Connections

A friend proudly posted on an online forum that he was able to fit in multiple activities in his life (including running a startup!), thanks to no cable TV, no YouTube, no tea breaks, no FB and no What’s App groups. His argument was that we all have a finite amount of time, and hence, need to ‘make time’ for what matters by giving up something else.

I agree with that last part, and have lived with that belief for as long as I can remember. Defining your priorities, and making time for them, is the only way this works. I’d also recommend improving efficiencies to get more return on investment for the time you do spend on your chosen pursuits. But I also fear that my friend, like many others, is missing out on a vital part of life.

There is a case to be made for widening your horizons and interacting with perspectives that are not like your own.

Most of today’s online technologies are designed to give you more of what you’ve already liked, or interacted with. But, it helps to push yourself out of your comfort zone and understand Life from the eyes of those who don’t think like you. And, that’s where ‘mass media’ can help.

The way things like newspapers and TV work is that someone else decides what constitutes “good content” for the large majority of us. That may not coincide with what we would like, or agree with, but that can be a good thing… at times.

Today, more than ever, we need to embrace diversity of thought in all spheres, from politics to society to technology. We need to seek out views that are significantly different from our own, whether through a thought-provoking Netflix documentary (on a subject we may know little of), or a feature in the local daily that proposes a view contrary to our own (closely-held) beliefs.

That’s how new connections will form. That’s how we will someday go past our predispositions. That’s how we will eventually stop judging or fearing those that do not resemble us, and truly begin to understand each other.

There are 7 billion of us, and every one has a unique world view, shaped by diverse, multi-cultural experiences. Let’s not allow easy access to the Internet to dumb it all down.

Engaging Smarter with AI

Last month, in suburban London, a delivery of a parcel was attempted by Amazon Prime.

The homeowner was out on a school run, but had a video doorbell from Nest Hello (Google) installed in the home. An Apple iPhone X received a live feed from the doorbell, and a 2–way chat soon transpired. It turned out that the homeowner’s Tesla was parked right outside, and was accessed via the Tesla app – thanks to its permanent cloud connectivity. The boot was remotely opened by the homeowner, who could see it live on the video stream. The delivery guy was able to leave the package inside, after which the car was remotely locked via the app, resulting in a successful delivery.

What is noteworthy about this story is that it involved four distinct services – Amazon, Google (Nest), Apple and Tesla – all of which were digital, but none were specifically designed to work together.

Yet, in many ways, we are probably in the first hour of the evolution of AI (think before the Internet happened).

Futurists like Kevin Kelly (Founding Editor of Wired) speak of a rapid “cognification” of the machines around us, giving them the ability to harness superhuman powers – minus the (human) distractions. But, they also augur that the most popular AI product that will be in use 20 years from now, hasn’t even been invented yet!

What is (or isn’t) AI?

The Merriam-Webster defines Artificial Intelligence as: “The capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior.”

We humans possess a number of cognitive abilities that help us learn new concepts, apply logic & reason, recognize patterns, comprehend ideas, solve problems, make decisions, and use language to communicate. We call this intelligence.

This “intelligence” enables us humans to think, to be self-aware, to experience Life.

And, human intelligence is not just linear and one-dimensional.

Howard Gardner in his ‘Theory of Multiple Intelligences’ argued that there were a wide range of different abilities operating in the human mind. – ones that did not necessarily correlate with each other.

Gardner proposed that these distinct types of intelligences – including logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, musical and interpersonal – are what enabled people to become a plumber, farmer, physicist or teacher.

Modern machine capabilities typically classified as “AI” include successfully understanding human speech (as in voice-recognition), competing at the highest level in strategic game systems (such as Chess), and intelligent routing (as in Content Delivery networks or Military simulations).

But the scope of AI is disputed: As machines become increasingly capable, tasks considered as requiring “intelligence” are often removed from the definition, a phenomenon known as the AI effect. As a result, routine technologies like Optical Character Recognition (OCR) are frequently excluded from the definition.

In fact, we tend to think of AI as whatever hasn’t been done yet!

The fact is, AI is not just embedded inside Netflix algorithms or voice controlled ‘smart assistants’, it’s embedded in our lives.

The decades-old autopilot systems that fly our commercial airplanes is just one example of that. The humble “calculator” is already smarter than most of us in arithmetic, and the GPS chip in our phones is already better at spatial navigation than the average human – both being examples of machines exhibiting intelligence.

Growing significance of AI

Clearly, AI is relevant to any task requiring intelligence.

High-profile examples of AI include autonomous vehicles (such as drones and self-driving cars), powering search engines (such as Google), and improving spam filtering or targeted advertisements.

In Medicine, AI is being applied to numerous high-cost problems, with initial findings suggesting that AI could save as much as $16 Billion. In 2016, a ground breaking study in California found that a mathematical formula, developed with the help of AI, correctly determined the accurate dose of immunosuppressant drugs to give to organ patients.

In Financial Services too, there are several use cases for AI. Banks use artificial intelligence systems to organize operations, maintain book-keeping, and invest in stocks. AI-based tools help read documents, process cheque payments and respond to customer requests. AI has also reduced fraud and financial crimes by monitoring behavioural patterns of users for any anomalies.

Today, AI can even analyze “silence patterns” on Customer Service calls to infer insights from excessive hold-times about system delays, outdated CRMs, etc.

Engaging smarter with AI

However, in our quest for providing more bells and whistles, we may sometimes lose sight of what truly matters. We need to connect the dots… across devices, channels and teams. We need to listen to our customers, our distributors, our employees. We need to move from proposition to purpose.

Does Customers + AI have to equal chatbots?! Or can we use AI-based tools to actually improve outcomes for our customers?

Here are just a few examples where intelligent use of AI can help improve Customer Experience, regardless of the underlying business:

  • Design more relevant products and services for your customers by listening to your customers and putting those insights to work
  • Continue conversation threads in CRM systems, regardless of their initial entry point, so you can provide contextual help
  • Predict a lapse or termination, and intervene with appropriate measures, before you lose the customer

Technologists argue that in the not-so-distant future, if a task needs to be done efficiently, it will most likely be done by robots (as in AI with bodies), while humans will focus on activities that are typically inefficient – think exploration, innovation, science and art.

Ultimately, our ability to deal with what comes next will depend on our willingness to embrace a co-existence with machines and their intelligence. Only then will they become our partners, not just tools.

This post first appeared on YourStory.

How To Demotivate Employees

I have had the pleasure of working for organizations of nearly all size and shape, ranging from solo ventures to 3-member teams to a few hundred employees, and all the way up to 30,000+ soldiers marching to a common tune.

Since my work has revolved around Services, the one thing that has been common to these stints is People. And, having seen a wide variety of industries and functions, I’ve had a ring-side view of how organizations motivate – and demotivate – their most important resource.

Here are some of the ways I’ve encountered in my journey, that result in employees being demotivated…

  • Not providing clarity on what constitutes “success”
  • Waiting for the annual appraisal cycles to provide much-needed feedback and course-correction to team members
  • Playing favorites within the team, or hiring old favorites from your past employment, with little regard for competence
  • Not creating a strong Reward & Recognition program to encourage performance achievement
  • Hiring outsiders at senior levels (and at commensurate pay hikes), at the cost of ignoring equally-competent loyal employees
  • Offices offering no transportation options / no cafetarias (especially relevant for large enterprises and those having poor access)
  • Managers promoting unqualified resources for positions that require technical competence, without including the necessary checks and balances (this one is especially demotivating for those who are competent!)

Needless to add, any one who is reading this and cares about doing it right, should do the exact opposite.

If you are an entrepreneur, build your organization the right way, and don’t compromise by hiving off “people management” to some trainee or junior resource. If you are a mid-level manager, watch out for such danger signals in your own enterprise, and try to compensate for what you see around you. If you are in a position of leadership, you can take measures to undo the damage this causes to your staff.

Remember, no matter how long you’ve traveled in the wrong direction, you can always take a u-turn.

Building Organizations That Scale

Have you heard of the ‘King of Murud Janjira’? Nope?

According to a Wikipedia entry:

Janjira State was a princely state in India during the British Raj, located on the Konkan coast in the present-day Raigad district of Maharashtra.

Its rulers were a Sidi dynasty of Arab Abyssinian (Habesha) descent. The state included the towns of Murud and Shrivardhan, as well as the fortified island of Murud-Janjira, just off the coastal village of Murud, which was the capital and the residence of the rulers.

How about the ‘King of India’? Still no?

Yes, I know India is now a democratic nation and has a modern governing structure. But, what about in the days gone by? Sure, India had countless nawabs, princes and other rulers for its provinces and states. But, how did that benefit our resource-rich, culture-rich nation? History teaches us that we were repeatedly plundered by invaders across the world, and ruled by others for nearly 200 years with strategies like ‘divide-and-rule’.

Now, think about the way typical organizations are structured.

Departmental silos abound. Incentives are provided for individual achievement, or at most, a small team’s effort. If one business unit or region implements a novel idea, it is often regarded as unacceptable for others to simply copy-paste it and execute as-is. Basically, everyone agrees that  at least “some creativity” ought to be incorporated while adopting someone else’s idea in your unit, not just resorting to “shameless copying”!

In other words, every one wants to be the “King”, but of their own small kingdom.

Surely, such an organization will spend at least some of its energy fighting internal battles and motivating its employee base. Such an organization will find it difficult to standardize its operations, or achieve scale. Such an organization is likely to get overtaken by unforeseen threats, when it finds itself least prepared.

Think about that for a minute. If you are in a position of leadership or an entrepreneur, what kind of an organization are you building? If not, what kind of a leader are you following?

 

This post was inspired by a meeting with an industry leader of repute, who raised some interesting questions in a business review.

Service Standards in Public Service

I recently posted a tweet after a visit to the local post office:

A visit to the local #postoffice (to pick up a missed courier delivery) will put to rest any doubts you may have on how the #public #service machinery operates in #India in the year 2018!

I had purposely worded it in a way that did not make it too obvious if my “experience” was positive or negative. I wanted to see the kind of responses it elicits. And, it looked like my approach worked!

Here are some snippets from some of the comments that ensued…

“Similar sentiment when i went to cash out Kisan Vikas Patra”.

“Not sure if there is a sarcasm in your post. I have very good experience with Chennai Posts.”.

“… In South India, I would not trust large public hospitals, that are indeed one way ticket to hell or heaven. But I owe my life to three public hospitals in Delhi – Lohia, Safdarjung and AIIMS. BTW – private enterprises in the health care have no less horror stories to offer.”.

My own experiences with the Post Office, and the public service machinery in general, have been quite disappointing, to say the least. Of course, there are pockets of excellence in every field, and public services would not be an exception to that rule. But, public services, in general, are often characterized by poor pay and appalling work conditions (as compared to their private counterparts). The question is: Does that give them a license to lower their standards below acceptable levels?

Yes, I am also cognizant of the pathetic experiences I periodically encounter with private enterprise: The only consolation in those is that at least it is not my tax money at work. More importantly, when it comes to most private enterprise services, one has the ability to simply walk away and choose another service provider. Often, that is not an option when one encounters a public service.

As one commenter added, “Most of us in metro cities have better choices in almost every aspect of our life’s needs (education, health, food, transportation, communication, clothing, housing, etc.). Just consider the plight in hinterlands… Also, the ones which have no choice… Police, Civic Administration… May God Be With Them.”

Does it always have to be like that?

I think the key lies in understanding that the ones that need to use such services the most, are often the ones that have no other choice.

When designing a public service, bureaucrats, government officials and public servants would do well to remember that context, so that they can empathize with the “customer” needs that the service aims to ultimately address. The less privileged among us deserve a good standard of essential services. Public transport, education, healthcare and communication are all included in that list.

Enrique Peñalosa, the Mayor of Bogotá, captured it eloquently when he remarked, “A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transportation.