Friday, 27 May 2016

Launching MARGINALIA, the Future of Work Magazine

Today, I am delighted to announce the launch of MARGINALIA, the brand new online magazine on the future of work.

Here’s what you can expect from MARGINALIA:

1) Insights that will help you…
2) The latest developments to help you stay ahead…
3) Stories which will inspire you…

The publication examines the new ecosystems of work through the lens of innovation, communication and leadership.

The section on innovation explores the impact of new technology on new ways of working, the human-machine relationship, digital transformation, the interplay between enterprises and startups, and the emergence of new business models.

Communication explores the world of internal communications, employee advocacy, the digital workplace, enterprise social networks and mobile communications.

Leadership covers the topics of leadership, employee engagement, strategy, diversity, entrepreneurship, and productivity.

Ultimately, the mission of MARGINALIA is to navigate and examine the complex yet fascinating nature of work during one of perhaps the most challenging, yet fascinating and exciting times to be – and work – on earth.

On MARGINALIA, readers will find long-form articles, companies case studies, people profiles, news, how to features, event and book reviews.

Ensure you subscribe to MARGINALIA newsletter to stay current on your favourite topics and receive the best stories on a weekly basis. You can also subscribe to the feed here.

Many thanks...

Warmest regards,
Gloria

Friday, 20 May 2016

A glimpse into the future of business communications

“Future Fit Communications: Connecting trends, strategies & actions” This lively event was hosted by the International Association of Business Communications (IABC) UK this week. Gloria Lombardi reports.

By Gloria Lombardi

Communicating the soul of the business matters more than ever.

Futurist Matt O'Neill was one of the speakers who shared their experiences at “Future Fit Communications: Connecting trends, strategies & actions.” This lively event was hosted by IABC UK at the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in London this week.

For O'Neill, the soul of a company is going to become an important part of what business communicators will focus on in the future.

From a communicator's point of view, there are at least three big questions that O'Neill suggests considering: How will this company change lives? Why should people trust us? And, from an individual's perspective, how will working for this company enhance my personal and professional goals?

Indeed, one of the reasons for reflecting on O'Neill suggestions is the shift in values that we are witnessing in our society. This shift is in part influenced by the new generation of workers. O'Neill cited the Deloitte Millennial Survey 2016, which indicates that 87% of Gen Y employees are looking for purpose when selecting an employer. Surely, “something more than just performance.” And, while pay and benefits are still the dominant factor, 56% of Millennials would refuse to work for a company because of their values.

Yet, some fundamental changes will come from the top. A good example is a shift from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism that some leaders have started to embrace. This new form of capitalism looks at sustainability from the lens of all of a company's stakeholders as opposed to some narrow and limiting sustainability practices.

The power of visuals

People remember 80% of visual communications. They only remember 20% of what is read.

The move from text to visualisation that O'Neill liked to emphasise is back up by research. According to Cisco Visual Networking index 2016, 75% of all mobile traffic will be video by 2020. 67% of all connected mobile devices will be 'smart.' But perhaps, even more curious is the fact that connectivity is creating new forms of visual media. These include 3D imagery such as Holographic and Lenticular.

Additionally, we are witnessing “the growth of DIY visual tools.” Good examples are Vizualise.me, which allows people to create an infographic of their CV in one click, and Canva.com, which is enabling anyone without design skills to produce presentations and quality graphics. Worth mentioning is also Typorama - it was the 5th most downloaded app in the Photo and Video category last year. Typorama is letting “people with literally zero experience design something really compelling.”

Lastly, O'Neill brought to attention the enormous amount of data that we create every day. Hence, the emergence and need of real-time data visualisation tools to help us make sense of the complex world we are living. A good example is Google Music timeline.

Artificial Intelligence

The topic of Artificial Intelligence (AI) could not be missed from a presentation about the future of communication. In fact, the phenomenon is appealing not just to professionals in technology, but to communicators. Just think of the impact that AI is having on news gathering and reporting.

O'Neill mentioned the Mediamass.net project, the satirical site that uses the power of algorithms to generate entirely fake news and articles in the name of humour. Indeed, there is seriousness into something that has been put as a joke!

However, AI could be used to help organisations operate better, and intelligently. In fact, the technology can process data for pattern discovery, make inferences, discern contexts, learn and improve over time. As startup advisor Steve Ardire told me in a recent interview, Al could help communicators make sense of the conversations happening on enterprise social networks (ESN).

Mind the mind

cLet's make looking after our mind as natural as brushing our teeth.

The presentation by Andy Gibson of Mindapples centred on having open conversations around mental health at work. And the importance of improving the language when addressing this topic.

In fact, inside many organisations, mental health is still seen as a sort of taboo. Something to avoid discussing. But Gibson believes that the human mind is the most sophisticated tool in the whole nature. Each of us is in charge of one. Yet, half of the time it feels as if it is in charge of us. So, “we need to take the power back.”

Indeed, he asked the audience: “What's the 5-a-day of your mind?” He encouraged people to understand that “it starts with you."

After all, there are good reasons why we should talk more about stress at work. First, stress is bad for our health. It redirects energy that people would otherwise spend on recharging and resting.

Another good reason is that stress affects decision-making, risk-taking, and creativity. We become less creative when we are under stress. Indeed, as Gibson put it: “Stress is a great way to get intelligent people do stupid things.”

And, stress impacts on employee engagement. Negatively. In fact, we often hear that “a little bit of stress is good for you.”

But Gibson pointed out that we need to talk about how people feel in the workplace. Not just about how they perform. Because “people who are engaged but still stressed, ultimately burn out.”

Friday, 13 May 2016

Virtual Reality – new skills required

Gloria Lombardi catches up with Piers Harding-Rolls, the Director and Head of Games Research at IHS Technology, to explore the current state of virtual reality at work.

By Gloria Lombardi

Mention the words “Virtual Reality” and images of people wearing funky headsets, enclosed in an animated world and waving their hands around instantly come to mind! And of course Hollywood producers have captivated audiences by transporting them from the real world to the virtual world.

But how far is Virtual Reality (VR) a reality for organisations? How far, if at all, has it made the leap from celluloid to genuine usefulness in the day to day worklife of employees?

To get a take on the state of Virtual Reality I spoke with Piers Harding-Rolls, the Director and Head of Games Research at IHS Technology.

Virtual Reality challenges

According to Harding-Rolls there are at least three things that need to come into alignment before we reach a broader adoption of VR.

First, is the headset hardware. It needs to be developed further to improve the people experience with the technology. “All headsets today have deficiencies which will slowly be overcome. We are heading towards stand alone headsets which are self-powered rather than tethered to a PC or console, or using a smartphone.” But, he also emphasises that it will take a number of years to get there. Indeed, the usual suspects are well positioned to take advantage as the market emerges. This includes Samsung Gear, Sony PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and, of course, Facebook with the popular Oculus.

Second, the pricing of this more advanced technology needs to be at a lower level. Hence, not limiting the use by the average consumer. “Pricing for high-end headsets at the moment are too high for this.” Cheap adaptor headsets such as the Google Cardboard are, of course, more accessible, but “they have their limitations in terms of the VR experience.”

Third, there needs to be “compelling content”. It will take time to develop successful content, especially outside of the games offering. “Not one company leads in the application space as content is significantly behind the roll out of VR headsets.”

Indeed, people have already started experimenting with demos, affordable VR apps and 360 video content. But, “the market needs premium content to drive adoption.”

Social VR experiences

When asked how VR will transform the way people communicate, Harding-Rolls says that “a majority of early content will be single player/user. And, people will be immersed and locked away when using VR.”

Yet, he also expects “social content” to become more widespread over the next couple of years. This will enable people to connect more powerfully with others in virtual environments. “Based on my experience,” he says “multi-user experiences - or shared experiences - will become a really powerful component of virtual reality.”

In fact, VR offers companies outside the games sector a chance to create immersive content that is interactive. At its simplest, this means being able to rotate your head 360 degrees.

But Harding-Rolls expects the interactivity to become more complex over time: “In this new emerging content area, which sits in the middle ground between linear video and highly interactive games, I expect new genres of content to spring up as companies start to experiment.”




New VR skills required

Several industries are supporting the use of Virtual Reality. Harding-Rolls sees it making niche inroads into areas such as health, design and education. But, the biggest application, in volume terms, will be in entertainment.

This is going to have profound impact on the competencies required by the future workforce. In fact, as the technology is entering the workplace, he believes that “investing in VR content development expertise and skills, will add value to your company."

But, which skills need to be developed exactly?

Cutting edge production skills that brings together traditional video editing and effects skills, and marry them with games production technologies. “That means skills to develop content in games engines.”

Other areas where we are still at the beginning of the learning curve are storytelling in VR, marketing of VR content, analytics usage in VR content, and monetisation of VR content.



Creation of new jobs

Will VR create new jobs? Or, transform some of them? Probably, the answer is yes. In fact, “there is already a burgeoning start-up industry related to VR, which cover a wide number of applications and parts of the value chain,” explains Harding-Rolls.

Indeed, major movie studios and advertising agencies are already working with some of those VR start-ups to create experimental content at this stage. “This allows them to learn about the production process, and the challenges of working in VR. Plus, to discover what works and doesn't work in VR content.”

Ultimately, he believes that this is a suitable way to test the market and “to start training an internal workforce through practical experiences.”

Conclusions

Given that we are already seeing companies experimenting with Virtual Reality at work, organisations shouldn't dismiss the potential opportunity offered by the technology. Indeed, VR has its own challenges and current limitations to overcome, and it will take years to reach a more mature phase.

It is, however, one more reason to recognize the growing importance of this phenomenon as developers and investors are betting on it. Indeed, it is entirely possible that it will become part of the way businesses communicate in the future, not just sharing social VR experiences with their customers but also internally with their staff!

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photos 1 and 3 credit: VR - Mobile World Congress 2016 via photopin (license)

Friday, 6 May 2016

Reimagining business meetings

Gloria Lombardi discovers how new technology is disrupting the ways businesses conduct meetings, so that decisions are made faster and employees can collaborate easily across time zones.

By Gloria Lombardi

The humble business meeting is a much derided part of most people’s work life. Typically business meetings are criticized as poorly managed, inordinately long and amphitheaters where egos flourish! Of course it would be a gross misrepresentation to characterise all meetings as a waste of time and where only the big beasts in companies have the final say!

But, it looks as though new technology may shake up how employees exchange information, collaborate and generally get things done.

Over the past few years, companies have started to mobilise their communications to solve business problems - from sharing content on online environments to collaborating remotely in the field.

But, the need for employees to have agile and flexible working environments has also driven advances in unified communications. Audio, web and video collaboration services have expanded to meet the demand of organisations to be more responsive in order to adapt and thrive in changing environments. Indeed, today, a meeting in some companies has become much more than a 30-minute group-call.  Just think of how easily colleagues can join a conference through their mobile from anywhere in the world. So far, so obvious.

As offices environments become increasingly technology-enabled, it is likely that we will see an up-take in new types of immersive interactions. In fact, interactive screens, virtual reality, and 3D experiences are already part of some workplaces. And fundamentally, they are creating new dynamics between the physical and digital working environments.

New tech companies are responding to the changing needs of business - Oblong Industries is one such enterprise. They are the creators of an immersive visual collaboration solution called Mezzanine. I recently visited the Oblong Industries office in London to experience Mezzanine and explore how it can support workplace collaboration.

Extending the physical office environment

The platform extends the physical office environment and meeting room across screens, devices and geographies. Launched in 2012, it is relatively new. Yet, it's the end result of many years of development – going back as far as the 1990s when wide spread use of the internet was just emerging. In fact, the founder John Underkoffler conceptualised the interface in 1996.  When at MIT, he worked with Steven Spielberg on the now iconic User Interface (UI) for the film "Minority Report". He then took the concept of a spatial UI into business. The aim was to help teams of people access multiple sources of information for collaboration. Hence, Oblong and the product Mezzanine.

Today, large corporates worldwide such as IBM, Accenture, NASA, Hitachi, Dentsu Aegis Network and Boeing use Mezzanine. 

Infopresence

Steve Pryor, a Director of EMEA Channel Sales at Mezzanine, shows me the equipment. We are sitting in an unconventional meeting room which displays three big screens and a whiteboard on the walls. “These working areas use 'infopresence' to connect with and synchronise the content across multiple rooms from anywhere.”

What's infopresence? “Infopresence is a term that describes the experience of being immersed as a group in your vital content and data in a room or across locations,” he explains.  In fact, the system links the screens together with a gestural control and via a network of sensors that fit throughout the room.

For example, if someone in the room writes notes on the whiteboard, Pryor can capture them by just pointing at them with a gestural control. He takes a snapshot of the whiteboard and then simultaneously places it on one screen. That way he is sharing the notes in real time with the colleagues who are joining the meeting from other rooms. At the same time, participants from the other locations can share their own content or change the material displayed on the screens. Ultimately, “co-creating the agenda of the meeting as if they were all side by side.”

As you would expect nowadays, the technology supports Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). So, people can access the material, change it and contribute to the conversations from their personal devices.

But Mezzanine's capacity to connect teams does not stop there. The platform allows them to work on many streams of information at the same time – from slide presentations to videos and social media streams, the content can be zoomed in or out. To do that, a tracking system on the ceiling knows when someone is pointing to some specific content or whether their are moving it in and out, or up and down on the screens. Ultimately, the technology becomes a sort of canvas that keeps teams visually engaged and informed.

It would be nice if the technology could also offer a chat function. But, Pryor says “that there are other ways people can capture information, such as sticky notes. Also, we typically answer the questions live. Don't forget that anyone is participating in the meeting not only visually but also via audio-video track. So you can just ask a question and react to that.” 

Business benefits

As ever with new technology, it has to deliver business benefits. So, what might the return on investment be? Perhaps, the best way to answer is by examining how some companies have achieved tangible benefits.

The system seems to be particularly successful within the consulting industry, which itself is driven by helping their clients to transform themselves. “Consulting companies are usually innovative and forward-thinking. They are already changing the way they work and seeing the business value.”

Take for example, PwC – one of the big four consulting companies. The Paris offices used the technology to create a conferencing workspace called the Delta Room. The initiative was part of  the ‘Innovation powered by PwC’, a program that supports the company’s commitment to exploring future business trends.

So far, the Delta Room has been used to speed up decision making, generate fresh thinking as well as support the strategic thought process with clients. The space provides a gesture-based interface for a 3D experience. And, its interior design easily adapts to different group dynamics and types of meetings.

According to PwC Associate Anne-Christine Marie, after the initial novelty, their clients became used to the unconventional layout and better appreciated the innovative interface. “It gives us a new approach to sharing, going beyond the technology and allowing us to contextualise visual data quickly in co-creating strategies.”

But, there are other use cases including the construction industry – for instance Network Rail in the UK. They are using Mezzanine for planning and decision-making across their signals division. When they have a problem with a track, they send an engineer on the field to live stream the area with a head camera. Other engineers will also provide high resolutions drawings and photos. The signals team access all that live information in real-time from their office. They can then discuss the problem and make more informed, instant decisions. Ultimately, solving the issue quicker and minimisg disruption to commuter trains. 

Moving forward

What Oblong proves, is that system providers are doing their job to build a more integrated experience inside companies. Interactive tools have already started to enable effective communications and collaboration among remote offices and teams. And, most probably this area of technology is likely to improve.

Indeed, there is no one-size-fits all. As ever, organisations will find the best solution that reflects their unique needs.

But, increasingly, holding meetings in an immersive environment is a distinct possibility for the future of work. In that scenario, the workplace will feel like a completely seamless experience between the virtual and real environment. So perhaps the humble meeting will be given a new lease of life!

Friday, 29 April 2016

Creating new business models through data

By Gloria Lombardi

Big data is, of course, not a new concept. Yet, it is a loose, often confusing, grab-bag term that encompasses many manifestations. Today, it also seems to disappear in favor of SMART Data.   

But, author Bernard Marr beautifully translates this complex subject into something that anyone can understand. In “Big Data in Practice,” he offers insight and real-life examples from some of the most successful businesses of the 21st Century. Through the stories of 45 leading companies, Marr makes the case for delivering extraordinary results out of data. Ultimately, transforming the way businesses work.

With so many use cases, the choice of which story to review was not the easiest to make.
I opted for LinkedIn and Uber since they offer excellent clues on the future of work and communication. Was it worth? Let's see together.

LinkedIn 

I particularly liked the LinkedIn story. Marr wonderfully captures both the benefits and the challenges of the company in leading to big growth through analytics. Big data is key to the way the largest professional social network in the world works. They track every click, page view and interactions of their 414 million members! This, is necessary in order “to ensure their site remains an essential tool for busy professionals, helping them become more productive and successful,” explains Marr.


The company uses machine-learning techniques to make better suggestions for its users, such as “people you may know”. Marr offers an example: “Say LinkedIn regularly gave you suggestions for people you may know who work at Company A (which you worked at eight years ago) and Company B (which you worked at two years ago). If you almost never click on the profiles of people from Company A but regularly check out the suggestions from Company B, LinkedIn will prioritize Company B in their suggestions going forward.” Ultimately, enabling people to build the networks that work best for them.



LinkedIn uses real-time stream processing technology to offer the most updated information. For example, notifications on who started a new job, or useful articles that contacts liked, shared and posted.



Inside LinkedIn


The author gives us an interesting picture of the internal environment that LinkedIn built. They have an impressive team of data scientists who work to improve LinkedIn products and solve problems for members. These employees also publish at major conferences and contribute to the open-source community. And the company encourage them to pursue research in many areas - from  computational advertising to text mining and sentiment analysis.


Marr also describes the changes in the organisational structure. “From a company that employed fewer than 1000 employees five years ago, LinkedIn have grown to employ almost 9000 people. This places an enormous demand on the analytics team. Perhaps in response to this, LinkedIn recently reorganised their data science team so that the decision sciences part (which analyses data usage and key product metrics) now comes under the company CFO, while the product data science part (which develops the features that generate masses of data analysis) is now part of engineering. As such, data science is now more integrated than ever at LinkedIn, with analysts becoming more closely aligned with company functions.”

Marr considers the hiring challenges too. In 2015, the company were looking to hire over 100 data scientists, a 50% increase from the previous year. But, competition is tough even for a giant like LinkedIn. And, “although more people are entering the field [of big data analytics], it's likely this skills gap – where demand for data scientists outstrips supply – will continue for a few years yet.”

Transparency of communication

Throughout the book, the author makes the case for transparency of communication when using individuals' data. For example, he describes the privacy backlash that LinkedIn faced last year. “In June 2015, the company agreed to pay $13 million to settle a class action lawsuit resulting from sending multiple email invitations to users' contact lists. As a result of the settlement, LinkedIn will now explicitly state that their “Add Connections” tool imports address books. And the site will allow those who use the tool to select which contacts will receive automated invitations and follow-up emails.”

Indeed, we can see this example as a frontier for hope. LinkedIn offer a key lesson to businesses to be clear about what data they gather and how they intend to use it.

Uber

How is big data impacting on the workforce? The Uber story is a fine observation on the changing nature of work. In particular, the on-demand economy.

Big data is at the centre of Uber's disrupting transportation business. And, Marr believes that “without their clever use of data the company wouldn't have grown into the phenomenon they are.”


Uber hold a vast database of drivers in all the cities they cover, which allows them to instantly match a passenger with the most suitable driver. Their algorithms check traffic conditions and journey times in real-time. This allows rides' prices to adjust as demand changes. And, it "encourages more drivers to get behind the wheel when they are needed – and stay at home when demand is low,” explains Marr.

Data drives Uber's detailed rating system too. Passengers can rate drivers, and vice versa. This should build trust and let both parties make informed decisions about who they want to share a car with. But, the author points out that drivers have to be conscious of keeping their standards high. In fact, “falling below a certain threshold could result in their not being offered any more work,” he writes.

Another work-related metric is the “acceptance rate.” This is the number of jobs that drivers accept versus those they decline. They should maintain this above 80% to provide a consistently available service to passengers.

Challenges

Indeed, the author acknowledges the controversies that Uber had and still is facing. Most notably, regular taxi drivers who claim they are stealing their jobs. And, concerns over the lack of regulation of the Uber's drivers. Uber responded to taxi drivers' protests with the attempt to co-opt them. They added a new class to their service called UberTaxi. This lets people use a licensed taxi driver in a registered private hire vehicle.

There are also legal hurdles for the company to overcome. Their service is banned in some parts of the world. And it is receiving scrutiny in other regions. But, their popularity across the world is a huge incentive for them “to press ahead with their plans to transform private travel.”

Is it worth reading?

It is refreshing to read a book whose author simply puts the big data hype into practice. Ultimately, it offers a comprehensive narrative of why and how data is transforming the way businesses operate.

What makes the stories of LinkedIn and Uber particularly interesting, thanks to Marr's detailed narrative, is just how complex the relationship between work and data looks today. Backed up with some indiscernible fusion of technology, humanity, business, and society.

But, those are just two examples. After diving into “Big Data in Practice” you will gather diverse insights. Somewhat differently, all the companies that the book lists have created new business models. And, they gained a competitive advantage.

Indeed, today we are seeing the emergence of other related innovations such as the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robots. These technologies are already impacting on the use of data, perhaps making the phenomenon even more important.

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Picture of Linkedin office courtesy of photopin 
Picture Uber Taxi courtesy of Pedro Caramuru 

Friday, 22 April 2016

Meet Pepper the emotional robot at work

Gloria Lombardi speaks with the Aldebaran's team at the Millennial 20/20 in London. Their humanoid robot Pepper wants to offer a new approach in the human-machine interaction.


In the movies, humanoid robots don't seem to have any trouble understanding people. The Tin Man in The Wizard Of Oz goes as far as questing for a heart.

In real life though it’s almost impossible to conceive interacting with a machine as if it was a life companion or work collaborator!

Yet, developers at Aldebaran, which is part of the large Japanese
telecommunications company SoftBank, have built the first 'emotional' robot: Pepper.

I met with the Aldebaran's team at the Millennial 20/20 in London to learn more about their creation. Why building a robot with a focus on affection? How could Pepper change the way businesses operate? This is what I found out.

Meet Pepper

Pepper is slender. It is 120 cm tall and weighs 28 kg. It has a fluid silhouette that allows 17 articulations. Its hands model those of humans, with five fingers and a gripping system. Equipped with a 3D camera and multiple sensors, Pepper can move, avoid obstacles, and identify sounds. It moves smoothly in all directions thanks to three wheels at the base. It follows you and even recharges independently. 

In fact, one of the main challenges for Aldebaran to face while developing the technology was to enable the general acceptance of their robot by the society. So, the technology was designed purposefully to make the machine disappears in favour of the emotional interaction. 

Emotional and interactive

Are you sad, angry, happy? Pepper is an artificial machine that progressively learns to understand your mood and adapts accordingly. It shows its own reactions through the color of its eyes, gestures, and its own words. 

“The idea of Pepper is to have a robot that communicates and interacts with people,” says Business Development Manager Adrien De La Tour.

Pepper interprets basic expressions on the human face such as a smile, frown, look of surprise, anger, and sadness. It also understands the intonation of the voice, the context of the words as well as non-verbal language, including the tilt of the head! “The goal is to understand and adapt its reactions to fit people's mood.”

The robot, of course, currently requires assistance. Pepper does not understand everything and sometimes can make mistakes. In fact, the autonomy of Pepper is progressive: it improves over time.

You teach it through your discussions, which help it memorise names, faces, moods, tastes and habits. “As Pepper continues to recognise you, it starts to develop a memory of your relationship together. It will not ask you the same things twice, and gradually creates an emotional connection with the person it interacts.” 

There is a table placed on its heart, which displays additional information to enrich the interaction. At present, Pepper has a large database of questions and answers in Japanese, English and French. Its voice has also been the subject of in-depth work on expressiveness with custom voices created for English, French and Japanese to better adapt to the culture of the country. Currently, it has three shades of different voices: playful, neutral and didactic. 

Tomorrow, according to the Aldebaran team, Pepper will be empowered by an application library. It will access it to find new behaviours, activities, and content to inform and entertain people. 

Pepper at work 

Japan has always had a long history of robotics activity. SoftBank is also Japanese. So, it is not surprising that the launch of Pepper into the business world started in the Japanese market in 2015.

The robot is already working in 2,000 SoftBank Mobile stores, greeting, informing and entertaining visitors in the three different languages it knows. It has not been sold outside the country yet, apart from very rare exceptions. 

De La Tour says that it was important to test it and see how it worked in Japan before going to other regions where its acceptance could be more resisted and questioned. 

Still, we can already see some Peppers in Europe. For example, “there are a few of them in train stations and retail stores in France. Very soon there will be some Peppers in cruise ships for the Costa Group.” All those projects are trials to start with. But, in a few months, Pepper will be available for companies to use. 

In fact, “the robot can work in any kind of client-facing environment,” says De La Tour. It can go from being a sales advisor in retail stores to work in train stations, airports, hotels, hospitals, and restaurants. “Basically, everywhere you have people looking for information or finding something – the robot is there to make the link between what they are searching for and the solution. That is how it is used today.”


Pepper as a work companion

But, why should Pepper - rather than a person – greet and help people in a store?

“The idea is not to replace humans. Pepper, is a machine that assists and complements people's work,” says De La Tour.

He believes that are many advantages in collaborating with Pepper. “First of all, it is a very systematic machine. So it can deliver a unified poll of services to any kind of client coming to a store. Thanks to its large database it can solve a number of problems and situations that are difficult for an individual to handle.”

In some ways, says De La Tour, it is comparable to when an organisation gives its sales person a tablet to work. “It is just another vector of information to enhance the customer experience. But Pepper is not replacing anything. It's an addition.”

The story of Pepper – SoftBank and Aldebaran

The next generation of technology and innovation have always been part of the DNA of SoftBank. In 2011, they decided to invest in personal robotics capable of enriching and simplifying people's lives. It identified several companies worldwide to partner with, but Aldebaran proved to be one of the most experienced in this market.  

Founded by a French entrepreneur Bruno Maisonnier, Aldebaran creates companion robots to support humans in their everyday life. In 2006, they created NAO, which also was at the Millennial 20/20. New versions of NAO emerged over time, leading to some educational uses in schools. For example, today, NAO can support teachers in assisting children with autism and other special needs.  

In 2014, Aldebaran started collaborating with SoftBank for the creation of Pepper, which became the first robot in the world able to read emotions. 


Pepper as a platform 

Indeed, there are still many challenges for the robot. Yet, De La Tour believes that the future of Pepper is bright. “We cannot even imagine all the future use cases. Pepper will continue developing based on a number of tools and updates.”

In fact, Aldebaran is inviting animators, sound, and graphic designers, as well as linguistics to join the community to invent and plan content to make Pepper more interesting. Developers will be soon able to submit their applications on Aldebaran online store and enter their developer program. The community is also given the opportunity to learn in one of the ateliers in Paris and Tokyo. 

“Pepper will evolve over time allowing people to do more things and interacting with them in ways that we haven't discovered yet.”

As research keep focusing on machines that master algorithms and improve over time, it's entirely possible we'll find ourselves communicating and collaborating with robots like Pepper. 

But, this will also demand opening up to a broad dialogue in order to answer some fundamental questions about our future relationship with work. And what needs to change civically to accommodate the change in our society, positively.

  
Pictures courtesy of Aldebaran

Friday, 15 April 2016

How Deloitte Digital is Disrupting the Workplace - Virtual Reality, Robots and more

Gloria Lombardi visits Deloitte Digital's innovative office in London to explore the latest workplace technologies with the firm's 'Disruptor' Ed Greig
 

“The widest trend that we are seeing across all industries is the need for companies to adopt a unified approach to technology, space and talent,” tells me Ed Greig (pictured right), who is known within Deloitte Digital as the Disruptor.

He works at one of the consulting firm's unconventional offices in London, which is all about researching and testing new technologies - from Virtual Reality (VR) to 3D printing, drones and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. “All these technologies are for us to test as well as for our clients. What we want to do with them is to prove that they have a practical use case.”

In fact, the danger with innovations like these is that people can get distracted by the exciting technology and lose sight of the practical business case. But, Deloitte Digital “are always on the look out for real world problems where we can apply these technologies. Whether that is internal within Deloitte or externally with clients.”

Virtual Reality

The opportunities for virtual reality to impact work positively are many. For example, Greig is using it to understand how Project One, which is Deloitte's upcoming building, can deliver great experiences to employees in the future. “We can model the building in a virtual reality environment for our colleagues. We can give them a view of what the new workspace will look like. And we can redesign the employee experience based on their feedback.”

This is key to the way the firm works, which is very iterative and collaborative. Plus, it saves money. “It is relatively cheap for us to do something now in a virtual reality context compared to building the space and then finding out that it does not work for our people. That will be much more expensive.”

Virtual reality for training employees

Another interesting use of virtual reality is for training staff. For example, Greig has just prepared a proof of concept VR training for the risk team. “It puts you into a risky scenario that you might face at work, and then it asks you to identify the risks.”

He believes that the technology shows the user the consequences of their actions in a much more vivid way than just watching it happening to someone else. “It requires you to actually take the actions yourself, which is a powerful driver for changing your behaviour in the future.”

In fact, one type of training that he is looking to improve through the use of VR is e-learning. VR creates an immersive experience. “When employees are watching videos they may not to engage as well with the training. In contrast, with VR you are focused on it 100% because you are inside the headset. That means you have a much better degree of concentration.”

Another type of training that can be improved by VR is with role play situations. “You are bringing human interactions into VR.” That again can save resources. “The more traditional training is expensive and time-consuming as it requires people to actually be on site.”

3D printing

For Greig, 3D printing is useful to test and explain concepts and projects in a practical, physical and a tangible way. For example, he has just printed an Internet of Things (IoT) prototype to demo to a client. It is a connected door lock that links into Deloitte Digital’s smart home proof of concept.

Drones

Greig is also experimenting with drones. For example, “we use them with our real estate team to film different pieces of buildings and getting interesting footage.”

He believes that one of the greatest opportunities for those flying robots is around taking dangerous tasks out of a job. “For example, inspecting wild spaces or disaster zones. Putting a person in those situations can be very dangerous. Now you can use a drone instead.”

Farming is another sector where drones can make a difference. For example, “they are used to monitor the progression of crops to give farmers a precise picture of what is going on in their field. This allows farmers to use fertilisers very accurately, leading to higher yields at a lower cost.”

Tasks automation vs. job creation

New jobs are emerging from the rise of these technologies. “My role, for example, didn't exist two years ago. Even the idea of Deloitte hiring developers to work on virtual reality or build robots would have seemed very bizarre until recently.”

Indeed, it is also important to recognise that other jobs are disappearing too. “The work that we are doing is often about simplifying or automating roles in order to save costs.”

Yet, automation is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, “through machine intelligence, the level of the repetitiveness of some tasks is now much lower. So, the overall job can actually become more creative and productive.”

Creativity or creative thinking?

Greig makes a clear distinction between creativity and creative thinking. With the former, there has already been some recent progress in this area.

Indeed, by looking at some fascinating projects such as the recent The Next Rembrandt we can realise that there is actually a whole sphere of creativity that is emerging where machines can play a phenomenal role. “The computer was able to analyse the specific period of Rembrandt. It identified the artist's top classic portraits and created an original Rembrandt. Then, it was 3D printed to create the same piece of artwork as the original on canvas.”

Indeed, technology today can analyse data and spot patterns within it in ways that people are not just capable of.

But, the creative thinking of humans should always be valued. And there are a lot of jobs where the human interactions are going to remain very important. “For example, nursing, caring, or personal training. And, the ability to express ideas in a clear way.”

The future workplace – between digital and physical

For Greig, the workplace of the future will feel like a completely seamless experience between the virtual and real environment. “Employees will just not notice the technology. They will just do the job and focus on what's important.” That has started to happen in various degrees. For example, “we are seeing the rise of meeting scheduling bots such as Amy, the digital assistant that interacts with you via email.”

And Artificial Intelligence has started to impact on communication and collaboration on internal social networks. “Software is already matching people together based on interests and find connections across the business for you. It suggests you which conversations are relevant to you. And much more is expected.”

He also believes there will always be a role to play for the physical workspace. “The ability to exchange ideas face-to-face and the serendipity that comes from it is unique.” This, for example, is what happens during the Mash Up Days. “Every three months we run an internal hackathon. We have 24 hours to build whatever you like.”

Anyone from Deloitte can join those events, which sometimes lead to some interesting projects such as the “mind control nerf gun.” This wearable device detects the brain waves of an individual. “When you concentrate the nerf gun will fire.”

Fearing new technology

Although he works with clients that are quite innovative and up for disruption, Greig does appreciate that other people can be concerned about the consequences of using these technologies. “That is the reason why it is important for us to test them internally, and learn from it as much as possible. It is very easy to be tempted by the potential prize and then go in the wrong direction.”

And, “it is important to make sure that the change is conducted in a safe way.” Indeed, as technology is given greater power, greater responsibility will also be crucial.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Internal communication is key to employee advocacy

Gloria Lombardi speaks with Ed Terpening, Analyst at Altimeter Group and author of the new study 'Social Media Employee Advocacy: Tapping Into the Power of an Engaged Workforce'.


45% of companies invest in employee advocacy programs in order to engage customers, and 15% of them expect some kind of financial return. But, a positive byproduct of employees sharing information about their organisation is that it boosts engagement with the employer.

The four-month study by Altimeter Group, 'Social Media Employee Advocacy: Tapping Into the Power of an Engaged Workforce', surveyed the opinions of brand leaders, employees and consumers. Its author Ed Terpening (pictured right) is clear about the power of employee advocacy:

"Yes, companies are engaging with consumers. And, yes, there is a financial return to that. But, they also end up with a workforce that better understands the business."

I wanted to speak with Terpening to explore key insights from the study and how organisations could strengthen their employee advocacy efforts. In this interview he shares the motivations for staff to share corporate content, the importance of internal communications, the drivers for successful initiatives and the link between internal and external social media.

Gloria Lombardi: As your study shows, companies have started to realise the benefits of staff advocating the brand on social media. But, what does it take to really motivate an employee to share information about their company, authentically?

Ed Terpening: According to our findings, the number one reason that employees share corporate information is because they believe in the mission of the company.

But, they also said they believe in the product and want to promote what the business does. Another reason is about connecting with other people outside work.

Recruiting is a big motivator too. Many employees would like to help their friends to get a job at their employer. So, they share job postings and what it feels like to work at the company.

GL: What are the key drivers for successful initiatives?

ET: First, is content. Organisations have to provide employees with a stream of information to have them on board and start sharing. But, not just any type of content. They have to align or tailor it to the interests of their employees. The content that they should share with people in Accounting would be different from Sales or Product Development or HR. So, the company has to have a relatively rich content library.

The best content is also curated to support the sector in which the company operates. So, for example, a bank that sells mortgages, might share a story about the housing market or interest rates.

And, it does not need to be content from the brand itself. In fact, usually it is a mix: there is the information that is discovered and curated by the social media team as well as the content created by the internal communications team. But, there is also the content that is created and curated by the employees themselves.


GL: Tell me more about employee generated content.

ET: Generally, there are two ways of doing that. One, it is about creating and sharing thought leadership content. The employees who are thought leaders in a given topic would spend a lot of time thinking about and writing content on their subject area. Let's take security, for instance. A technical engineer of a company that makes security software might write a blog post about a virus or a hack. Then she shares it with her networks, both internally and externally.

But, there is also the average employee who might just post a photo of an event at work such as a fundraising initiative. In the end, there can be a wide range of content from more informal to thought leadership pieces.

GL: What's the link between internal communication and employee advocacy?

ET: Internal communication is very important. In fact, many companies miss that point when they start. We saw some brands starting employee advocacy programs from the marketing department as a way to expand the reach of the company messages on social media. But, many advanced brands quickly learned that it was really more an internal communication vehicle. And, they moved the whole program to internal communication.

GL: When we talk about employee advocacy initiatives we almost instinctively think about external social media - employees sharing content on Facebook, LinkedIn and other channels. But, what about internal social networks? Do they have a role to play?

ET: Interestingly, 80% of the companies with a strong internal social network, also have strong employee advocacy programs. Their employees are already used to creating and posting content for their fellow colleagues inside the company. They know how to share company-related information because the organisation built this culture.

In fact, getting employees to share content is really a cultural thing. It is not the technology. Implementing advocacy initiatives can be easy from many standpoints, but only if you overcome the cultural issues.

We have to remember that many employers did not let employees post about work for so many years. It is only recently, in the past few years, that more companies have started to ask their staff to share.

GL: Which organisations are doing employee advocacy well? Could you give me some examples?

ET: Adobe is a good example. They are focused on recruiting. Being a technology company based in Silicon Valley they have a lot of competition for engineers. And, they have to find any way possible to recruit new talent. So, they created a wonderful program called the Adobe Life where all the employees are trained and allowed to post information about what's like to work at Adobe.

AT&T does very well too. It is one of the brand that have been successful by, over time, moving their employee advocacy program to Internal Communications, a natural fit.

GL: Which are the platforms most used by organisations?

ET: There are individual platforms such as Dynamic Signal and Trapit, which are popular. And, there are platforms that are built into existing social media management systems. For example, Hootesuite have a tool called Amplify.

But, as we saw earlier, sharing is recurring more and more within enterprise social networks. For example, AT&T have a platform where employees can choose to share information with their outside networks without leaving the internal tool. They do not need a separate technology. It is an existing part of their communications.

GL: How about mobile applications for employee advocacy?

ET: Mobile is where companies will be going. I'll give you an example. Target is a large retailer with hundreds of thousands of employees who do not have desktop computers. They distributed a mobile application to employees to keep them informed but also to share corporate news with their friends.

GL: You conducted the survey with companies in North America, the US, the UK, France and Germany. Did you find any difference across the regions?

ET: We found a couple of key differences. In general, Europeans are more focused on privacy. We asked employees in both continents: 'Does your employer make it easy for you to share information with your friends?' In the US, 41% of employees said it was true. In Europe, only 21%.

Additionally, half of the respondents in North America share work-related content because they want their friends to understand what they do. In Europe, only 30% of them said that.

But, even in the US a third of people still do not want to mix personal with professional life.

GL: Could we sum up your findings with some final advice to organisations? What they should think about before launching an employee advocacy program?

ET: There are a couple of things that I recommend. First, even though you may start with a small pilot, involve early groups like Internal Communications, Legal, HR, IT and Marketing. They all have a stake. Sales may have a stake too, particularly if the company has a B2B sales force.

And, set expectations early on. Are you doing this to engage employees? Or to engage customers? Or to have financial returns? Make sure to have a clear objective before starting.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Work

Gloria Lombardi speaks with software startup advisor Steve Ardire to explore the state of AI and its implications for the future of work.

By Gloria Lombardi

How can Artificial Intelligence (AI) help companies operate in the 21st century? How might it impact organisations and employees?

AI has been around for years, but now it seems that it is taking the business world by storm. According to software startup advisor Steve Ardire (pictured right), it will fundamentally reshape organisations. “Human capital will start to shift from mundane tasks and transactions to higher-order and creative work. Along the way, we will see massive businesses where the technology transforms specific job functions,” he tells me.

Artificial Intelligence or Machine Intelligence?

Recently, there has been a lot of debate about the meaning of AI. As research has developed, the definition has changed. “When I called it AI, many people were distracted by whether certain companies were true AI,” Ardire explains. His interest lies in Machine Intelligence (MI), which is Machine Learning (ML) plus AI. His definition is close to the IBM Watson’s cognitive computing. 

Machine Learning is about “getting computers to program themselves, letting data do the work with training data sets. You keep going around and around until eventually it does well.” 

And, when Ardire talks about Machine Intelligence, he means intelligent computers “that process data for pattern discovery, discern context, make inferences, reasons, learns, and improves over time” without supervision by humans.

Machines and the future of work

For Ardire, the future of work is not a “man versus machine.” Instead, he says: "It is people and machines working alongside each other to improve the way they work."

Indeed, he admits that “the employees who do routine manual and routine cognitive tasks will have a high probability of being replaced in the future.” But the rise of the machines also has immense benefits to offer. “AI systems usually replace old tasks and create new ones.” In fact, leaving machines to do the repetitive tasks can go a long way towards enhancing innovation and human creativity. “If your job is not routine cognitive, then machine learning becomes a digital adviser. It will play collaboratively with you as an assistant. Automation of jobs, in that sense, becomes a good thing.”

To support his belief Ardire points to recent research by Narrative Science. According to the study, for 80 percent of enterprise executives artificial intelligence makes workers more productive and creates new jobs. 

But how can AI help companies operate successfully in the 21st century? 

The idea that automation will free companies to focus on higher order and more creative work has been touted for years. According to Ardire, the insights gained from the use of AI technologies will enable workplaces to use knowledge in ways that have been impossible so far. As he puts it: "Using machine intelligence for improved data analytics is just the tip of the iceberg."

Intelligent computers can inject and integrate information from various sources such as the web, social streams and the enterprise. Then, they blend and harmonise it with contextual processes to provide the organisation with “smart data.”

One of the benefits for companies is that they can make smarter decisions. “Knowledge workers can understand complex issues faster, answer difficult questions, solve problems more effectively. They can be more productive. They spend less time on classifying information and more time on interpreting insights and taking critical action.”

Indeed, it’s a key distinction. The opportunity for organisations to access millions of data points today is of no use unless employees can keep up with the overload and improve the delivery of their work.

Enterprise social communications

Another area where machine learning can make a difference is with enterprise social media and collaboration tools. Presently, one of the challenges for some organisations is making sense of the sheer volume of conversations that their social streams can generate. “There is too much noise, which distracts employees from the work they are doing.”

The next set of AI tools could help deliver a competitive advantage to companies. “Powerful Artificial Intelligence can help make sense of the conversations people have on their networks.” Ultimately, helping workers to understand which messages are useful to their job. 
  
The market

AI technology is developing, fast. “In 2016,” Ardire says, “we are already seeing the emergence of applications for human resources, marketing and communications, sales, customer service, market and risk intelligence and more.”

The leading companies are pushing AI towards new horizons. Specifically, among the key trends is open-sourcing machine intelligence designs. For example, Facebook Big Sur, IBM System ML and now Open.

The rapidly emerging AI also includes many startups mostly currently flying under the radar. “AI startups have raised an aggregate of $967M in funding since 2010,” Ardire says. “And, the deal activity almost doubled in the last quarter only. Those investments went to companies in 13 countries and ten industries including business intelligence, e-commerce, and healthcare.”

Machine intelligence in healthcare

In fact, Ardire points to healthcare as one of the leaders in AI. A good example is MD Anderson Cancer Center. In 2014, the organisation started using Insights Fabric, a CognitiveScale-based platform, to improve patients’ experience, employee engagement, and enterprise operations.

Clinicians connect securely and privately with patients in real time. The health history of individuals is constantly updated as the smart technology learns and remembers people’s behaviours and preferences. This helps care givers to make personalised and tailored recommendations that are current, and to alert patients about key requirements precisely when they need it.

The future is unsupervised learning

But, reaching a state where organisations will be “machine intelligence literate” is not so easy. The majority of efforts today are still around “supervised learning,” where computers are given “training instances that are labelled with reinforcement,” according to Ardire. And training the machine takes time.

In addition, there is the challenge of embedding the technology into existing enterprise applications.
But, Ardire believes that machines will one day become intelligent systems just like the human brain.

He says: "Going forward, the future is unsupervised learning where machines can infer what they don’t know about. They will be given no positive or negative reinforcement [by humans]."

Indeed, it was Google Brain’s Jeff Dean who once explained, “Unsupervised learning is an important component in building really intelligent systems – if you look at how humans learn, it’s almost entirely unsupervised.”

If we think of the impact the internet has had over the last 25 years on the wider society, not least on businesses, it has been revolutionary. And, it has had some big implications for organisations and their workers. 

Now, AI is coming. In 25 years’ time might it have the same impact? Perhaps, the sooner we try to understand AI the better.

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This article originally appeared on IBM