As any engineer will tell you our brains are always working out the best path to accomplish something, even those problems that are far outside of our area of expertise. The world to us is a giant set of problems just waiting to be solved and our minds are almost always ticking away at some problem from the most trivial quibble to those larger than life. Some ideas stick around longer than others and one that’s been plauging me for the past year or so has been the one of the 9-5 work day that nearly every work place adheres to. The roots of the problem have their roots back in the industrial revolution but todays technology makes most of the issues irrelevant. Coupling this with the massive duplication of resources required to enable these old ideals it seems almost inevitable that one day we’ll have to transition away from them if we are progress as we have done for the past few decades.
The idea at its core is one of decentralizing our workforce.
Right now the vast majority of workers commute daily to their place of work. Primarily this is because the organisation hosts resources required for them to complete their work, but there’s also the norm that you have to be at work to be working. In the traditional business sense this is true as there was no way that a company could provide the required infrastructure to all its employees in order for them to be able to do their work outside company premises. However the advent of almost ubiquitous Internet connectivity and organisation’s reliance on IT to complete most tasks means that nearly everyone who’s job doesn’t require physical labour could do their job at home for a fraction of the overhead of doing the same work on company premises. The barrier for most companies is twofold with the first being one of investment in additional (and removal of current) infrastructure to support remote workers. The second is one of mentality as traditional management techniques struggle with producing sound metrics to judge employee’s performance.
For established organisations the transition to a highly remote workforce can be rather painful as they already have quite a bit invest in their current infrastructure and most of this will go to waste as the transition takes hold. Whilst the benefits of being able to downsize the office are quite clear they usually can’t be realized immediately, usually due to contracts and agreements. Companies that have successful remote workforces are usually in a period of radical reform and this is what drives them to rethink their current work practices. The pioneers in such moves have been the IT focused companies, although more recent examples in the form of Best Buy and Circuit City in America show that even large organisations can realise the benefits shortly after implementation.
Designing metrics for your employees is probably the biggest sticking point I’ve seen for most workers looking to go remote. I’d attribute this to most managers having come through the ranks with their previous managers being the same. As such they value employee time on premises far more highly than they do actual work output, because most of their decisions are done by the seat of their pants rather than with research and critical thinking. That may sound harsh but it is unfortunately common as most managers don’t take the time to dive deep into the metrics they use, instead going by their gut feeling. Workers who aren’t present can’t be judged in such a fashion and usually end up being put down as slackers.
This idea is primarily why I support the National Broadband Network as ubiquitous high speed Internet to the vast majority of the population means that the current remote worker’s capabilities would be even more greatly enhanced. No longer is a workplace big enough to accommodate your entire team required when the majority of your workforce is there virtually. HP pioneered this kind of technology with their HALO which was designed around removing the stigma around telepresent workers and the results speak for themselves.
At the heart of this whole idea is the altruistic principle of reducing waste and our environmental impact, improving worker happiness and possibly reusing existing infrastructure to solve other problems. Right now every office worker has 2 places of residence and neither of them are used full time. This means that a large amount of resources go to waste whenever we’re at work or not and decentralizing the workforce would eliminate a good portion of this. Couple this with reduced transport usage and the environmental impact would be quite significant. Additionally underused infrastructure could easily be converted into low cost/government housing, relieving the pressure on many low income earners.
Maybe its just my desire to work in my own home on my own time that drives this but the more I talk to those people who can do their work wherever there’s an Internet connection the more it makes sense as the future of the bulk of our workforce. The body of knowledge on the subject today suggests that there’s far more to be gained from this endeavour than what it will cost but until there’s a massive shift in the way managers view a decentralized workforce it will unfortunately remain as a pipe dream. Still with the barrier to entry of making your own self sustaining company being so low these days we may just end up with not only a decentralized work force, but a completely decentralized world.
I have a sorted history with metrics. As any blogger will attest to one of your biggest motivators is the number of hits you generate on your blog per day as each of them is (hopefully) a real person wanting to read your content. It’s quite hard to write a post every day if you’re not sure anyone will read it and for a while that was the case with this blog to. I’m lucky enough to attract about 40ish people per day and that’s more than enough for me to lose an hour¹ writing a thousand words on something. I know most of them don’t read it on the same day when I publish it but that’s just the way it is and it’s always nice to see someone trawl through a week’s backlog of my posts. It lets me know they’re interested.
Still after a while the metrics start to lose their meaning after a while and it’s usually a combination of two things. The first is you begin to realize they aren’t everything as all that should matter is that you’re doing something you enjoy (and I will attest that some people just like seeing the numbers, hey I play World of Warcraft to remember). The second, and probably most important one, is that many of the numbers can be gamed in all sorts of ways which dilutes their real meaning. Whilst its really up to the providers of the metrics to police such things it’s also the responsibility of the users of that metric to ensure they’re not being taken for a ride by their slightly more savvy counterparts.
Take for instance this post on TechCrunch which is ultimately responsible for this post:
Yahoo and Bing/MSN each added approximately 60 bps and 30 bps to 18.3% and 12.1%, respectively. Google is down, claims comScore, declining approximately 70 bps for the second consecutive month to 63.7%.
But that’s not the whole story, and investors need to caution when interpreting the data as presented by comScore, say analysts.
We’ve detailed how Yahoo has boosted its search market share with these ‘tricks’ last month.
When adjusted, backing out Yahoo and Bing/MSN’s use of contextual shortcuts and image slide-shows from both May and April, Broadpoint.AmTech estimates that Yahoo’s share actually declined roughly 30 bps month over month in May to 16.6%, while Microsoft Sites’ share was flat at approximately 10.8%.
Google, after a small data collection adjustment to the April data (namely a change in how Google handles searches with typos), appears to have gained roughly 30 bps of share in May to 66.4%, says Broadpoint.AmTech. However, Google’s domestic core search market share was 63.7% in May, down slightly from 64.4% in April, J.P. Morgan claims.
Whilst I’m sure that most of the “gaming” here is really just innocent changes on the behalf of the relevant search providers it does illustrate my point aptly. Metrics are great for getting a feel about certain aspects of a subject but due to their unfortunately algorithmic nature they are always susceptible to outside influence gaming certain variables to act in their favor. Just to prove how fragile some of these things can be give a quick Google of the terms “Alexa rank script” to see how quickly these metrics can turn from insightful tidbits of data to digital red herrings.
This isn’t limited to the world of hard numbers either. Take for instance humble soft drink, often one of the first things to pointed out as a major cause of health problems in the developed world. Common wisdom suggests that sugar is to blame for most of the problems and so many of the companies sought to replace it with artificial sweeteners (Coca-cola being the longest hold out on that point). This is despite the fact that the jury is still out on whether or not it’s the healthier alternative but I’d rather take my chances with good old fashioned sugar with it’s mostly known health consequences. The point here is that companies will take any metric you give them and find a way to undermine it if it will help their bottom line.
Perhaps the most bandied about metric recently is the one of market capitalization. In essence this metric is the number of shares that have been bought and paid for by investors and are not currently being traded which is then multiplied by their current value on the stock exchange. Taking that number into consideration it recently came to pass that Apple was bigger than Microsoft. If you’d care to take a glance at each of the companies in real terms however you’d know that Microsoft stands as the giant over Apple any day of the week with almost $16 billion more in revenue and well over double the head count of employees. I’m not saying that Apple isn’t a highly successful company, far from it, more the fact that the market cap metric isn’t a good metric for judging a company on its own. I’d hate to see what would happen to Apple’s market cap if say 5~10% of their shareholders, you know, tried to sell their shares.
It all takes me back to those maths classes at university. You see for 3 years I did all sorts of mathematics that all my teachers told us had untold applications in the real world. Unfortunately though most of them failed to actually show us any practical applications, leaving us with countless algorithms that were set to gather dust in the back of minds. However in the numerical analysis class our teacher finally got us to understand all the equations that we’d been learning and how to make sense of the numbers that came out the other end of an equation. Since then I’ve looked upon almost all metrics with a skeptical eye, especially those who decline to discuss how they were derived. I’d encourage you to do the same as you’d be surprised how often crazy metrics pop up.
¹Today however I lost a lot more than that because my web server, in its infinite wisdom, decided to trash this web site yet again. Whilst I did make sure to copy the blog post out of the editor before it went kaput I accidentally copied something else I needed to try and get the bloody thing running again. I would chalk it up to it just being flaky but the 26 other sites I have running on here suffered no such troubles, sigh.
When I was a young and naive lad I had firmly set my sights on becoming a project manager. It seemed like a great place to aim towards, the money appeared to be good and you’re not bound to one industry so there’s no end of jobs and new opportunities. I even managed to convince two groups of university students to make me their project manager, with one of them garnering a mild success with the other failing horribly (which I will admit was pretty much all my fault). Still this didn’t deter me and I continued to pursue a career as a project manager, working my way up from low level IT work in the hopes I could make the jump into projects sometime in the future.
Roll forward a couple years and I found myself working for Unisys as part of the outsourcing arrangement with the Department of Immigration and Citizenship here in Canberra. It was a good work environment and I quickly improved my skills over the first 6 months or so. I even thought I had the skills to take a shot at one of the specialist positions, something that I hoped would lead me onto more project work. Talking to the current specialists I was led to believe it was a very client facing position, and I marketed myself as someone who was capable of managing client relationships well and proving to be a valuable project resources. I didn’t get the position however they did offer me a role as a technical lead in the new projects section they were creating, something which sounded pretty cool at the time. Eventually it turned out that this position was really a junior project manager role, and for the first time in a long while I was put in charge of projects. I was in for an awakening of sorts, since the corporate world was nothing like the academic.
My first few months in the position started off well. Our section consisted of 2 other people who were in positions just like me. Our focus was small projects that wouldn’t require the involvement of the solutions architect and could be resourced internally. Most of these were IT projects that weren’t covered in the out-sourcing contract, something which I’ve blogged about previously. We were basically a pure profit centre since all of us were hired as system administrators (fully paid for by DIAC) and were moved to the projects team due to them being able meet SLAs without us. I got to work on some pretty cool projects there with my favourite being the deployment of digital fingerprint scanners and cameras to the detention centres in Australia. The house of cards started to come tumbling down when the higher ups needed a “clearer view” of what we were doing and of course bungled the whole thing.
Since we had come from the administrators team we still used the majority of their systems for all of our daily activities. Requests for new projects would come through the same incident management system and this was the first place management decided to look for to derive some metrics. The problem here was that a typical project can’t be judged under the same SLA as an incident, since one of them is a problem that needs to be resolved ASAP and the other could stretch out over many months depending on the scope. We copped a fair beating over the way the tickets were being handled, so we fought back saying the system was inadequate for accurately tracking our progress. This led to a lengthy battle between us and the Projects Management Office (which at the time was technically the Asset Management area) as they had promised us as system that would allow them to get the metrics they desired. We eventually got our way by not going through the “proper channels” (we called a meeting with them directly without involving our managers) and got a system in place. This happened a few weeks before I left Unisys, and was still suffering from teething problems when I left.
My short time as a project manager taught me many things. The first was that I never wanted to be a project manager ever again. Most of my time was spent either chasing clients for money or asking them whether or not they actually wanted the project they asked for. Also project managers should never be taken from a group of people they will be managing as they need to be at least 1 step removed to avoid any contention issues. There’s nothing more awkward than trying to force your friends or former colleagues to do some work, something I encountered a few times.
The second, and probable one of the most valuable lessons, was that you have to be careful in how you define and apply metrics to anything as improper use of them will skew your vision of what is really happening. One of the often use metrics that I despise is the time taken to close a call when on a help desk. The poor operators were pressured into closing their calls quickly which usually meant that if the problem wasn’t solved there would be a severe lack of information, transferring the load from the call centre to the more costly second level support teams. Closing calls quickly is great and all, but what they what they were really doing is costing the company more to get the same outcome.
It was all summed up pretty succinctly for me in this one quote I came across on Slashdot:
Management gets the behaviour that it rewards, not necessarily the behaviour that it pretends to ask for.
Metrics are supposed to encourage people to achieve goals that align with the company’s vision. However they more often than not reward people for doing something completely different and that’s where the problem lies. I guess it all comes from that culture of wanting to boil everything down to a nice chart for the higher ups, but that’s a story for another day.