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I Wonder How We Will Manage the Robots

Category: General
I Wonder How We Will Manage the Robots

For decades fans of science fiction have only wondered when, not if, robots would someday think and act like humans. In a month or so a robot named Chappie will make its movie debut and the story line appears to give it human qualities we humans will connect to.

While robots and computers may never think and feel like humans, although Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk believe we are getting closer by the day, they are quickly changing the workplace landscape. And not just in factories.

My friend Danette, who is a very accomplished corporate attorney, recently sent me a link to an article by Kenneth Grady on two ways artificial intelligence (AI) will impact the legal profession. First, in how actual legal services like case research, legal briefs, and document preparation are performed. And, second, how AI will impact substantive law itself as computers are programmed more to interact with other computers and where the legal responsibility for computer “behavior” resides.

What interests me, because there are parallels to other industries, is how AI will impact legal services. Grady writes that when he refers to AI within the legal profession he means software, not robots. Here are some important questions Grady shares with his readers, “As computers become more powerful, we will transfer some work done by lawyers to computers. What will we mean when we say lawyers must supervise the software? How does a lawyer effectively supervise a program that can analyze millions of cases and articles to provide a suggested course of action? What role will lawyers play as software takes over steps from lawyers? Is there a line to draw between humans practicing law and computers practicing law?”

If computers can practice law, they can certainly do many other knowledge-based tasks previously reserved for educated humans. For example, AI has been impacting employment services at an ever-increasing rate. When you post your resume on Monster or Indeed or even through our staffing websites, computer software “parses” key words from those resumes. These parsed key words are how computers used by employers search for potential candidates. Again, computers are communicating with computers.

Last year the law firm Littler Mendelson published a 66-page report called The Transformation of the Workplace Through Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Automation. While the report is generally written as an overview of how robotics is impacting workplace law, it is a helpful primer for any of us working in business. In this report they define a robotic system as “…a computer system that…is capable of sensing occurrences in a dynamic situation or environment, capturing and analyzing the relevant data, and subsequently reaching conclusions, providing recommendations, making decisions, and otherwise taking action, whether of a physical or non-physical nature.”

As my colleagues know, I am very interested in how AI is going to impact our industry and our business. How do you think it will impact your business?

January 27, 2015 15:20

Mathematically Speaking, How Many People Should I Interview?

Categories: Hiring , Books

This past week my colleague, Jim, and I interviewed our second candidate for a technology position in our company. Like the first candidate, there were some things we liked and some things we did not. Knowing that we may never find the “perfect” candidate, Jim said to me, “I wonder what our “n” number is?” When I asked him what he meant, he gave me a fascinating answer that I thought I would share with you.

Mathematically Speaking, How Many People Should I Interview?

Matt Parker has written a book with quite a title, Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension: A Mathematician’s Journey Through Narcissistic Numbers, Optimal Dating Algorithms, at Least Two Kinds of Infinity, and More. Among his interesting notes is a reference to a 1950’s research project that studied how many secretarial candidates a manager would need to interview before the right one came along. Parker actually applied this study to dating, which must make sense to an unromantic mathematician. He wrote about how many women one would have to date before the right one came along – sounds like a plot ripe for the Big Bang Theory.

Square Root of “N” plus one. The interview research project from the 1950’s and 1960’s was likely devised by American mathematician Merrill Flood and later proven by British statistician Dennis Lindley, in 1961. What it hypothesized was that you really don’t have to interview all possible candidates, but a much smaller sample. Here is my translation of the five steps:

  1. Estimate how many people you are likely to interview within your hiring time frame (that number is “n”).
  2. Calculate the square root of “n” and I will call that “t”.
  3. Interview and reject the first “t” people. Assume they are no longer available.
  4. After reaching “t” stop and choose the best candidate up to that point and list the qualities you liked.
  5. Then continue interviewing people and choose the first person to exceed the qualities you listed in Step 4. Don’t interview anyone else.

Why stop after this last step? Because the probability of anyone coming in and far-exceeding this person is very low, virtually non-existent.

Example. Once Jim explained this to me and I read an abridged article by Parker, I concluded that our “n” value was likely nine or 10 interviews. Thus, our square root is 3. This means after our next interview, we could pause and examine our best candidate and make a list of her/his qualities and then hire the next person we interview who exceeds this list.

What is interesting about this method is you begin to realize that increasing the volume of potential interviewees will not necessarily get you the right candidate. For example, if I thought we would have 16 candidates, I would do the same exercise after only four interviews. Even if I thought we could have 36 interviews, we would stop after the sixth and do the exercise.

While using a mathematical exercise to help in hiring feels a bit inhuman, it really is an interesting sampling method that makes me think about two things. First, we should always interview more than one or two people so we get a sense for what qualities are available. Second, we should reflect on the qualities we’re seeing after the first group of interviews so we can (a) sharpen the list of probable qualities available within the current pool of prospective applicants, and (b) examine whether our recruiting sources (advertising) are written correctly to attract the qualities we want.

Okay, so now you know what the “n” number is and how it applies to interviewing. What do you think of this method?

January 12, 2015 18:51

Two Car Questions to Start the Year

Category: General
Car Salesman

I could not believe how many car commercials were on television this past week. It seemed like every time I turned on the television, there was another one. Since it was the last week of the year, it made me curious about two questions:

  1. What share of television commercials come from the auto industry?
  2. Is there real pressure to reduce inventory at year-end and give consumers deals?

Advertising by Automobile Industry. Of all the sectors or media of advertising, television advertising is the largest with over $67 billion in annual revenues. (Advertising media include television, digital, print, radio, and outdoor/billboards.) Interestingly, the digital sector, which includes internet and mobile devices, is now the second largest advertising sector and generates $40 billion in revenue.

The automobile industry is the largest spender of television advertising dollars – reportedly between 12% and 15% of $67 billion, and the largest advertiser in the digital segment. Some recent reports in the Wall Street Journal indicate large advertisers like General Motors are actually reducing television commitments and shifting dollars into digital. This may be a sign effective digital advertising allows companies to target buyers more successfully than television advertising.

The top five selling brands of cars in the United States are: 1) Ford, 2) Toyota, 3) Chevrolet, 4) Honda, and 5) Nissan, respectively. And, according to the Television Bureau of Advertising, these five brands are the top five investors in television commercials in the same order except Honda and Nissan switch places.

Christmas and Year-end Selling. Consumers do buy cars for the holidays and at surprising levels. According to a recent article in Business Week the holiday buying season now starts on Black Friday. There are even small niche businesses that thrive by making those large bows dealers and buyers can put on the car “presents.” December is now often the month with the most unit sales.

Two other forces affect December sales. First, manufacturers and dealers want to reduce their inventories by year end. Second, and perhaps most important, many dealers are trying to hit their unit sales quotas. Whether or not they hit the quota can make a huge difference in their profitability and, of course, the bonuses paid to their teams of people.

Good Deals for Buyers. I read a survey report a few years ago that concluded consumers dreaded buying cars more than any other purchase. Many feared the interaction with car salesmen. But now the playing field seems to have tilted in favor of the savvy buyer thanks largely to the internet, which has helped buyers get better deals without dealing with salespeople. Unfortunately for dealers, this has trimmed profit margins to the point where many dealers only make money if they hit their monthly unit quota. And that is why you can often get the best deal in the last days of a month or year – your one car purchase could decide whether a dealer receives an “all or nothing” huge, quota incentive payment.

Recently, I listened to a podcast on This American Life called “Cars.” The reporters spent one month at the Town and Country Jeep dealership on Long Island. While I was surprised the dealership gave them such intimate access, it likely helped increase their sales in the end. The piece definitely supports a few of the stereotypes we have about car dealers, but also introduces us to the human side of being a car salesperson. Here are a few of my takeaways.

  1. Dealers have monthly quotas they must hit. This dealer had to sell 129 new Chrysler or Jeep vehicles. If they hit the quota, they would get paid somewhere close to $85,000. If they did not, they would get nothing.
  2. Salespeople have monthly quotas that trigger bonuses and they can be impacted if the dealership does not hit their quota. I infer from the report that the quotas and bonuses vary by salesperson and that the salespeople know the quotas for everyone. At Town and County the top salesman, Jason, will again likely sell 30 new cars that month, far more than his nearest competitor. The average salesperson sells 15 cars.
  3. Like other research I have read about good salespeople, they are mostly motivated by the “close” itself. They get a rush when the customer drives away with a car. Each successful salesperson has his or her own special sales approach or strategy. The most interesting to me was Manny, who had actually studied Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. To Manny he was the “tiger” and the customer was the “deer” and he had to eat. He went into detail about his strategy, which is called “Present them with the unexpected and they will fall apart.” He actually showed the reporter a video about the Battle of Cannae, when this technique was used. He also gave the reporter a recent example and how it worked with the customer.
  4. In the last days of a month, if the dealer is behind their quota, they will sell cars at a loss because of the huge quota check they might lose. They even sell cars to family members so as to hit the quota.

While the cynics among us believe the purpose of television advertising is to drive us, the deer, into the mouths of tiger salespeople, I think it is the wise deer in the end that benefits most. If we can wait and buy our car at the end of the month and get comfortable using the internet to do the shopping, both the deer and the tiger will flourish and enjoy life.  

January 05, 2015 19:19

A Christmas Truce 100 Years Ago – A Brief Lesson in Cooperation

Categories: Inspire , Conflict Resolution

Something remarkable happened 100 years ago in 1914 on Christmas Day – enemy troops threw down their weapons and greeted each other in peace. It was a rare moment when the good in religion transcended the evil created by political governments. And it is a story of when front-line troops, the ones really bearing the burdens of war, took the leadership role and ignored the commands of their leaders.

A Christmas Truce 100 Years Ago – A Brief Lesson in Cooperation

World War I in 1914. In August 1914 Germany declared war on France and began several aggressive attempts to move into France. Britain came to France’s defense and by the fall of 1914 was helping France fight back against the Germans. The two sides had reached what some might refer to as a stalemate from almost the North Sea down to the border of Switzerland. Each side had dug its own trenches to protect its forces. This became known as “the Western Front.” These battle scenes were recently made famous in Downtown Abbey and the film War Horse.

While the troops would fight each other in skirmishes, they also had more down time. The German and British troops began to fraternize and cooperate with each other. They would allow each to retrieve their dead and wounded soldiers. They would yell friendly things back and forth. And, occasionally, share stories and food.

Christmas 1914. As Christmas approached that year, there was already a modest level of cooperation among some enemy troops. By Christmas, though, many thousands of troops left their trenches and made peace for the moment with the enemy. As Frank Richards, a British soldier wrote, “On Christmas morning we stuck up a board with ‘A Merry Christmas’ on it. The enemy had stuck up a similar one…. Two of our men then threw their equipment off and jumped on the parapet with their hands above their heads. Two of the Germans done the same and commenced to walk up the river bank, our two men going to meet them. They met and shook hands and then we all got out of the trench.”

While it was a dangerous thing to do, and often happened against the orders of superiors, the practice spread all along the Western Front. It became known as the “Christmas truce”. During this truce soldiers from both sides began to trade goods like plum pudding from the British troops and pipes from the Germans. And they prayed, buried dead troops, sang carols, shared dinner and even played soccer.

This truce only lasted a few days until senior officers got more aggressive about increasing the battle attacks and strategies and even a few court-martials for those front-line leaders who commenced the peaceful activities.

This year the British grocery store, Sainsbury, produced a video advertisement to honor this moment of peace 100 years ago. (This is an interesting and subtle three-minute commercial.)

It does teach us what can happen when we approach others in the spirit of peace and cooperation. While I understand there are many layers to the complexity of war, this reminds me to think first about using cooperation as a strategy – it might just lead to the best outcome.  

December 22, 2014 13:16

Five Questions from Advent Season

Category: Leadership and Management Lessons

Almost all Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs, are impacted by the Christmas holiday. But until last week, I had not really thought about the impact the Christian Advent season should have on us, probably because most people don’t really think about it. And we should (more about that later).

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

The Christmas Retail Industry. This year it is expected the Christmas retail industry will surpass $620 billion, which is about 20 percent of retail sales for the whole year. Retailers during this period hire about 770,000 supplemental workers, most of whom will lose their job by New Year’s Day. And, if you sell Christmas trees this time of year as I do with my Rotary Club, you might be interested to know that the Christmas tree segment itself is a $1 billion industry.

Christmas has become a frenzy of activity - shopping, traveling, and going to parties. And then there are the movies - It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, Christmas Vacation, Home Alone, and so on. I’m sure you have a favorite. Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas is #1 all-time Christmas movie at the box office.

Advent and Christmas. Last Sunday at my Church our pastor, Emily Heath, taught us an important lesson that has leadership implications. Emily said that although these movies are “Christmas-themed” they are really Advent movies – they are about someone who comes to understand Christmas by making a change.

Emily said, “Even when everything is coming down around George Bailey, he learns to see the world through grateful eyes. Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth about himself, becomes a compassionate and kind soul, and changes his miserly ways. Charlie Brown hears Linus recite the Christmas story, and he learns what Christmas is all about. And even the Grinch hears the Whos down in Whoville singing despite the fact he stole Christmas, and his heart grows three sizes that day.

“Those are their Advent stories. Each has an Advent that prepares them for Christmas. And each arrives at Christmas day different than they were when the season of Advent started. They are, in some way, transformed. And transformation is what Advent is all about.”

Transformation. Emily’s message resonated with me. I think it is a good time of year for each of us to look at ourselves and think how we can become a better person. Here are five questions I am asking myself based on lessons from the movie characters and the Advent season:

  1. How can I show others I am grateful for our relationship and their effort?
  2. Can I show more compassion and kindness toward others?
  3. If I sometimes lose my temper or use sarcasm, how can I be more peaceful and respectful?
  4. How can I put others first and be less selfish?
  5. In what ways can I be more joyful, hopeful, and optimistic?

My hope for leaders everywhere is that they ask themselves these types of questions and strive to become better people. I know I will try.  

December 15, 2014 19:27
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Steve Wood is the President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Leddy Group and Work Opportunities Unlimited Inc. (WOU). In addition, Steve provides strategic planning and organizational development consulting services to clients.


Prior to joining the company, Steve spent 17 years in the banking industry where he was promoted to Senior Vice President and Senior Commercial Loan Officer.



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