A Blog by Jonathan Low


Oct 23, 2014

Bosses Say They Want Critical Thinking...But What Is It - and Will They Really Appreciate It?

Be careful what you wish for. In addition to all the other specifications that enterprises now seek in job candidates, evidence of the ability to indulge in 'critical thinking' has become a favorite.

That it is ill-defined hardly matters. Like innovation and knowledge and quality and disruption it has become one of those management buzz phrases that has taken on a life of its own.

The problem is that like so many other superficially attractive concepts, when effectively evidenced, it can produce uncomfortable and potentially destructive outcomes. The issue is not with being thinking or being critical, but with the absence of specificity that envelops it. Managers probably believe they want someone who can identify issues they may have missed, but that the people who do so be polite and deferential about it.

Humanity being what it is these days, the likelihood is that the knowledge will be converted into wisdom in ways that fail to respect traditional notions of seniority or common courtesy. Critical may mean urgent or crucial to some, but it may mean corrective to others. However it's packaged, no one likes a wise guy. JL

Melissa Korn reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Critical thinkers, she says, tend to challenge the status quo, which isn’t always what a boss is after.

Going Deep: Employing AI Learning Variants to Predict Machine and Human Behavior

'That's really deep,' has always meant, figuratively, that an idea is thought provoking. Now, it may well be literal as well.

Tech firms using deep learning, a variant of artificial intelligence, are finding they can predict with 85 percent accuracy when hard drives will fail.

They can also determine how people will respond to certain types of ads based on how what sort of behavior similar ads have stimulated in the past. Both benefits save money by permitting more efficient allocation of resources and make money in the long run by improving returns on investment in related initiatives.

We have become so jaded by advances in technology and knowledge that little, if anything surprises us anymore. We yawn at the realization that smartphones can perform calculations and that provide guidance to in our lives that a roomful of mainframes might have struggled to do a generation ago. But the reality is that these predictive capabilities may have implications for health, welfare - and, yes, institutional control - that could once only be dreamed about. The real question is to what degree that knowledge is used for the benefit of those who are providing the data versus those who are analyzing it. JL

Cade Metz reports in Wired:

Deep learning better analyzes data describing how people have responded to digital ads in the past and adjust new ad campaigns accordingly. “Serving ads is basically running a recommendation engine, which deep learning does well.”

The Rise and Fall of the Original Tech Startup

From inspiration to cautionary tale. The annals of Silicon Valley are filled with stories about extraordinary people and brilliant ideas. But none captured the imagination, the history, the potential, in fact, represents the cultural foundation myth of the tech industry better than Hewlett Packard, aka hp.

All of the elements are present: a couple of Stanford engineering grads with the entrepreneurial spirit, a literal garage to use as an office/workbench - and the quiet confidence that they could not just make things better than could others, but that they could invent things others hadn't even conceived of.

But there were other elements essential to their success: perhaps most notably respect for their employees, who were co-workers and colleagues, and the notion that the human and intellectual capital they contributed was crucial to the future of the enterprise. What is poignant is that it came characterize 'the hp way' and that it established the culture which attracted so many smart, competent people to the industry. The idea that people should like where they work and who they work with. That an office atmosphere didnt have to be hierarchical or tense or dreary to be competitive. But poignant in that the dismantling of that culture directly contributed to the company's downfall.

Of course, downfall may be unfair: the company has not been acquired - yet - or shuttered. But there is a sense that the split into two business units is not just a bow to reality, it is an acknowledgement of a dream that is dying. That the founders' vision has been subverted by precisely those forces they had hoped to keep out: the rampant egotism of an incompetent board,  the primacy of finance over the product.

The vision, or elements of it,  lives on elsewhere in the Valley: at Apple and Google et al, but most prominently in the ethos spawned by the original. JL

Will Oremus reports in Slate:

The founders were driven not by a particular business model or million-dollar idea, but by the conviction that, “we were able to design and make instruments which were not yet available.”

Big Data and the Big Idea: Integrating Intuition and Information

Nature, nurture. Make, buy. Online, offline. There was a time, in the long ago, when it seemed that everything important involved a choice. And those choices defined what we did, how we progressed, why we succeeded (or not), who we were.

But the world has become a lot more complicated, especially for anyone involved in the daily struggle to make a living from interaction with other members of the species.

We have 'frenemies,' our competitors who are also our suppliers and customers. Alliances work, then fade, then reignite. Apple disses IBM for decades - until they become partners. Alibaba, Amazon, eBay: everyone is doing business with everyone else.

In order to make sense of this maelstrom of inputs and outcomes we have come to rely on data, but often employed in order to stimulate emotions. Read a random sample of personal statements on Twitter and count the number of people who use words like 'passionate' and 'evangelist' - right next to their acronymical descriptions of their deeply technical expertise.

We still have to make choices, but they may no longer be sustainable, let alone defining. The factors driving the socio-economic environment are simply too dynamic, unstable and robust to be confined in that way. In fact, the vocabulary of biology is, to a great degree, supplanting that of engineering. This is fitting, given the rise of intangibles relative to tangibles as the means by which our work and lives are ordered - or disordered as the case may be. But the implications of co-evolution and sustainability and ecosystems and recombination in the economic context sometimes run counter to our deeply ingrained notions of win/lose, up/down.

The fact is that we need to integrate rather than isolate if we are going to manage the massive quantities of data hurtling our way - while employing our instincts to help make sense of them. JL

Greg Satell comments in Digital Tonto:

Most marketers would prefer to be like Leo Burnett and Steve Jobs.They take pride in their “marketing guts," which makes it hard for them to succeed in the era of big data. This is a false choice.  The future of marketing is not technology or intuition, but successfully integrating both.

When Uber and Airbnb Meet the Real World

Companies in the sharing economy keep butting heads with the regulators whose jobs were created in another era to protect citizen consumers from the ravages of unscrupulous enterprises.

There is almost invariably anger, hurt and frustration on both sides. It is as if the two sides are from a different culture and speak a different language, which, figuratively if not literally, they do.

The sharing economy czars believe they are providing a much-needed service, helping the populace realize its goals and both saving/making money at the same time. But, as the following article explains, in doing so, they are ignoring - and sometimes flaunting - laws which were enacted to right serious societal wrongs. The sharers' operating principles sometimes elevate the provision of their service above any other consideration, including the need for other voting members of the polity to safeguard their own investments, co-exist with a welter of cultural norms and oh, make a living.

The attitude that tech rules and everything else is an obstruction works pretty well online. But to make the serious bucks, these enterprises have to make inroads offline, where a different set of expectations has long been established. Part of the problem is that there is increasingly a self-righteous component to business: everyone involved believes they are standing for a principle, which, not so coincidentally, tends to be financially beneficial to them. The answer, in a the long run - as it has been for every successful business throughout history, is going to have to include a lot less moralizing and a lot more compromise. JL

Claire Miller reports in the New York Times:

Why have these companies run into so many problems? Part of the reason is that they think of themselves as online companies — yet they mostly operate in the offline world.

Oct 22, 2014

IBM Gets Real

The impression, for a long time now, was that everything was under control. IBM, the company that employed one word - THINK - to define its approach to business, has had a succession of iconic CEOs who made tough decisions and consistently delivered performance. 

And if Apple riffed off that straitlaced, no-nonsense image by encouraging its fans to 'Think Different,'  well, so what? Apple even designed its most famous ad campaign featuring the young woman throwing a sledge hammer through a screen in front of which mindless drones sat open-mouthed as a challenge to IBM and the changing nature of computing.

But IBM got it. They sold the PC division to Lenovo, went heavily into services and built their future around The Cloud and the ability to interpret all the data that found its way there. And guess who signed the first and most significant partnership agreement with Apple by any company not just as a supplier? Why, IBM did.

So the business world reacted when IBM CEO Ginny Rometty, another smart, tough, successful woman in tech, announced that the company was no longer going to promise specified earnings growth. It took courage to do that because the financial economy just loves promises delivered and the absence of uncertainty they imply. And it also loves executives who find a way, even if it means bending a rule here and twisting a law there.

The reality, however, is that The Cloud has gotten very crowded. Amazon, among others, is making its presence felt so revenues and profits can not be guaranteed, if they ever could without accounting backflips. A company that comes clean and reveals the truth may not, ultimately, prevail. But in the age of too much information and high speed algorithmic trading it has a better chance of achieving meaningful goals than it does if it is pretending to be something it's not, trying to accomplish something it can't. JL

Julie Bort reports in Business Insider:

This could really be good news for IBM and Rometty. She's no longer jumping through hoops to meet an arbitrary EPS number selected by the previous CEO, from a tactic that made sense in 2007.

Have I Got a Deal For You: Google Says It Will Make You Smarter...In Return For All Your Personal Data

At least they're being upfront about it.

Google believes it can make you smarter and more effective. Because, of course, it believes it is smarter and more effective than you or anyone else you know - or about whom you may have heard.

This is not arrogance, it avers, it's math: the combined power of all the knowledge it has accumulated enables it to analyze and predict with a greater degree of accuracy and prescience than any individual could manage.

So why not put all of that power to work for you?

It might make things easier and it could redound to your benefit with regard to health care, finance, your romantic life, a whole panoply of human endeavors and interactions.

But then Google gets to make choices and decisions that you used to make. However badly. And they get to use your information, for a profit. They also get to frame how your life will be lived, because the cascading effect of all that past history will determine the future to a degree that, statistically, it has not done so before.

Maybe that's a good trade. But, then again, with the investment of a little initiative, time and risk, maybe it's not. JL

Logan Whiteside reports in CNN/Money:

Google's chairman says the search giant can create your ideal artificial personal assistant. The catch? You need to give up your personal information.