Workers becoming slaves to technology

The Information Overload Research Group has been set up by academics and tech companies like Microsoft, IBM and Intel to find ways of reducing the stresses on knowledge workers. The organisation’s slogan “reducing information pollution” says it all.

A reading list for aspiring knowledge workers. Future Tense:

Jim McGee recommends 25 books for knowledge workers.

I’ve only read two of the books on this list from cover to cover (and both a long time ago) so there’s a fair bit of catching up to do here.

I’m not sure I agree with all McGee’s choices. For example while David Allen’s Getting Things Done has useful ideas and can help for some knowledge workers, it is not an essential read on the subject of knowledge working.

Break or Weld? Trade Union responses to global value chain restructuring

This book review on the New Unionism blog says some knowledge workers are joining trade unions, or at least organizations that look and function like traditional trade unions. The post also looks at how unions are responding to globalization. Sadly there are no comments on this post. It would be good to see some discussion of whether the trade unions that developed to protect industrial workers are of practical help to knowledge workers.

Book Excerpt: The Numerati by Stepen Baker

BusinessWeek reprints a chapter from Stephen Baker’s eye-opening book which looks at how mathematics (or math if you are American) can deliver powerful new insights into just about every area of human activity. Going on the extract, this book looks like it might earn a place on my knowledge worker book list.

The Knowledge Handoff

This looks at how baby-boomer executives are handing over their knowledge to a younger generation as they prepare for retirement. There’s also a slide show that runs over the key points.

Being good at your job helps. But to get the best jobs in some sectors you also need to work on your profile.

When top-flight companies hire executives, the first question they ask is ‘who is the ideal person for the role?’

The first name that comes to mind is usually someone with the right skills set and a high-profile. One sure-fire way to build a higher profile is to become a media star.

An expert source

Reporters and editors are only as good as their contacts. Although stories appearing in newspapers, magazines and online or broadcast via radio and television are increasingly manufactured – many are not.

Journalists need expert sources to explain things or to put them in context.

Because journalists need source fast, they turn to the people they know first. For example, if a military coup erupts in a third-world country, reporters will hunt for citizens of that country or at least someone who has more than a passing knowledge of the country.

Specialist knowledge

This process gets granular – particularly with the trade and specialist press. If a computer virus infects government computers, most general news reporters will look for online security experts. More specialist technology reporters will determine the operating system and hardware concerned and look for, say, Windows Server security experts.

And that is the opportunity.

No matter how obscure your area of expertise, if you are a knowledge worker you are an expert on something and a valuable resource to journalists and editors.

In fact, the more obscure your expertise the more valuable you are as a contact.

Be ready to comment

It’s no good just being an expert. You have to let journalists and editors know you are there and available for comment. They are not going to find out about you through psychic power. This is the hardest part of building your profile.

If you work for a big outfit, use your company’s public relations agency or marketing communications person. Make sure that they circulate your name to editors and key journalists as a possible expert contact.

Don’t forget to include online news sites, TV and radio stations on your list.

Running a blog centred on your expertise will also help you develop a higher profile. Or write in-depth specialist articles for Linkedin or Medium.

Another approach is to wait until something happens and issue a statement. For this to work properly you need to anticipate the news and prepare your statement in advance.

If you really are a subject expert this won’t be that difficult. But you’ll have to move fast. Journalists tend to work around the clock and time waits for no-one.

Miriam Cosic writes in The Australian about journalist Nick Davis who says more than half the news in Britain’s top five newspapers was generated by public relations companies or taken from wire services.

Davis is in Australia to promote his book Flat Earth News.

While this is a great background piece that makes me want to buy the book – it paints a depressing picture of the state of journalism. I’ve worked in the industry for almost thirty years and agree with Davis’ basic premise that today’s journalists are now expected to do a once-over-lightly job and rock the boat as little as possible.

Blame the media corporations

Davis points the finger of blame at the media corporations. This analysis can’t be separated from the widely reported decline of traditional news media.

Conventional thinking says people are moving away from newspapers, magazines and broadcast news because of the Internet. I believe the audiences would be declining even without the arrival of online news because the news media is turning off audiences.

Graphs of reader numbers stretching back to the days before the internet show audiences started to decline in the 1980s. The arrival of the open internet in the mid-1990s saw the fall accelerate. It did not start then.

One aspect of this  The Australian story overlooked is that public relations companies now massively out-gun newspapers in terms of staff, expertise and experience.

This is particularly noticable in New Zealand where the newspapers seem largely staffed by young reporters in their 20s and early 30s while many of the brightest and best of the older generation work for PR companies.

Marketing communications, the business of letting people know about your products and services, can be broken down into two distinct parts: advertising and publicity. For more about the differences between the two, see Use publicity to get noticed.

As the earlier post says, advertising is straightforward. You pay money directly to a media company. In return, you retain control over your message and how it is presented. It’s a commercial transaction.

Publicity is different. It can still cost you money – there are plenty of businesses who will willingly accept payment for their promotional services – but in general you don’t pay the media to propagate your message and you have no say over timing, placement or presentation. You can’t even be sure it will run.

In theory, you should be able to get publicity when the story you want to tell is so compelling that journalists and editors will fall over themselves to ensure it appears in their publications, blogs or broadcasts. Just remember their idea of compelling is unlikely to coincide with your opinion.

Editors are driven by the need to provide readers, viewers or listeners with the hottest news, up-to-date information, the most relevant background features and the best stories. They may also be looking for something entertaining to brighten up their pages.

Contrary to what you may think, they generally don’t care at all about whether their stories help you or your business. Or at least they shouldn’t if they are doing their job properly. However, there are some, less than totally independent publications where this logic doesn’t apply.

Another common misunderstanding about publicity is that the best way to get it is to use something known as the press release. This is a pre-written version of the story you’d like to see in print. Press releases are often written in a highly stylised format, containing the basic facts together with some background.

Press releases can work, but in general they don’t. Many go straight into the bin. And rightly so. That’s the usual place for rubbish. Others are stored, maybe for future reference or to keep potentially useful contact information in a handy place. They mainly exist because clients like them – they create an aura rather than the reality of useful media activity.

In fact, there are publicity experts who believe the overwhelming majority of press releases are never read by journalists, let alone used as the basis for an editorial item.

Some of the best communications professionals – they may call themselves public relations consultants, press agents or even something ridiculously bombastic like media consul – will tell you that press releases are only one, not particularly useful strategy and account for a tiny fraction of their work.

We’ll look more closely at the mechanics of press releases another time.

Remember, publicity involves enticing the media to write or broadcast information about your company, product or services because you have something new, important, exciting or otherwise interesting to say.

Often the best way to do this is to call a journalist and tell them, quickly and concisely, just what your story is and why it may be of interest to their readers. Like everything else in business, this is largely a matter of forming the right relationships.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, get some media training or hire a press agent to do the calling on your behalf. Good public relations professionals know precisely who to call and how to pitch stories in a way that will make them more interesting to journalists or editors. They can introduce you to the right people, set up face-to-face meetings or organise phone interviews and help you prepare for these.

Occasionally when you have something particularly important to announce, you may want to hold a formal press conference or maybe host a less formal gathering of journalists for morning tea, lunch or afternoon cocktails. This kind of event works best when used sparingly, it’s not always the best way of telling a specific story, but it’s a great way to make or maintain contact.

You don’t succeed or fail a psychometric test.

There are no pass and fail marks. There are ways to get the best from a test.

If a boss asks you to take a psychometric test, the chances are they want to know if you are right for a job. If you don’t match their needs, they may find a suitable opening elsewhere.

Psychometrics make the best use of employees

Some bosses use the tests like the Hogwarts sorting hat to make the best use of employees.

Supporters think the tests reveal attitudes and beliefs as well as personality. They can put empathic workers with good communications skills in front of customers. They can keep miserable bastards in the back rooms where they won’t upset anyone.

This is controversial. Not everyone agrees psychometric tests have value. Reducing personalities to a handful of key terms is handy. But it oversimplifies. It can lead to wrong assumptions about how people react to various circumstances.

Also, people change. If you take the same test on two different days you may get different results.

Cheating pointless

While it is possible to game a psychometric test: to show the personality needed for a plum job, cheating is hard and pointless.

Well-designed psychometric tests have subtle cross-references to tease out inconsistencies and spot cheats. Testers know when replies are not genuine.

Showing up as flaky and dishonest is not good (unless perhaps you are seeking a career where these traits are an asset). Alternatively, you may just end up looking like you’re confused or crazy.

This aside, cheating a psychometric test is pointless because the purpose is to decide whether you are a good fit for a particular job.

Why would you want to trick your way into a role which, by definition, you are unsuitable? Not only will you make yourself unhappy, but you’ll almost certainly doom yourself to failure.

So, what can you do to get the best from a test?

Ten tips for getting a good psychometric test result:

  1. Have a good sleep before your test. You’ll think clearer.
  2. Relax. Calm those nerves. This isn’t going to hurt. You’ll give a more accurate picture of your personality if you’re in relaxed frame of mind.
  3. Read the instructions carefully. Read the questions carefully. Reread anything that’s unclear. If the tester says anything you don’t understand before the test starts ask for clarification.
  4. Make sure you are comfortable.
  5. Don’t hurry. Psychometric tests are rarely timed, so work through the questions carefully and consider each answer before ticking the box or clicking the mouse.
  6. The testers want to know what you are like as an employee, so answer the questions based on what you are like at work and not at home or in private.
  7. Answer the questions based on how you feel now and not in the past or in the future. The company wants to use your current personality.
  8. Don’t read too much into each question. Individual questions don’t have hidden underlying  meanings, the subtlety lies in how the questions mesh together.
  9. Avoid making too many extreme answers. If you have to mark things on a scale of one to five make sure there are more twos, threes and fours than ones or fives.
  10. After the test is over ask the tester to discuss the results with you. While you may not get the job in question, the test may offer insights in to more suitable career options.

Psychometric testing is controversial. That hasn’t stopped it being popular with human resource managers and recruiters. They see it as a quick, efficient way of sorting people.

From their point of view CVs, interviews and references only show a person’s skills and experience. Uncovering their personality – in particular their ability to mesh with a corporate culture – is harder. That’s the sales pitch.

In reality stressed recruiters use a barrage of tests, including psychometrics, to speed hiring. Some tests are automated. Candidates sit computerised psychometric tests – perhaps in a recruitment company’s offices. In other cases professionals supervise paper-based tests.

Psychometric testing a waste of time?

Without a qualified, experienced professional to interpret results, psychometric tests are a waste of time. The results are complex to interpret and sensible analysis is beyond a layperson. It might be fine to hire a cleaner on the basis of an automated test, sane people wouldn’t hire knowledge workers that way.

I met psychometric testing a decade ago. After a series of intense interviews for a senior position, I was asked to take a series of tests. The session lasted four hours, almost without a break. I warmed up with what looked like IQ tests and moved on to logical reasoning exercises. A long and vaguely baffling exercise followed where I had to choose from seemingly random pairs of job titles in order of preference.

For example, the test might pair ‘janitor’ and ‘rocket scientist’. Picking one isn’t hard. In fact, the test was obviously designed for an American audience and included some job descriptions that, while not incomprehensible, certainly were not familiar.

Not difficult

Finally the real psychometric tests – I suspect the job-ranking test might be a form of psychometric exercise too. Answering the questions isn’t difficult; indeed, the tester asked me not to think too hard but to go with my first response to any question.

By the end of the four-hour test session I was emotionally drained, physically exhausted, thirsty and hungry. After a 30-minute lunch break I returned for a task-specific question and answer session.

A few days later an industrial psychiatrist called me to discuss the tests. He discussed my longer-term career prospects and plans and made suggestions that I hadn’t otherwise considered. I worried the tests might show him that I was an employment basket case – or worse. In fact the news was largely positive and insightful. It turns out I’m far better at certain things that I previously thought. As it happens I got the job, but that’s another story.

Some merit

Going purely on my personal experience, I can see some merit in the ideas behind this kind of testing. Personality is the most important factor when hiring an executive, more important than skills and experience and as important as aptitude. It makes sense to establish objective benchmarks that go beyond the kind of human prejudices we can all be, even unwittingly, guilty of. I have two concerns. First, despite what the professionals say, it is possible for people to learn how to answer psychometric tests in a way that portrays them in a favourable light.

Years ago I interviewed John Wareham a New Zealand-born recruitment expert who helped develop these tests. He said the trick people quickly learn is to avoid the extremes.

Most tests ask you to rate things on a scale of 1 to 5 – if you want to get a good job make sure the bulk of your answers cluster around the centre of this range.

On the other hand minor alarm bells ring if you fail to tick any extreme answers. Wareham also said the tests quickly detect any dishonesty by cross-referencing; answer truthfully or you’ll be exposed as a phony.

My second fear is that managers often use it to offload decision-making responsibility. External objective measures are good, but they can’t make decisions. There’s a temptation to just look at printouts and test scores and not go beyond this to look at other, possibly more compelling, evidence.

Grant Frear writes about the demise of the knowledge worker after reading Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind.

Pink says people in rich countries need to move away from left-brain (linear, organised) thinking towards more right-brain (or creative) thinking.

Frear’s first sentence says; “Well maybe not a complete demise but most certainly a geographic shift”. So we won’t accuse him of an exaggerated report of the death of knowledge work. the headline’s a handy excuse to quote Mark Twain.

Geographic shift

Frear says work involving logical, repeatable left-brain tasks is better done by computer. Bosses can offload tasks which aren’t easily automated to Asia where there’s a cheaper workforce, hence the “geographic shift”.

It makes sense. Low value work has moved from Australia and New Zealand to Asia for at least a decade. How often have you rung telephone banking and spoken to someone with a strong Indian accent?

To make up for this geographic shift, Frear (or more accurately Frear quoting Pink) says people in richer countries need to work on their right-brain activities which are largely creative, non-linear and conceptual.

The problem he identifies is most rich-world employers favour left-brain thinking. They reward people based on these values and not on their creativity. All of this is true.

Knowledge work, left-brain right-brain

Frear (or maybe Pink) assumes knowledge work is a left-brain activity.

It can be, but is not always: writing is creative, but a form of knowledge work.

Also, while there are people who seem 100 percent left-brain or right-brain, in reality most show a healthy mix of both.

Rather than requiring a disorienting binary switch from one type of thinking to a totally different one,  a smarter strategy might just be to steer one’s thinking more towards creativity.

If Frear and Pink are right, the good news is that in the future there will be less boring knowledge worker jobs in the richer world and more stimulating work.

Demise of the knowledge worker « Mutterings of a consultant

Knowledge workers are taking over.

A third of American employees are already knowledge workers. The number is lower in Australia and New Zealand. Yet we’re catching up.

In developed, developing and even in some undeveloped countries they are the fastest-growing employment group.

Knowledge workers outnumber industrial workers

In the developing world, knowledge workers outnumber industrial and agricultural workers. In more advanced countries they outnumber the two groups added together.

America has roughly as many as service industry workers. In most rich countries knowledge work is the most important sector in terms of economic and political clout.

A new idea

The idea that people can earn a living dealing purely with knowledge has only been around for 50 years.

Writer and management expert Peter Drucker is often credited with inventing the term. He first used the term ‘Knowledge Worker’ in his 1959 book “Landmarks of Tomorrow”.

Drucker modestly claims to be only the second person to use the phrase. He says the honour belongs to Fritz Machlup a Princeton economist.

Drucker popularised the term. He spent 40 years expanding on the original idea, explaining its implications.

Knowledge workers misunderstood

Although the term is widely used and people generally understand what it implies, there is still much misunderstanding about its exact meaning.

One common misconception is the term applies exclusively to people working in the information technology industry or elsewhere using products created by IT workers.

While almost all IT workers qualify, they are only a subset.

Anyone who makes a living out of creating, manipulating or spreading knowledge is a knowledge worker.

Broad church

That’s a wide definition. It includes teachers, trainers, university professors and other academics. You can categorise writers, journalists, authors, editors and public relations or communications people as knowledge workers. We’ll put aside for one moment arguments about whether the knowledge created by these people is accurate. Lawyers, scientists and management consultants are all included.

One key difference with other white-collar workers is the level of education and training. There may be some who don’t have a formal tertiary education or high-level training. They are a minority.

You need a degree, most of the time

As a rule, they have a minimum of a university undergraduate degree. That’s not always the case. Older knowledge workers tend to have less formal qualifications than younger ones. That’s partly because higher education wasn’t ubiquitous when they started out — university isn’t the only path to knowledge.

Another reason is that practical experience counts for a lot. The here is that each individual posses their own reservoir of accumulated knowledge they apply in their work.

Compared with other groups of workers, they are well paid. Knowledge workers can belong to unions. But are often not organised in that sense.

This can lead to forms of genteel exploitation. Few knowledge workers get overtime payments. Yet employers expect most to voluntarily work for considerably more than the basic 40 hours a week.

Mobile

On the other hand, knowledge workers are more mobile than industrial workers and can often take their skills elsewhere at the drop of a hat. They often do.

Any employer who abuses knowledge workers’ professionalism is likely to see their most important assets walk out of the door. This applies as much today as it did when there were more jobs around.

Few governments have come to terms with the implications of having a highly mobile, highly educated, knowledge workforce.

Many can quickly find a new employer if necessary, most can move freely between countries. Any nation that doesn’t look after its knowledge workforce can expect to lose it.

New Zealand knowledge workers

This applies in New Zealand. We operate a so-called progressive income tax system that, at times, appears deliberately designed to alienate knowledge workers.

The marginal and absolute rates of income tax paid by most New Zealand knowledge professionals are higher than in many competing nations.

From that point of view, Australia looks attractive.

If anything the flow of knowledge workers migrating to more benign economies is accelerating.

Drucker distinguishes between classes. High-knowledge workers include professional groups such as doctors and teachers. They deal mainly in the realm of the mind. While knowledge technologists work with their hands and brains in the IT industry, medicine and other areas.

Although both categories are growing, the bulk of growth comes from this second group.

I’m a career journalist and editor (almost 30 years now). I mainly blog to learn more about blogging and how it works. It’s a way of staying current. Right now I’m on my fourth blog and I think I’m getting the hang of it.

What have I learnt so far?

1. You don’t need fancy software to blog.
2. The free hosting services are as good as or better than self-hosting.
3. Blogging can take up a huge amount of time, but it doesn’t have to.
4. There’s a community aspect to blogging that isn’t apparent until you dive in and do it yourself.
5. Blogging is similar, but not the same as journalism.
6. My blogs don’t tend to drive traffic to my website, nor do they deliver any direct economic benefits.