I’m not writing to claim that Digital Workplaces are taking the world by storm. They aren’t.
But I am writing to claim that they will be at some point in the future.
One of the debates regarding digital workplaces is about what the term actually means. For the purposes of this discussion I define a digital workplace as a collection of tools and capabilities that allow team members to work together wherever and whenever they may be working.
This implies the need to enable effective communication and collaboration and to do so without regard to location; moreover, it also implies the need to support such communication not only between coworkers but in some cases also between workers and customers and partners.
The term has been in use for at least ten years but during most of that time the digital workplace community did not see much growth. In today’s world digital workplaces are still in a formative stage but there are many reasons to believe that they will be taking off in the not too distant future.
The growth of digital workplaces will be driven by the same basic forces that are driving virtual work in general – the explosion of mobile and social media and the ubiquitous availability of the cloud [http://goo.gl/P2GBn, http://goo.gl/bdBv4].
Over the next ten weeks I will be posting thoughts on the power and potential impact of digital workplaces, the challenges they face, and the possibility of combining digital workplaces with other technical advancements to form even more powerful environments.
Specifically, I will be posting a ten-part series that will cover the following topics:
1. What is a digital workplace?
2. Is a digital workplace simply a reskinning of an “intranet?”
3. The power of digital workplaces.
4. The limitations of digital workplaces.
5. The forces driving the adoption of digital workplaces.
6. Why some middle managers HATE digital workplaces.
7. The Achilles Heal of digital workplaces.
8. The value of digital workplaces for global virtual teams.
9. Combining a digital workplace with other advanced technologies.
10. What are the three best digital workplaces available today?
I hope you have a chance to read the posts and I look forward to your comments.
Photo is by Canned Tuna and represents the Curtin University Digital Workplace Vision Jam
Google “Best Buy Cancels Telework” and you’ll get about 40,000 hits. The first several pages are filled with dozens of articles, all of which are titled, “Best Buy Cancels Telework” or some close variant (for example, [http://goo.gl/eBQol]).
I heard this revelation from several news sources and several dozen people sent me links noting that this is the second big company to cancel a telework program.
The only catch with all these articles is that they are ALL WRONG.
It would be fair to note that both Yahoo (a big company that made a recent telework announcement ) and Best Buy are going through major corporate restructurings and that as a result they don’t represent the norm. It would also be fair to note that recent statistics show that telework is, in fact, growing, not shrinking.
But these generalities are not what I had in mind when I claimed that they were all wrong.
There are wrong because Best Buy did NOT, in fact, cancel a telework program. What Best Buy cancelled was a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) program.
ROWE Does Not Equal Telework
Matt Furman, Best Buy’s Chief Communications officer said, “We’re a company that still believes strongly in employee flexibility, but the ROWE program itself has been canceled” [http://goo.gl/9ayL7].
As that quote specifically states, Best Buy canceled a ROWE program, not a telwork program.
Is this a just a minor distinction? Perhaps splitting hairs by reaching for a small technicality?
Not hardly. ROWE does not equal telework by any stretch of the imagination. There are huge distinctions.
To understand those distinctions it is important to understand what a ROWE really is.
What is a ROWE?
Just as the name implies, a Results-Only Work Environment is a work structure where the only thing that counts is results. ROWE is a specific program that was pioneered at Best Buy and is now offered by an organization called CultureRx. It is described on their website, www.gorowe.com, and in a book titled, “Work Sucks, and How To Fix It.”
ROWE is an interesting program that stresses complete employee freedom. The authors stress the distinction between a ROWE and telework in the first sentence of their description of a ROWE: “Results-Only Work Environment goes beyond telework.” In fact, ROWE goes WAY beyond telework, to the point that telework is a very small subset of ROWE.
ROWE isn’t just about working remotely. In a ROWE employees are free to work anywhere, anytime, and anyhow as long as they get the desired results. The authors stress that providing this level of freedom attracts the best employees and allows them to achieve maximum results.
CultureRx has presented the program to a large number of Fortune 500 programs and it is being used in a wide variety of organizations with interesting results.
Challenges with ROWE
I believe that ROWE has some very valuable points and as I indicated in my review of Work Sucks, I think it’s a good book that’s well worth reading. As I describe in my book, Four Dead Kings at Work, managers will ultimately be forced to learn to manage by results whether they like it or not. As the world becomes flatter, and as work and personal lives begin to blend together, and as the explosion of mobile forces the decentralization of work, the managers of the future will not be able to continue patterns that were set in the early 20th century. They will have to established desired results and manage employees to meet them.
Unfortunately, in spite of the fact that ROWE has a great deal to offer, I believe there are three major challenges with the program as it is currently established:
1. Too extreme -
ROWE stresses that the “O” in ROWE stands for “Only” – not “Oriented;” that is, they insist on a “results-only” work environment, not a “results-oriented” work environment. The importance of using only results to manage employees is held almost as a religious tenet. As a result the rules of the program are very extreme. For example, all meetings are optional. There is no concept of a set vacation. Employees go wherever they want and work whenever they want, so part of that might be what would otherwise be called a vacation. The authors stress that employees should not be forced to inform others when they will be unavailable during “office hours.” The basic premise is that employees have complete freedom to define work on their own terms.
The catch with this viewpoint is that flies in the face of reality. There are meetings that are important and certain employees need to attend (whether in person or virtually). Moreover, they will need to attend those meetings at the time the meetings are being held. If employees are unavailable that fact might matter a lot to other employees.
2. Work is a team sport -
The biggest issue with ROWE is that it fails to acknowldge how important it is that many people have to work as a part of a team. The ROWE approach is probably very good for environments in which employees act independently. Writers, for example, may very well be able to work whenever, wherever, and however they want (until they have to meet with the editor). For most other people they will have to work as a part of a team, at least occasionally. Those team efforts require them to coordinate schedules, attend meetings, notify others of their availability, etc. Failure to do so can being the entire team effort to a halt. How well would a sports teams operate if it was acceptable for the players to consider all games as completely optional?
3. Virtual work meets the Occupy Movement -
Work Sucks is said to be about the “results-only” work environment. The reality is that it is more about the “total employee freedom” work environment. It is one of several books that posit a work structure in which employees have complete freedom – not only in terms of when, where, and how they work but also in regard to what they work on.
Another book, “Future Work: How Businesses Can Adapt and Thrive In The New World Of Work,” follows much the same theme as ROWE. (It is also well worth reading.) But both books, and others from the same space, tend to be based on an unstated assumption that The Man is out to make employees lives miserable. Their unstated assumption is that companies are led by power-hungry “probably male” leaders who care about little but “big houses and yachts” and keeping their innocent, hapless workers under their thumbs for their own person aggrandizement.
Work Sucks claims that in an ROWE:
Everyday feels like Saturday.
Every meeting is optional.
Nobody feels guilty, over-worked, or stressed out.
There aren’t any last-minute fire drills.
These claims are based, at least to some extent, on the assumption that stress and fire drills and feeling overworked come from managers who are overly controlling. Once employees have freedom they will experience work nirvana.
Sadly, the reality is that even if only results matter there can still be an enormous amount of work, and stress, and firedrills, and Saturday-working required to achieve those results.
Most of the stress involved in meeting work goals does not come from the pointless meddlings of The Man. They are imposed by elements of the outside environment such as customers, partners, world events, etc. No amount of “work freedom” will make those influences go away.
Would Best Buy Have Cancelled a Simple Telework Program?
Would Best Buy have cancelled a simple telework program?
That’s hard to say. They might have. But they didn’t. Telework was a very small part of the program they cancelled.
They cancelled a program that was about complete employee freedom, where “all meetings are optional” and there is no need for an employee to inform teammates of their work schedules and ”there is never a last-minute fire drill.”
That’s a long, long way from “telework.”
So why do all the articles insist on saying, “Best Buy Cancels Telework?”
Those are my thoughts. I’d love to hear your comments.
Four Dead Kings at Work is a new book where I share my thoughts on how the future will develop.
The key observation is that many of the “truths” that we hold to be self-evident will soon cease to be truths at all.
There are several fundamental forces that are working together to drive these changes. These forces include the continuing globalization and virtualization of the world along with the explosion of mobile devices.
Taken together these forces have driven very rapid social change that impact both our personal and professional lives. One of the most important impacts is the tendency to force those lives to merge which in turn drives decentralization in all aspects of the work environment.
These forces will eventually kill off the “kings” of the current workplace; that is, those basic “truths” that have existed for many years. The future workplace will change dramatically in terms of place, time, decision-making, and the tendency of employees to be associated with a single organization.
As these kings fall new forms of virtual work along with new structures and mechanisms will emerge to take advantage of the new decentralized environment.
Pick up a copy of Four Dead Kings at Work and read a short discussion of how this may all develop (http://goo.gl/w8cjx).
I would love to hear your comments about where you feel it is correct and where it is way off base!
Check out the following video: http://officeinsight.org/?p=2095 .
It’s a “must see” for anyone interested in the future of telework. It’s also one of the things that got me interested in telework in the late 1960s.
Arthur C. Clarke, scientist and author, appeared on BBC’s Horizon program in 1964 to share his vision for how work, and cities, would exist in the future.
It is an amazing video, when viewed from 2013. It’s notable both for how well he envisioned the future and for how the full realization of that future is really still in the future.
The basic concepts he described have come to pass. What hasn’t been realized is the scope. Telework has yet to drive the fundamental change in human society that he envisioned.
The really interesting question is “why not?” There are three big answers to that question:
Telework Transitions to Virtual Work
Telework is an important aspect of the virtualization of work. But telework, as it is usually envisioned, involves an individual who is working from a location outside the traditional office. That is clearly an important aspect of virtual work but it isn’t the whole picture.
Virtual work is the more general concept of people working in a virtual environment, where the defining characteristic is the fact that the parties involved don’t work together face-to-face.
That includes those who telecommute and telework, but it also includes members of global virtual teams that may be working from offices but have little or no opportunity to interact directly with their teammates. They are working virtually, at least relative to many of their key teammates.
The current hot spot of virtual work is the growth of mobile work. With the explosion in mobile devices people around the world are engaging in virtual work for at least part of the day. In that sense almost everyone is a virtual worker at one time or another.
The broader sense of virtual work also includes those aspects that are based on some specific form of work. Telemedicine is simply virtual work where the work involves healthcare and the “parties involved” are doctor and patient instead of coworkers. The same concept applies to various forms of eLearning and virtual training.
Clarke’s future is much closer to realization now that “everyone is virtual.”
Moving Beyond Virtual Meetings
For many years much of the focus of virtual work has been on the idea of improving virtual meetings.
For those same years the concept of telework assumed that a teleworker was located in some remote office, occasionally connecting with the broader world by way of some telecommunication or virtual meeting. Members of distributed virtual teams have used those some virtual meetings as a way of interconnecting as well.
Today’s virtual environments go far beyond virtual meetings to provide full-time virtual work environments. For example, Flipside Workspace (http://goo.gl/UyjhO) is a 3D virtual workspace that provides full-time virtual offices for their users. Rather than simply providing virtual meeting spaces this approach provides virtual spaces where users will spend the bulk of their work time. This approach allows workers to “drop by” and interact with other workers much as they would in a physical environment.
Virtual work technology needs to capture the essence of humanity
There is one major issue that stands between us and the future that Clarke envisioned in 1964.
Before we can realize that future we need to have virtual work technology that provides virtual interaction that is much closer to the experience of face-to-face interaction. Moreover, that capability needs to be available in a high-quality form on mobile devices available to everyone all the time.
In my experience, any discussion of virtual work will soon lead to someone saying some version of, “but we still need the human interaction that comes only from face-to-face interaction.”
WHY is that face-to-face interaction so important? The key answer is that most human communication is non-verbal, with some studies claiming that up to 93% of communication occurs beyond language. Most virtual systems do no transmit most of that non-verbal communication. Audio meetings provide no non-verbal communication, video conferencing provides some but doesn’t provide the sense of a joint meeting, especially on mobile devices, and 3D workspaces rely on avatars that do not include non-verbal expressions.
Given that situation it isn’t surprising that people feel that it is important to interact in person.
The good news is that we are likely to see a dramatic change in that situation in the next few years.
Developers are taking several different approaches to tackle this problem:
Computer Vision Supports Effective Virtual Work
Existing computer vision technology can be used to track facial expressions in real-time and replicate those expressions on a personalized avatar. Using this approach the participants in a meeting would look into their webcams, much as someone would do on skype, and their facial expressions would appear on their avatars in a 3D virtual workspace. This approach would transmit most of the non-verbal communication associated with facial expressions and would produce an experience that would feel very much like a face-to-face discussion.
Computer vision can also be used to track and reproduce gestures on those same avatars. These gestures, especially in conjunction with facial expressions, account for a large majority of all non-verbal communication.
Gesture Recognition and Virtual Work
There are other technical approaches to reproducing gestures. MYO, an armband device that released just days ago, does an amazing job of tracking hand movements and gestures. It is being introduced as a computer control mechanism but the same approach could be used to capture and replicate gestures on avatars in a virtual space.
Holograms Make Real Progress
I remember when I saw one of the first moving holographic pictures at the MIT Media Lab in the late 1980s. It was small, blurry, jerky, and amazing. Holograms have come a long way since then.
One of the hottest pop stars in Japan is Miku Hatsune. She routinely fills stadiums with tens of thousands of worshipers. That isn’t unusual for pop stars. What is unusual is that Miku is completely virtual. She appears as a hologram on stage. There are other notable examples, including the use of a hologram to bring Tupac, the late rapper, back to life.
Beyond the use in entertainment there is a lot of interest in using holograms to provide rich communication in virtual meetings. In the near-term this technology would likely be applied only for high-end meetings but the costs will probably move down from the stratosphere fairly quickly.
The use of holograms, and other visual technologies, is supported by advancements in display technology. ”3D without glasses” and ultraclear 4K displays were everywhere at the Consumer Electronics Show this year. They are moving forward rapidly.
All of these advancements point to the fact that we are on the cusp of realizing the vision as Clarke laid it out in 1964.
Lastly, there is one tiny nit in his forecast that is off base, and thankfully so. Note that he describes how men will be working in the future. Fortunately, in the world of 2013 the world of work isn’t available only to men.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the future as seen from 1964.
Photo by Ell Brown
Marrisa Mayer’s recent edict banning telework and ordering Yahoo employees back to the office has garnered an incredible amount of attention. Comments have gone all the way from informal blogs posts and tweets to articles from major newspapers.
One major newscast in Silicon Valley ran a segment about “things that were supposed to be good ideas but failed.” They listed three items, one of which was telework. [Another was solar energy! ] The inclusion of telework on the list was explicitly tied to the Yahoo announcement.
When I hear all this I really want to say, “Good grief people. Get a grip.”
After some thought I’ve decided instead to say, “Overall I think that the response is excessive, and, most of all, is missing the point.”
Think about the following:
What’s the real significance of the Yahoo announcement to the telework community or to companies in general? Nothing.
What should our reaction be? Ignore it.
Why is that?
Is This About Telework? More to This Than Meets the Eye
The first thing to understand is that there is likely a lot more going on here than meets the eye.
To understand what’s really going on you have to think like a CEO.
In spite of the wording of the announcement, all of this may actually have very little to do with telework per se.
I have enormous respect for Marrisa Mayer. She has taken on a tough assignment and has to deal with a huge set of problems.
What can she herself personally DO to resolve the problems? Little or nothing.
A CEO can’t do much of anything directly. A CEO has to accomplish her goals through indirect action. She can send messages, influence thinking, shake up some people while encouraging others, indicate direction, etc.
In short, most of being a CEO is about optics. It’s about doing all you can to encourage and influence people indirectly to move in a desired direction.
Many observers note that part of the problem at Yahoo is that some workers have become complacent and have lost their edge.
If you’re Mayer one of the main things you need to do is shake them up. Send a clear message that you’re serious and that the old days are over. To this last point, one of the main things you need to do is simply ensure that change is in the air. At some level you don’t even care what the change is. You’re just trying to get the organization off of top dead center and get it moving. If are trying to encourage movement the sending “shake up” messages is one of the ways to do it.
That one point may very well explain the announcement.
By the way, a conventional wisdom has already formed in the Valley. The Valley has concluded that the real intent behind the action is to perform a soft layoff. She knows very well that if you tell a bunch of telework people to “get in the office or get out” some percentage will get out. And it won’t break her heart of some of them do. It’s a lot easier and cheaper to shed people that way than it is to do a formal layoff.
Was this just a shot over the bow to make a point and shake things up? Was this just a “soft layoff?” Was it simply an action to start some form of change? It’s tough to really know the answer to those questions. But one thing is for sure, it is very likely that there is a lot more going on here than meets the eye. It is likely that this isn’t really just about telework and all the articles posting statistics supporting telework are missing the real issue.
Don’t Generalize – Yahoo is a Special Case
The real risk in this situation is overgeneralization.
No matter what the reality behind the announcement, the fact is that Yahoo is a special case. Yahoo is a great company that has made awesome contributions to society. Unfortunately, they’ve fallen on hard times and some pretty drastic steps have to be taken.
The key point to understand is that they are hardly typical of the state of play in Silicon Valley. After a few decades here I can tell you that telework is an accepted element of life in the Valley. Life here is largely about management by results, whether the managers like it or not. People in the valley tend to be pretty free in terms of work style; basically, they work however they want as long as things are getting done. Now, it shouldn’t be lost that in this process the 60 hour work week is standard and a high percentage of people will be working much more than that. But, still, they tend to work those oppressive hours however they choose.
In short, the general situation is that if one were to make that kind of edict for the Valley overall it would generally simply be ignored. Most people would just keep doing what they are doing. My guess is that most of the people at Yahoo will have exactly the same reaction. In general they will ignore the edict.
The point here is that one company, especially one outlier, does not a trend make. It’s a little early to announce that telework is a failed concept based on one announcement from one company.
Get Real. The Order is Impossible.
The order said basically, “we need to collaborate so all you people who are working from home need to find an office and get in here and work.”
Is that even possible?
The first point is that most large companies in the Valley do not have anywhere close to as many cubes as they have employees. And half the cubes that exist are empty much of the time.
The simple reality is that world has gone mobile. People are working outside the office – whether at home or at Starbucks – whether Yahoo (or anyone else) likes it or not.
Companies are well aware of this and are trimming office expenses as a result. Most companies only have cubes for perhaps 75% of the employees and the trend is downward. I’m working with one large Valley enterprise that is in the process of reconfiguring all their large office buildings. Their standard is to assume that 40% of their employees will be “mobile workers.” This is not unusual. In a few days I’ll be meeting with a large architectural firm to discuss putting in place new major capabilities to be able to help large companies in their efforts to “rightsize” their spaces in light of current reality.
Note that Yahoo is telling workers to “find an office.” The wording implies that it will be a struggle. Good luck on that. The days of assuming that everyone would work from an office are over, and they aren’t coming back.
And second is that part about collaboration. It is entirely true that one of the big issues for any company like Yahoo is the need for teams to collaborate. Those of us who encourage “management by results” tend to ignore the fact that getting those results often involves people working with other people.
This is a valid issue for telecommuters. Unfortunately, it is a valid issue for their office-bound teammates as well.
The fact is that the “large-team collaboration” problem isn’t solved by getting everyone in a room together. First of all, it’s hard to get 10,000 people in a room together. At best only a small subset of people will really be interacting directly together.
I used to manage a large division of a company that was similar to Yahoo. We were in a large multi-story building in Silicon Valley. I tried very hard to get the people there to interact directly and collaborate more. It was a hopeless task. The reality is that people would almost never walk even to the other end of their own floor. And over time I worked out an informal algorithm for the “acceptable horizontal distance to acceptable vertical distance” ratio. It’s about 10 to 1. The simple version is that people simply refuse to go up a floor or down a floor. Many people would never directly interact with their teammates who were located ten feet above them on the next floor.
All of this is now exacerbated by two factors:
1. Companies are increasingly formed as collections of people from all over the world. Yahoo, like most other companies, operates large virtual global teams. Most of those team members will never interact directly no matter what order the CEO issues. What real difference does it make if I work from home when I spend 70% of my time in conference calls with people in another country?
2. A huge percentage of collaboration is now virtual, even for people who share the same office building. The Yahoo folk may be successful in “finding an office” but even if they do the majority of their interaction with other employees will be virtual. Employees today often use electronic communication to interact – whether it’s email, Yammer, Skype, Lync, blogs, forums, Sharepoint, Webex or any other application. Most importantly, they often use electronic communications to interact with people in the same room, much less the same building.
So, overall of course I disagree with the order but all-in-all I’d say that it has very little significance to the telework world. Virtual work is moving forward and Yahoo can do little to stop that (even if they really do want to).
Mostly, again, I think that using the Yahoo announcement as a lever to declare telework a “good idea that failed” is over the top.
Those are my views, I’d love to hear yours.
Photo by TechCrunch50-2008
A great debate is raging regarding MOOCs. Some experts love them. Some hate them. And those that love them REALLY love them and those that hate them REALLY hate them.
Is it possible that a major point is being missed in the discussion?
The MOOC Debate
Consider the situation relative to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC).
MOOCs are online courses that are generally free and open to anyone, with enrollment that is effectively unlimited.
MOOCs started around 2008 and have exploded since then. Coursera , a major MOOC player, logged a million users within four months of its launch. Many have noted that the rate of MOOC growth is faster than Facebook [http://goo.gl/zDJRN].
MOOCs are typically presented in a lecture style, with little or no interaction between individual students and the teacher. In many cases the students create peer assistance groups and other forms of self-help. Some classes offer some form of credit but traditionally most do not offer credit that is recognized by existing institutions.
One of the most notable aspects of MOOCs is the size of the classes. Enrollment can include 150,000 students. Unfortunately, very few of those students typically complete the class. It is rare for 20% of the students to finish a class with numbers under 10% being much more typical [http://goo.gl/DbNPl].
The supporters of MOOCs include some of the most elite universities, including top flight schools such as Stanford, Harvard, MIT, and UC Berkeley as well as premier non-profits such as the Bill Gates Foundation.
The advantages the MOOC model have been summarized by Educause as the following [http://goo.gl/xJCSd]:
- Its research-based methodology produces learning-optimized course architectures.
- It is maximally effective because it individualizes learning.
- It is efficient because it is competency based.
- It is scalable.
- It is cost-effective.
Some also note that MOOCs allow students to form social networks that, like those formed at elite universities, are often more important to professional success than the actual training they receive in the classes.
That “cost effective” point is one that is held most strongly by proponents. Many view MOOCs as the way to “save” higher education.
Critics stress many concerns. Some of the criticism involves the specific characteristics of MOOCs while much of the criticism is the natural reaction of traditional educators to something they feel is being “shoved down their throats” [http://goo.gl/IkbdF].
The view of the critics is summed up by the following statement:
MOOCs cost a lot of money, do not in any way simulate a classroom experience, and constitute—at best—the efficient yet static delivery of course content. The delivery of course content is not the same as education. And training students to perform technical tasks, such as doing basic equations in calculus, is not the same as education.
The intensity of the debate results from the fact that traditional institutions see MOOCs as an existential treat. In particular, the large established institutions see them as a real threat.
Many institutions are facing funding issues and are engaging in campaigns that are designed to stress the importance of increasing funding levels to universities. Along come MOOCs that undermine that campaign by claiming that they can teach students at a much lower cost. Moreover, there are other forces in play that encourage young people to question the value of a traditional education. The current trend in Silicon Valley is to lionize those who were accepted by top schools but then dropped out before completing. Peter Thiel, a well-known investor, famously offered 24 sharp young people $100,000 each to skip college and move directly to start building their entrepreneurial dreams [http://goo.gl/E5Lwe].
The traditional institutions are not being petty or paranoid. The MOOCs represent a real threat. The penultimate bulwark for traditional schools is the availability of course credit. As long as MOOCs do not provide traditional course credit they will not make major inroads against traditional education. That bulwark is cracking as the American Council on Education has recently approved credit for five MOOC classes [http://goo.gl/M8G7E].
Those on each side of the debate are making valid points and counter-points. Over time the discussion becomes very complex and very technical. For example, MOOCs tend to be much more effective for informational and knowledge-based instruction and less effective for “philosophical” programs.
Ultimately the trend toward MOOCs can be seen as part of the overall trend toward decentralization and disruption of traditional institutions. If MOOCs do, in fact, disrupt existing institutions it will simply be one of many disruptions of massive modern institutions.
The Essential Question
Pushing aside much of the complexity, the essence of the question, in a very simplified form, boils down to following: Which approach provides the best education for students?
Are students better served by traditional approaches that stress strong teacher involvement with a limited number of students or by online mechanisms that stress precanned presentations and “crowdsourcing” a deeper understanding of the material?
Just below this question is a corollary question : How important are teachers in education?
In considering that question I recall the many teachers in my own life that made such a huge difference in my own educational process. I remember an algebra teacher who helped me discover the excitement and adventure in algebra and a geometry teacher who showed me the elegance in the concept of a two-column proof. Yet another teacher helped me recognize the beauty in music and in other art forms that can’t be realized in a two-column proof.
After being a student I enjoyed being a teacher. There are few things as rewarding as helping a student develop their own thinking and understanding of the world.
As a part of this teaching experience I tutored algebra and calculus for many years. After only a year of tutoring I realized that there were two kinds of students and two kinds of teaching. There were some students that were really interested in algebra and some that were not. Most of the “type two” students were simply there to pass the test and get a grade. They had little or no interest in math.
Because there are two forms of students there are two forms of tutoring. Type one is all about helping students understand the underlying principles of mathematics and to discover the excitement of really internalizing those principles. Type two is about teaching the naked mechanics of algebra. Basically, the type two student needs to learn to “get the variable on one side of the equals sign and the numbers on the other” along with the various rules that allow that to happen.
In the end the traditional institutions are claiming that they do type one teaching and the “mass-production” MOOCs do type two teaching.
For Whom the Educational Bell Tolls
Although there are lively discussions on both sides of this issue they often miss one major point: the answer to the question of which system provides the best education depends on how one defines the word student. It might well be the case that one approach serves one class of students very well whereas the other approach serves another class of students more effectively.
Traditional schools, with solid teachers and well-established educational approaches provide amazing educations to the students that fall within their “target cohort.” Traditional schools are designed to serve capable young people who have relatively few life attachments and have the time and money to devote years of their lives to highly concentrated study. They are very effective in teaching students from that cohort.
Their value is far less clear for students outside that cohort. Suppose the potential student is older and has family and job responsibilities. Suppose the potential student is mid-career and is looking to gain the education required to make a fundamental job change. There are many other life circumstances that disqualify the vast majority of potential students.
Meanwhile, it is very expensive to attend a traditional university, especially a top university. Most potential American students will not even come close to being able to afford that cost. A poor person living in the Bronx may well have the same capability, dreams, and aspirations as someone with more financial means. But she isn’t likely to end up in Harvard. That is to say nothing of a person who lives in Togo, Africa. He almost certainly doesn’t even know there is a Harvard, if he even knows there is a United States; and odds are his children won’t know either.
Referring to the top universities as “elite universities” has become a meme in American culture. In general this is viewed as a mark of excellence but it can also have a pejorative reading. They are, in fact, elite and they serve the elite and preserve the elite.
MOOCs demonstrate, if nothing else, that there is a huge pent-up demand for education. They demonstrate that far more people want to learn than the current system can support. Note that even if only 10% of a 100,000 class completes the process that still represents 10,000 people. Many of those 10,000 people could never have received an equivalent education from a traditional institution.
In the end, the question of effectiveness of competing educational models depends heavily on which students are being considered.
The pressure coming from MOOCs will force the traditional institutions to consider ways in which they might be able to broaden the cohort that they serve without diluting the quality of the education they provide.
It will be interesting to see how this debate evolves.
Photo by Cikgu Brian
I used to be CEO of a company that built 3D virtual workspaces for use in virtual meetings, training, rehearsal and other business applications. As a result of that role I’ve reviewed a host of virtual meeting environments and spent hundreds of hours in meetings held in 3D virtual workspaces.
Recently I discovered Flipside Workspace, a new 3D virtual work environment.
After spending some time in the environment I asked myself if I would choose Flipside if I were a company looking for a virtual meeting environment. After some consideration I realized I was asking the wrong question, or at least was missing much of the point of Flipside.
Having said that, I think that 3D virtual workspaces are very valuable meeting environments, particularly as compared to other options:
3D Virtual Workspaces vs. Other Virtual Meeting Options
The most widely used option for virtual meetings is still audio conferencing. They clearly work, since there are roughly 11 million audio conferences per day just in the US, but they also leave a lot to be desired. How many hours have you spent in teleconferences, staring at a small speaker in the middle of a table while scratchy disembodied voices drifted up from it? It’s often hard to tell who is speaking, voices are often not clear, and it is impossible to include visual information.
There are excellent web conferencing tools available and they provide powerful capabilities beyond simple audio conferencing. The ability to have a shared view of slides, images, and videos provides a much stronger meeting environment.
Video conferencing adds the huge dimension of being able to actually see the participants in the meeting, however, most high-end video conferencing systems only operate in fixed locations and can’t be used in a mobile environment.
Meetings held in 3D virtual workspaces have huge benefits as compared to audio conferences and web conferences. They provide almost all the capabilities of audio or web conferences but they also create a strong sense of presence. (This “sense of presence” may not be immediately obvious but with extended usage it becomes very apparent.) This strong visual environment improves engagement and interaction and helps provide participants with a strong visual memory of the meeting.
Unlike many video conferencing users, virtual meeting participants feel like they are in one room together in much the same way that they would in a physical conference room. The use of avatars leads to much engagement and more human interactions among the participants. This visual participation can reduce unwanted “hidden multitasking.”
3D virtual workspaces also have great potential for adding capabilities that make them much more powerful than face-to-face meetings or video conferences. Some of these can be very simple. For example, given the graphical nature of the environment it’s possible to add labels to participants that display personal profile information when clicked. On the more sophisticated end, importing 3D graphical objects improves communication and collaboration regarding physical products.
In the near future we are likely to see language translation inserted into a virtual meeting environment and real-time translation can’t be too far off. Automated virtual assistants will be attending the virtual meetings of the future and automated transcription services will provide records of all the conversations.
There are other benefits that may be less obvious. One of the things that I observed by attending many virtual meetings is that people who were naturally recessive came out much more strongly in meetings held in 3D virtual workspaces. They are much more assertive than they ever were in any other form of meeting, including face-to-face meetings. It seems that they were much more willing to step forward when acting behind the “security” of an avatar. 3D virtual workspaces are very valuable for the billions of business people who live in cultures that discourage contact between men and women. They also hold great promise for bringing more disabled people into the workforce as well as for supporting continued employment for retiring baby boomers.
Addressing the Fundamental Issues in Virtual Work
Flipside can definitely support strong meetings. They have resolved some of the primary technical issues that plagued 3D virtual workspaces in the past. For example, most systems of the past required high-end graphics systems to execute properly and required large downloads and installs to begin operation. They were also limited to desktop environments. Flipside operates in a browser, does not require heavy downloads, is easy to use, and is mobile.
But back to my statement that I was wrong to think of Flipside as a meeting environment.
What I missed in my first analysis is that Flipside is much, much more than a meeting system.
Rather, it begins to address the most fundamental issues that have plagued virtual work forever. Companies today are moving toward environments where much more of their workforce is virtual – whether from telework or mobile work. Studies have shown that even though knowledge workers still have cubes those cubes often don’t have knowledge workers. The majority of such cubes are vacant most of the time [http://goo.gl/PtWVj].
Companies around the globe are racing to reconfigure their physical spaces to emphasize shared common areas and hoteling cubes. More and more employees are doing at least a significant part of their work at home or on the go.
This evolution creates a number of well-known problems. Those who are working from home feel disconnected from their colleagues at work and they lose a sense of the office social environment. Studies have shown that even those who remain full time in offices still feel a loss of social interaction because so many of their companions are working outside the office [ http://goo.gl/EzlCQ]
Creating “common work areas” and dropping individual cubes may make for efficient building utilization but it creates huge problems for individual workers. I recently participated in just such a transition for an enterprise company. I spent several hours talking to an employee who was distraught about the transition. I pointed out that he was rarely in his cube since he spends most of his time in a hardware lab so I wasn’t sure why losing the cube was SUCH a big issue. His answer was pretty simple: ”Now I won’t have anywhere to hang my daughter’s picture.”
Issues associated with a loss of a sense of personal space and community participation are huge issues that companies must face as they seek to reconfigure both their work areas and their operational environments.
Those issues are the real reason there’s a Flipside Workspace.
Passive Perpetual Presence
Email and telephone are still the most widely used telework tools, which is telling in regard to what is lacking with most online communication tools. Why are email and telephone so popular? Of course, the obvious answer is they are familiar and easy to use. But the less obvious answer is they are perpetual and personal. “This is MY phone number and MY email address”. It’s a way to be found, a way to be contacted, and a way to be connected at all times with minimal effort or invasiveness. It’s passive presence. And it is perpetual presence. Those connections are always out there. And they are yours, and yours alone.
Flipside is a virtual office environment, not a virtual meeting room. Each person in flipside can have their own permanent office which they occupy for the entire workday. There are conference rooms for large meetings, but any given worker will spend much of their day in their virtual office.
Given this approach, Flipside Workspace provides the passive perpetual presence that is lacking with other forms of online meeting choices. It is the place where mobile workers can “hang their hats” and be found without having to continuously set up meetings, or hangouts, or calls. It is the home base where workers can direct their colleagues and clients – “I’m in MY Flipside Workspace office 8-5”. As a result, it is common to see workers who are simply sitting and chatting together in an office, much as they would a physical office.
This passive perpetual presence is rich in passive communications and visual cues that just aren’t present in email, telephone, web conferences, or even video conferences. In Flipside, employees can visually see if the person they are trying to reach is available. They can see if the worker is busy conversing with someone else. Their presence is observable, so a visitor can easily be included (or not) in an already ongoing conversation. All of this provides an environment that is much more like a normal physical office environment.
Improved Online Experiences
Now back to that discussion about meetings.
Much of the problem that exists with online meetings isn’t about the technology that power the meetings, it’s about the lack of a surrounding environment and about the behavior of the meeting organizers and participants. In Flipside, the goal is to mimic the experience of working in an office. A meeting in an office doesn’t start when the moderator takes the microphone, it starts before that…choosing your seat, saying “hi” to other participants, engaging with participants before the meeting starts and strengthening those professional relationships.
During the meeting, the experience includes seeing who is speaking and speaking up to clarify ideas or words. All of these behaviors are extremely difficult to mimic with existing virtual meeting technology, both because of the limitations of the technology itself and because they are designed to simply conduct meetings and don’t provide for a larger office environment.
Professionally Oriented Community
Isolation is a commonly cited problem for those working from home. In a physical office there are people around that you can bump into and ask quick questions. Flipside Workspace provides a combination of passive perpetual presence and community
. This combination recreates the experience of working in an office and eliminates those feelings of isolation while still maintaining the flexibility that
virtual work affords.
A company based in Flipside could have a receptionist who greets visitors during “office hours”, individual offices for workers, and the use of public spaces to invite casual interactions. All of this contributes to making the Flipside users feel like they belong and that they have a presence among their virtual peers.
All of this also allows companies to maintain a key corporate culture even as they transition to a hybrid of physical and virtual operation.
Here Come the Millennials
Whether you call them Millennials or GenY’s they are coming on strong and they have a natural affinity for virtual environments. One of the things that I found most striking about watching users in 3D virtual workspaces is how strongly their reactions were associated with their demographic age group. Older workers, who did not grow up with video games and Massively Multiplayer Online Games, sometimes struggled with the whole idea of avatars and resisted the idea of having to move them around. Younger workers would pick up the interface in a matter of a few minutes simply because it was similar to what they had always known.
As those workers move up to dominate the workplace they will insist on the ability to work virtually and they will be expecting a Flipside-like environment to support it.
Flipside Workspace is pretty cool. I recommend giving it a try.
[Thanks to Flipside Workspace for the photos. Just for the record, I have no association with the company.]
3D printing is a process that uses a printer to create a 3D object from a graphical model. It is conceptually the opposite of creating objects through machining – a process that generally removes material from some base stock until the desired object appears. 3D printing is an additive process that lays down material layer by layer until the desired object emerges.
For many years 3D printing was largely a hobby interest, with sites like Shapeways allowing users to create objects from models online while other companies providing home-devices that were designed for consumer use.
Over the last few years 3D printing has leaped forward and it has now reached the point where it is being broadly applied to create all kinds of objects including bicycles, guitars, bikinis, and every kind of shoe. On the more controversial side, it is currently possible to use a 3D printer to create a gun and on the more wild side there are some who claim that we could use a giant 3D printer to make a house . Perhaps pointing our way to the future, very sophisticated robotic 3D printers can create complex machines, including copies of themselves.
While all these applications are interesting, the real “miracle” applications for 3D printers are in the area of healthcare.
The interest in most 3D print applications is based on the fact that it is cheaper, faster, more precise, or simply that they new and fascinating. The interest in 3D printing for medical applications results from the fact that biological 3D printers might be used to create objects that are both life-saving and impossible to create in any other way.
The initial use of 3D printers for healthcare revolved around doing traditional 3D printing of physical objects that had medical applications – for example, hearing aids, prosthetic limbs, and dentures. Using 3D printers in this way reached a real milestone when a 3D printer was used to create a full jawbone for an 89 year old woman. The artificial bone was created by printing layers of heated titanium powder that were then finished with a bioceramic coating.
As useful as those applications may be, the really amazing application is bioprinting – the use of 3D printers to form actual human tissue. These 3D printers use a “bioink” which is made of living cell mixtures to build up human tissue. Using this bioink the 3D printer builds up structures of cells, layer by layer, to form human tissue.
Although this approach clearly has a certain frankensteinian flavor, the potential applications are incredible. In a must-see TED talk , Dr. Anthony Atala not only discusses the possibility of using a 3D printer to create a human kidney, he actually demonstrates the creation of a prototype kidney during his talk.
I found this talk to be of particular interest because I remember vividly when my doctor told me that he needed to remove one of my kidneys. In fact, he discussed the possibility of removing two. Suddenly I could see myself wandering around the street with my hand out saying, “Buddy, could you spare me a kidney.” It turned out that he didn’t actually go forward with the operation, but the prospect was sobering. In fact, the need for kidney transplants is a very serious matter. As Dr. Atala points out in his superb talk, 90% of the people on transplant waiting lists are waiting for a kidney. Many of them will die while on the list.
What if we could simply print actual, functioning kidneys using a 3D printer and cellular material? Dr. Atala points the way to the future of organ creation and the potential use of 3D printing in a variety of other medical areas. It may well be many years before this vision become reality, but the prospect of this being the future is very, very real.
On the very cutting edge of the use of bio-printing, in February, 2013 it was announced that scientists used a 3D printer to create human embryonic stem cells for the first time. This incredible process creates droplets of living cells that maintain their ability to develop into different types of cells. It may even be possible to print such cells directly inside a body in the future.
This may well be the basis for actually growing new organs in the future and for realizing a variety of other medical goals that would have been considered complete science fiction not too many years ago.
It will be very interesting to see how the amazing technology develops in the coming years.
Photo by Hey Paul Studios