they were married. Anxiety goes up. Is this going to be heaven, or is it going to be hell? And if I am the manager, will I be held accountable for the outcome?

My answer is not to make the selection process more complicated. There is nothing to gain. If something is not predictable, then it is not predictable.

Rather put we should put our energy into managing the relationship.

  • Improve the working conditions.
  • Improve the job design to set clear boundaries.
  • Set up communication systems
  • Train
  • And coach ‘on demand’ (I mean it – be on call).

Above all, attend to why the manager is so anxious. Why do they believe they will be blamed? Most likely because there is no common ethos on what performance it is reasonable to expect. It would be better to work on the collective understanding of what is reasonable and to lower tensions all round.

  • We need HR people who understand job performance and what variations are manageable.
  • We need HR people who can be close to the work team and help them with the ‘pressure cooker’ existence of living in far too close physical proximity.
  • We need HR people who can grow the understanding of what is manageable and what needs to be worked through.
  • We need HR people who are credible because they focus our attention successfully on what can be done.

Will candidates look us up on the internet? I do hope so. Will they have Facebook profiles? I do hope so. Will they have a life outside work? I really do hope so.

But that is nothing to do with selection. In selection we deal with what is predictable. If it is not predictable, then exclude it from the selection process!

A place for everything and everything in its place.  There is a lot more to HR, management and leadership than selection.

UPDATE:  There are two other considerations to make when we use ambient data to make decisions about people.  First, remember issues of privacy.  If you look, you will record.  What did you record and do you have the person’s permission?  Second, employment is about a relationship.  Build one!  Use professionals to do the cold work of making probabilistic predictions on reliable factors.  You get going on building a warm, normal and trusting relationship.

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