Monthly Archives: March 2016

Transhumanism & Biohacking

Wear­able tech­nol­o­gy has tak­en the next log­i­cal step — implants.

From LEDs to NFCs and RFIDs, con­sumers are look­ing at ways of apply­ing med­ical approach­es to implant con­sumer-grade tech­nol­o­gy. So-called Grind­house Wet­ware (or “Grinders”) view this as next lev­el body aug­men­ta­tion (i.e. pierc­ings on steroids), and with the Mak­er rev­o­lu­tion you can now cheer­ful­ly implant this tech­nol­o­gy your­self at home. You can already buy an all-in-one syringe kit (based on ani­mal LifeChip transpon­ders — for when your cat or dog goes miss­ing).

Body­hack­ing — turn­ing your­self into a cyborg — also includes enhance­ments to exist­ing sens­es (such as infra-red eye­sight) or cre­at­ing new sens­es (such as sens­ing mag­net­ic north or radio fre­quen­cies). A lot of this tech­nol­o­gy was ini­tial­ly devel­oped for peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties or impair­ments (such as cochlear implants for the deaf, and reti­na implants for the blind). Arti­fi­cial hearts and pace­mak­ers could be seen as the ances­tors of embed­ded tech.

It’s only a mat­ter of time before you’ll be able to swipe your Oys­ter card with your wrist. Nev­er for­get your keys again!

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Freevolt™ — making electricity from thin air

Lord Drayson recent­ly unveiled Free­Volt, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary new tech­nol­o­gy that har­vests elec­tric­i­ty from air gen­er­at­ed by mobile phone and TV trans­mit­ters. If this new inno­va­tion takes off, it will pow­er sen­sors and con­nect­ed devices in smart homes and cities across the world. This could spell the end for bat­ter­ies and cum­ber­some charg­ers.

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Chaos Theory (as a Management Style)

For generations, science allowed us to think we could control nature. Today we know better (thanks to Chaos Theory). How could this make us better managers?

Sir Isaac Newton’s deter­min­is­tic claim that we can pre­dict future events with absolute cer­tain­ty stood firm for 300 years — then along came Kurt Gödel’s Incom­plete­ness The­o­rem and Wern­er Heisenberg’s Uncer­tain­ty Prin­ci­ple. Apply­ing this new sci­ence to the most wide­ly used man­age­ment style (i.e. direc­tive) and com­par­ing it to more empow­er­ing tech­niques, I look at how this could inform man­age­ment tac­tics (as well as social media pol­i­cy and cor­po­rate social respon­si­bil­i­ty).

The boring science-y bit

mathematical formula written in chalk on blackboardIn 1931, Kurt Gödel declared a for­mal proof that every sys­tem (even the all-empass­ing Prin­cip­ia Math­e­mat­i­ca) con­tains incon­sis­ten­cy, and is there­fore incom­plete. In 1927, Heisenberg’s uncer­tain­ty prin­ci­ple declared that all physics (when exam­ined close­ly enough) con­tains a degree of chaos. This was in con­trast with estab­lished New­ton­ian deter­min­ism that saw the uni­verse as a giant clock — if we could only see the cogs in enough detail, we could pre­dict future move­ments. When com­bined with oth­er the­o­ries (such as ran­dom Brown­ian Motion, Lorenz’ But­ter­fly Effect and Schrödinger’s Quan­tum Mechan­ics), a move­ment devel­oped that came to be known as Chaos The­o­ry. This embraces the idea that we can nev­er tru­ly fore­see an out­come, because small fluc­tu­a­tions can cause large long-term effects.

More recent­ly, in books on macro-eco­nom­ics such as Freako­nom­ics and The Tip­ping Point, there has been an under­stand­ing that growth can­not be infi­nite (e.g. the occu­py move­ment) and an aware­ness of wider sus­tain­abil­i­ty issues. This isn’t a hip­py-dip­py resur­gence of 60’s flower-pow­er — it’s actu­al­ly a nat­ur­al result of look­ing ever more deeply at what was pre­vi­ous­ly only thought of in abstract terms. Rick Levine and Christo­pher Locke dis­cussed the prob­lems of direc­tive man­age­ment styles in their book The Clue­train Man­i­festo. In it, a major study showed that although bark­ing orders at employ­ees often gen­er­at­ed high­er prof­its in the short term, (when com­pared with the long-term gains of more empath­ic man­age­ment tech­niques) it is actu­al­ly unprof­itable in the long-term — the man­age­ment equiv­a­lent of King Canute dar­ing the tide to change.

Today’s management structure prevents information flow

So how do these sci­en­tif­ic and high-lev­el math­e­mat­ics the­o­ries apply to man­age­ment styles — what could they pos­si­bly both have in com­mon? In each case, they lis­tened to the details — instead of ignor­ing them (because they didn’t fit the estab­lished pat­tern). This often a pre­cur­sor of inno­va­tion — and why small­er com­pa­nies can do this bet­ter than larg­er ones. Chaos The­o­ry demon­strates that, (as a man­ag­er) it’s sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble to pre­dict what will hap­pen. Direc­tive, short-term man­age­ment pat­terns don’t lis­ten for the details — they deter­mine large-scale changes from pre­vi­ous expe­ri­ence. As glob­al weath­er will tes­ti­fy — what hap­pened yes­ter­day — or last year — isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly the best indi­ca­tor of what will hap­pen tomor­row.

Inter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions with­in mul­ti-lev­el man­age­ment organ­i­sa­tions are not con­struct­ed to allow these details to be fil­tered upwards. In a typ­i­cal man­age­ment meet­ing, there’s only time for the larg­er prob­lems to be dis­cussed, so small­er prob­lems must be ignored — until they grow large enough to be on the agen­da (requir­ing more expen­sive solu­tions). This is also true for many effi­cien­cy and stream­lin­ing process­es — man­agers spend so lit­tle time on the ‘shop floor’ that they are unaware of improve­ments that are sug­gest­ed by those who are clos­est to the prob­lem — the work­ers.

When the going gets tough, the CEOs get out

What appears to be a quick easy fix (such as clo­sures and lay-offs) can show as instant prof­it on this year’s bal­ance sheet — pay­ing for the expen­sive CEO’s gold­en hand­shake, but will typ­i­cal­ly back-fire. In addi­tion, it pro­pos­es a ‘boom and bust’ men­tal­i­ty that caus­es many CEOs to lose their jobs (as soon as the bust hits). High dra­ma makes for great head­lines, but poor man­age­ment. As with cli­mate change, there may be no sin­gle rad­i­cal solu­tion that solves a major prob­lem com­plete­ly — but a large num­ber of small­er improve­ments (when added togeth­er) can pre­vent the need for dra­mat­ic action.

There are oth­er ways to solve this prob­lem more cre­ative­ly — David Cote (Hon­ey­well)Dan Price (Grav­i­ty) and Bob Chap­man (Bar­ry-Wehmiller) per­haps being the most famous exam­ples, but in recent times FedEx, Hewlett-Packard, and The New York Times have all cut base pay (with most low­er­ing man­age­ment salaries more than work­ers) instead of let­ting peo­ple go. Even Lar­ry and Sergey at Google only take a $1 annu­al salary. In Japan, a pop­u­lar belief in busi­ness ethics is that busi­ness­es (and peo­ple) who pur­sue mon­ey first even­tu­al­ly fail — most notably employed by Haru­ka Nishi­mat­su, who humbly wait­ing in line for food with his employ­ees and took the bus to work when times got tough, as good lead­ers should fight along­side their troops. Simon Sinek used a sim­i­lar bat­tle-based anal­o­gy (but the same fam­i­ly motif) as the basis of his book Lead­ers Eat Last.

Since the 1980s, much of busi­ness ide­ol­o­gy has been influ­enced by mil­i­tary tech­niques (e.g. goals, strat­e­gy, objec­tives, tac­tics) — how­ev­er, the com­rade­ship fac­tor has been con­ve­nient­ly left out. This just doesn’t add up.

Social media — “The Truth Will Out”

Tax avoid­ance schemes even­tu­al­ly come home to roost. Get­ting the state to pay for Walmart’s employ­ee ben­e­fits (while the com­pa­ny makes record prof­its) is just not sus­tain­able — and the new-found pow­er of con­sumers in social media is the best place to dis­rupt this sort of care­ful­ly-planned (and deter­min­is­tic) mar­ket­ing plan. Social media clos­es the feed­back loop, allow­ing infor­ma­tion to freely bub­ble to the top.

From William J. Conaty, who ran human resources at Gen­er­al Elec­tric (GE) for 14 years:

“Peo­ple have long mem­o­ries. They’ll remem­ber whether they think they were dealt with equi­tably.”

CSR and fair compensation

Man wearing suit and tie stares into camera, as dirt road recedes into the distanceWhat, then is the most sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly accu­rate man­age­ment style that best depicts a mod­el of real­i­ty? How can we take advan­tage of broad advance­ments in sci­ence and math­e­mat­ics to be more effec­tive, bet­ter under­stood, with more cus­tomers, and achieve high­er prof­its (with hap­pi­er and more moti­vat­ed staff)?

Sim­ple — be more humane when man­ag­ing fel­low humans. This is the use of sup­port­ive instead of direc­tive man­age­ment tech­niques. In a busi­ness sense, it leads to more prof­it. For employ­ees, they are hap­pi­er and feel val­ued. Cus­tomers ben­e­fit through a bet­ter lev­el of ser­vice.

This is why Hen­ry Ford dou­bled the min­i­mum wage in 1914, why the Cad­bury broth­ers cre­at­ed the town of Bournville for their staff and pio­neered pen­sions in 1879, and more recent­ly Face­book have cre­at­ed their own com­pa­ny town — these (even­tu­al­ly) lead to high­er prof­its. Fair com­pen­sa­tion (and recog­ni­tion — which is free, after all) is often all that employ­ees ask for. These are some of the ear­li­est exam­ples of Cor­po­rate Social Respon­si­bil­i­ty — which seems these days to be com­plete­ly divorced from employ­ee ben­e­fits, and has turned into a form of cor­po­rate phil­an­thropy (i.e. for those out­side the com­pa­ny) instead.

Typ­i­cal­ly, small­er fam­i­ly-run busi­ness­es sup­port their employ­ees, and lis­ten to cus­tomer and production’s poten­tial prob­lems — and are thus able to fix them while still in their infan­cy. This long-term approach is often lam­bast­ed by more ‘prof­it-dri­ven’ man­age­ment exec­u­tives — but we should be think­ing in terms of being in sync with our cus­tomers, clients and col­leagues for decades — not try­ing to rip them off as quick­ly as pos­si­ble and hop­ing there’ll be a new suck­er born every minute.

Business relationships are a conversation (not an argument)

By free­ing up the infor­ma­tion flow, respect­ing each other’s prac­ti­cal, man­age­ment, and user expe­ri­ence, we can cre­ate high­ly-opti­mised yet flu­id and respon­sive solu­tions that evolve organ­i­cal­ly over time. By lis­ten­ing to our col­leagues, we learn to embrace chaos — and respond quick­ly to the unknown because we knew it was always there.

In our new knowl­edge econ­o­my, thought­ful appli­ca­tion of new sci­ences and tech­nol­o­gy using the above tech­niques will inevitably lead to brand loy­al­ty, less employ­ee churn, deep­er cus­tomer engage­ment and high­er prof­it mar­gins.

Isn’t that what we all want?

But how?

The best way to go with the (chaot­ic) flow isn’t to throw your hands up in despair — roll up your sleeves, use good judge­ment and demon­strate lead­er­ship. It’s best encap­su­lat­ed by Saint-Exupéry (author of The Lit­tle Prince) in this TED talk by Julia Galef about the ‘Scout Mind­set’:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up your men to col­lect wood and give orders and dis­trib­ute the work. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and end­less sea.”