Monthly Archives: October 2013

Talking ‘Bout My Generation.

Since the queen first saw the light she has seen invented and brought into use … every one of the myriads of strictly modern inventions which, by their united power, have created the bulk of modern civilization and made life under it easy and difficult, convenient and awkward, happy and horrible, soothing and irritating, grand and trivial, an indispensable blessing and an unimaginable curse.
Mark Twain

The Economist recently wrote about the difficulties for firms of managing different generations in the workplace; Gerry Taylor from Orangebox gave a talk at the Business School a couple of months ago on similar issues, particularly those resulting from the changing demographics and the impact of technology. The Economist article focuses on managing these different generations – and their different wants and needs; Taylor on the impact on workspaces of these different generations.

Taylor was talking about research from a couple of years ago, Office Wars 2012 [PDF], and I don’t think any of the facts were particularly new: changing technology (particularly social media), the rise of China, the internet of things – we all know it’s coming! – but his analysis was somewhat different, and interesting. His delivery was passionate and engaging, too!

Boomers – people like me – are in the middle or towards the end of their careers (depending how we manage the pensions timebomb…): by 2015, a third of the workforce will be over fifty years old. They are often defined by their work and they’re highly skilled (they’ve had a while to get there). They invented youth culture, and they’re rewritten the rules with each decade. They are IT adaptors who enjoy change and like trying new things.

Millennials believe they move faster than anyone working who’s older than them, are “digital natives” for whom being unconnected is not an option, and they are huge customers of technology – including in the workplace.

These pictures of two generations are clearly stereotypes, and there are other generations – “X” and “Y” – in between; they are perhaps relevant to only certain strata of society, but they help forecasters maker plans. Including what the office may look like.

One big difference between boomers and millennial is, despite all their technological know how, millennial are much less secure than boomers. This might just reflect the power balance, but it is the boomers who know how the world works and are confident about their place in it. After all, they made the rules.

Boomers have taken to changing office structures, particularly working from home. Taylor described a high tech company – it might have been IBM or Microsoft (but I can’t for the life of me find a reference to it – have you ever tried Googling “Microsoft office”?) – who brought in flexible working, including hotdesking and homeworking. The boomers jumped at it; the millennials rebelled. Lacking the security of the office and the personal networks that the boomers had spent their careers building, the millennials floundered.

Apparently what millennials value must about the office environment is the experience the boomers have. They need mentors. (This might not be just millennials: it is perhaps their stage in their careers rather than their generational status that is relevant.)

Our office spaces have been shaped by technology. The thing is, it’s the technology of the nineteenth century. Electric lighting, the telephone, lifts (“elevators” to our American cousins) and the typewriter made offices what they are. (You could probably add air conditioning to that list.)

And what they are are social spaces where people can make connections.

Technology will continue to make a huge impact on offices and how we work, and in particular it can free people from the workspace. But this also changes the dynamics of the workspace; and perhaps it is the boomers who will benefit.

Businesses need to change what they do with their offices, and how they relate to their younger staff, because the competition for talent will otherwise mean that will find employers who do. There is a contradiction here of course: with the economy still in the doldrums if not recession, where precisely I’d that competition for talent? Have millennials really got the pick of several job offers? I doubt it, right now; but these things can change quickly.

Why have offices – when technology lets you work anywhere, why do we need to all be in the same place? Because work is more than work: people – particularly those millennials – value the social aspects of the office.

But I have doubts. As the Economist itself states, youth unemployment is high around the world and there is a generation who may not know employment – no wonder those millennials are feeling insecure. Whilst recruiters and HR people still go on about “the war for talent“, for most people in most roles, just keeping a job is a struggle. Real wages are falling in the UK and in the USA, as well as the Eurozone.

The differences between generations may just reflect the differences in their life stages – differences which have always been there, as workers move through their work and actual lives. Of course what young employees want is different from those approaching retirement. One major difference with previous generations is that those approaching retirement may be doing so with trepidation, with rising retirement ages and falling annuity rates, and may be keen to keep working (and earning). People at different stages of their lives will have different outlooks – saving, “nest-building”, and so on. These may lead to conflict (some commentators talk of “intergenerational war“).

But for most jobs, nothing much has changed. And the employers can dictate the workplace and work culture that suits them best. To most people in most roles in organisations I imagine that the issues raised seem distant and unimportant. The workplace may be changing, but slowly, imperceptibly – for most.

Hearing Voices.

I have long not liked machines that talk. I don’t even like machines that beep at me, switching all system sounds off at the first possible opportunity. I think my attitude to voice interaction with computers was established by seeing “2001: A Space Oddity” as a child. HAL set my default reaction.

So when Ben Cowan spoke to Edinburgh Skeptics a couple of weeks ago on human-computer interaction, particularly voice activated systems like Apple’s Siri, it evoked a strong reaction.

I started using computers in the early 1980s: I first used a device (which I think must have been an Apple) as an undergraduate in1982; my postgrad work required me to use a mainframe for some stats, and I wrote my thesis on a BBC Micro. A keyboard was the only way to interact with these machines, and that could be very frustrating – with the mainframe, “interaction” could take hours, as the machine was very unresponsive. Feedback is powerful. They tried to talk to me – an irritated beep when they didn’t like something (which back in those days was often) – but one only talked back in frustration. Or anger. (Come on – who hasn’t sworn at their computer?!)

I first used a mouse in 1986, again on an Apple. But when I first started using PCs, the keyboard and command line was still the main way of interacting. I still use keystrokes rather than mouse actions for a lot programmes.

My experience of voice activated systems has been limited to supermarket self service systems and telephony systems. I hate self service checkout with a vengeance, largely down to the universally patronising tone of voice used. And my experience of telephony systems is similar to these poor miscreants, shown by Ben.

It’s not just Glaswegian accents – Birmingham City Council installed a voice activated telephony system which couldn’t recognise Brummie accents. They must have done extensive testing of that one!

And then of course there was HAL, lurking at the edge of my technological nightmares.

Perhaps it is a matter of control.

The thing is, voice interaction is becoming much more common. My phone and my tablet – both Android devices – have the ability to use voice activated systems (most commonly Google Now, which is the standard app). You’ve probably realised I’ve not tried them. It appears I’m not the only one.

But voice interaction systems are likely to become more common. As well as Siri and Google Now, Google Glass is voice activated. Satnav appears almost ubiquitous (though I of course abstain…).

I’m beginning to think this might be my problem rather than HCI’s, and Cowan explained why this might be. I’d say I have an issue with the aural “uncanny valley” (my words, not Cowan’s) – the closer to a human voice they sound, the stranger, more passive and downright unemotional – unhuman, even – they seem.

Cowan discussed some of the psychology that goes into this. There are rules in conversation – like “partners in a dance”, even if we’re not aware of the steps. We learn the steps as we learn to talk. Computers don’t. They have to be programmed, and at the moment those programmes are largely database driven and determinate. They work off keywords, rather than natural language. Instead, we fall into line with the machines: Cowan explained how when we talk to people, we model their usage and align our vocabularies. (Starbucks works hard to get us to model their language.) Interestingly, people communicating with computers align their language, too. This has been going on as long as there have been computers: when writing Fortran or Basic programmes back in the 1980s, the vocabulary I could use was very restrained and had very specific meaning. I had to use those words and the programmes’ syntax because otherwise the programmes wouldn’t work, or would give different results from those expected.

When we speak, whether to another person or using voice interaction with a computer, though, the modelling would be internal – subconscious – rather than deliberate.

I was surprised to learn that Siri has a single, masculine voice in the UK (apparently with an American accent). In the USA, Siri seems to have a feminine voice (which can be changed). Presumably its implementation in other languages takes on different voices or accents. Perhaps in the future we will be able to programme computerised voices, as some people do with satnav which I am sure would go some distance to overcoming the uncanny valley – though it may raise other issues (who owns the sound of their voice? What if one decides to use an ex’s voice? …And so on).

Still, it would appear that Siri has a sense of humour…

Which I think is where I came in…

Edit: I have been reliably informed that in the UK, Siri has a British accent. Chris says: “UK Siri [is] decidedly British; he sounds like a sarcastic airline pilot.”