Tag Archives: digital and technology

Are You Ready For The Gig Economy? Some Of Us Have Already Taken The Leap

Kishwar Rahman, guest speaker at the upcoming Women in Procurement conference in Melbourne, Australia, shares her thoughts on the upcoming shift to a gig economy, the need for digital transformation, and the importance of networks for women in procurement.

Thriving in the gig economy

Rahman, a digital transformation lawyer, has recently completed a project as policy lead for the digital marketplace in the Australian Federal Government’s Digital Transformation Agency. She has now progressed to a lead role working for the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) to assist in setting up an e-Marketplace for the organisation.

“I’m a classic example of the gig-economy professional”, says Rahman. “I’ve moved from project to project, offering my professional skills. Businesses are increasingly looking to hire the right people at the right time for project-based employment.”

According to Rahman, the whole notion of the permanent role is becoming less appropriate as businesses transition towards a consultancy model where experts move between businesses or different projects within a large organisation. “It’s very different to the concept of the ‘job for life’ that existed in our parents’ generation, and still an expectation of employment in the public service.”

So, what can organisations and individuals do to prepare for the gig economy? From the organisational side, it pays to be prepared for an upcoming transformation. A gig-economy office, for example, will look very different to workplaces of the past. They will be structured around a fluid and ever-changing group of professionals coming into the business, working with others on specific projects, then departing for different roles when they have completed their projects.  One obvious symptom of this is the disappearing concept of the employees work station which is now being replaced by lockers for personal belongings and individual desks in quiet areas and larger tables for collaborative work.

Businesses also need to future-proof their customer-facing policies that currently favour clients with permanent roles. “Take banks, for example” says Rahman. “If you’ve ever applied for a home loan, you’ll know that they prefer to lend money to people with permanent roles. Unless they reassess their lending criteria, they’ll soon find that they won’t have enough clients as permanent roles become a thing of the past.”

Individuals, on the other hand, can prepare themselves for the gig economy by examining which of their skills could be put to use across multiple businesses, honing their expertise in those areas and becoming a member of a multi-disciplinary and multi-forming teams that move from one project to the next once they have achieved their outcomes and completed their deliverables.

Digital transformation – getting stakeholders on board

Rahman’s experience in driving digital transformation has led her to pick up essential change-management and implementation skills. “Getting people on board with a technological or process transformation is always one of the biggest challenges”, she says. “The most effective means of persuasion is to show them the efficiency in terms of speed and cost benefits. We live in a culture that expects extreme responsiveness and near-instant results, so simply highlighting speed gains will always be more effective than going into detail about improved workflows and processes.” Similarly, organisation want to find cost savings by digitising manual processes.

Another effective way to win stakeholders over to your transformation improvement is to find some common language on the benefits of the change. “Look for a benefit that everyone can relate to. A digital transformation, for example, will almost always lead to the automation of administrative tasks, which will free people up to do more creative and meaningful work. Reskilling and retraining will also be critical to this gig-economy.   Education and training will also have to change in form and shape of delivery with consumers demanding the option to shape a course and its mode of delivery and study at their own time and pace to fit it around paid work and personal commitments”.

Networking with women in procurement

One of the reasons Rahman is attending Women in Procurement 2017 is out of curiosity. “Before last year I didn’t know there was a separate forum for women in the profession. I’m interested in seeing who’s going to be there, who’s participating, and who are the female leaders in the field. Additionally, the procurement profession, just when it has started to be recognised as a profession, is also being reshaped by the gig-economy. What will procurement look like in the future and what are the skill set that young women will need to participate in this profession in the future”.

The networking opportunity is also crucial. “Historically, women have had a lack of access to networks. Events like this can connect you with a pool of expertise – peers who you can ring up and share ideas with and problem solve.”

Kishwar Rahman and other leaders in the profession will be speaking at Quest’s Women in Procurement 2017 event in Melbourne on 26-27 April. Visit Quest Events to download a brochure and find out more. 

Welcome to the Uncanny Valley

Why are we happy to watch movies with AI and robots, but feel disturbed by near-identical humanoid robots in real-life? Welcome to the Uncanny Valley.

Uncanny Valley

Considering the robot theme of my last two posts, I was somewhat pleased last week to have picked up a radio show from the BBC in their series ‘The Why Factor’ called “Fear of Robots” in which they make some of the same points concerning our assumptions that robots will always be benign.

The presenter found himself somewhat disquieted by a robotic seal pup, and completely disturbed by an almost-human android.

He had, so the saying goes, entered the uncanny valley. Although we humans react (and sometimes over-react) very positively to human-like features – cartoon characters, dolls and the like – we have a generally very bad response to simulations which are very, very nearly, but not completely, life-identical.

The Uncanny Valley

Despite the extraordinary advances in CGI, many filmgoers find greater satisfaction and easier suspension of disbelief in watching old-style animation, than movies which seek to recreate the real world.

The characters just don’t move right, or look right, or something.  The difference is so slight and subtle, yet rings huge alarm bells in our heads.

One contributor to the radio show described very-near-human robots as giving us the same heebie-jeebies as walking corpses might. After all, they are cold, their skin tone is wrong, they don’t move naturally. Of course they freak us out.

Away from the uncanny valley, though, we love the broader approximations to human behaviour.  As we turn away in discomfort from the close-to-real, we delight in the more grotesque caricature.

It seems we’re more comfortable with the messy, chaotic, imperfect real-world, than a more sterile near-perfection.  Perhaps that speaks to a deep aspect of human nature, something that we software developers might do well to pay heed to.

Emotional Reactions

There are clear cases of this emotional reaction to human-like behaviour in the use of software, especially at work.

The response that many, if not all of us, had to that [expletive deleted] animated paper clip when it popped up and said, “I see you’re trying to write a letter, would you like some help with that?” was no different to the reaction we’d have to the co-worker who would keep dropping by to say, “You don’t want to do it like that. Do you?”.

Approximating the real world, including human behaviour, when developing the software that we need to interact with, is thus a complex matter.

Get it right and the user experience is one of delight and sustained engagement. But go too far and users are actively put-off by the feeling that the software itself is somehow working against us.

At GEP we’ve been working on user experience technology that puts the human at the heart of process.  We are, of course, some way from software that has a human personality. And although the possibilities are immense, they are not without risk.

Imagine sitting down at your desk each day to find that overnight everything has been rearranged to make it slightly more convenient for you.  Perhaps so you don’t have to reach so far for the telephone, or your chair is aligned more ergonomically to the monitor.

Such things could dramatically improve our day…or screw it up entirely, leaving us feeling irritated or even violated.  As creatures of habit we naturally reach for the place where the telephone is, which is not always ideal.  It just is.

A Real-Life, Virtual Assistant

But there is another, more subtle, set of possibilities that we might permit to assist us without, to be frank, freaking us out.

You might imagine an assistant who begins by learning how you work, where the shortcuts are that you naturally take, and how other might be offered to speed things along.   Then when the time is right, you assistant might suggest you have some choices, all in good time, no rush.  The assistant makes notes of how they can improve your life and recommends rather than enforces changes.

In time you might start noticing that there is less clutter around and you’re completing tasks faster without having been trained, directed or instructed.  User consent to small changes that help keep things tidy could be far more effective than wholesale re-ordering of menus and icons.

It’s something we have to keep in mind when developing software that should be designed to help you work.  There is a fine but definite line between being helpful and just downright irritating.

It reminds me of the wonderful scene in Father Ted where a sales assistant tries to tempt Mrs. Doyle with an automatic tea-maker.   “It will take the misery out of making tea.”  Her response?  “Maybe I like the misery!”

Anti-censorship Campaigners Launch New Site to Test VPNs in China

A new website, launched by anti-censorship group GreatFire, will help users in China test how well VPNs work in the country.

VPNs Test China

Anti-censorship group GreatFire launched a new service on Tuesday that will help internet users inside China live test how well different virtual private networks (VPNs) are working in the country.

VPNs, which create direct links between computers and offer a way in which to gain unrestricted access to the internet, are vital for business in China as well as for accessing information.

The country actively censors the internet, with users having to use circumvention tools in order to access over 18,000 websites including Google, Facebook, the BBC and the New York Times.

Testing VPNs

“There is a commonly held belief in China that if you have a VPN that works then you should keep quiet about it,” said GreatFire co-founder Charlie Smith. “In terms of freedom of access to information, the problem with this approach is that it keeps useful knowledge secret.

“We hope this project will destroy that model and give people accurate information so they can make informed choices. The public need to be able to get online quickly, reliably and free from state censorship.”

Chinese authorities have stepped up their attacks on circumvention tools over the past 18 months and GreatFire’s new testing site is part of the group’s attempt to fight back. The site – Circumvention Central (CC) – provides real-time information and direct access to both free and paid-for censorship-evasion tools that are working in China.

Constantly updated using information from within China, all VPNs (including GreatFire’s own circumvention tool FreeBrowser) are measured on both speed (how quickly popular websites are loaded) and stability (the extent to which popular websites load successfully).

Reflecting Real User Experience

Speed tests typically measure download and upload speed by sending a few requests to a speed test server. That means reported speeds do not reflect user experience because normal browsing involves frequently sending lots of requests to many different servers.

In contrast, GreatFire’s speed test aims to reflect real user experience by downloading resources from the ten most popular websites in the world, including Google, Facebook, YouTube, Baidu, Amazon and Yahoo. If the contents returned are incorrect, or if the download fails to complete within 40 seconds, the test is marked as failed.

Besides speed, stability is also tracked. Typically not taken into account by other services, the stability test reflects the likelihood of a connection failing. Although any connection, anywhere should deliver 100 per cent stability unless unplugged, VPNs on the ground in China regularly fail.

Testing happens in real-time, which is essential to an environment where VPNs get blocked and unblocked continuously. Visitors to the CC site can purchase any paid-for tool currently tested. GreatFire will act as a reseller of these tools in China and as such be given a portion of each sale by the VPN providers themselves. Users need not be based in China to purchase a circumvention service.

Digital Activism

Any revenue generated through the site will be used to support the ongoing digital activism of GreatFire, which earlier this year won an Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award for its work fighting online censorship in China.

“At the moment, GreatFire relies on the kindness of individuals who send us donations and a limited number of grant-making organisations around the world,” said Smith. “We want to reduce our reliance on these organisations and raise enough funds to properly end internet censorship in China as soon as is humanly possible”.

Smith hopes the new site will revolutionise VPN use in China. “Until CC, nobody has provided public information about the effectiveness of circumvention tools in China. Many have provided misinformation,” he said.

“Some VPN providers have also famously encouraged their customers to “keep quiet” about the effectiveness of their solutions. On the contrary, we encourage everyone who hears about this project to share this information with those who they think could benefit.”

Businesses Alarmed by Digital Skills Shortage

A major training effort is needed to improve digital skills, and make sure people are not left behind in the digital age, say the Institute of Directors.

Digital Skills

The Institute of Directors (IoD) have stated that a major effort is required in the UK in order to ensure that workers have the digital skills required to keep up with technological advances.

The IoD was responding to a report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which suggested that, while 90 per cent of current UK jobs required digital skills, over 12.6 million UK adults did not have the skills to allow them to perform these roles.

The report also stated that two-thirds of digital-based organisations have struggled to fill a vacancy in the past 12 months, and that 93 per cent of technology companies have seen a direct impact on commercial operations from a digital skills gap.

This is despite over 12 per cent of Computer Science graduates still being unemployed six months following graduation.

Digital Exclusion

The House of Commons report also highlighted a worrying trend in digital exclusion, with 23 per cent of the UK population lacking even basic digital skills. These include a high percentage of disabled and elderly people, as well as those without a formal education.

However, the good news on this front, is that around 4.5 million of the 12.6 million are currently in full time employment, with employers being asked to assess how to aid with digital skills education and training.

While the impact on the economy of these statistics is estimated to be in the region of £63 billion per year, in lost potential GDP, individuals also miss out on savings of £560 per year on average by not being online.

The report concludes that there is more to be done by the UK Government, both in terms of facilitating the training of digital skills, but also putting the infrastructure in place to enable the entire population to have access to the Internet.

Digital Skills Education

In April, the IoD released a major report arguing significant changes to education and life-long learning were needed to enable the UK to adapt to rapid advances in technology and automation.

The IoD’s Chairman, Lady Barbara Judge, in a piece for the Sunday Telegraph yesterday said that society needs to make “a concerted effort to upskill and reskill its population, and not leave a whole generation ill-equipped to meet the new reality”.

Seamus Nevin, Head of Employment and Skills Policy at the Institute of Directors, said of the House of Commons report: “This report shows the need for businesses to invest more in training British workers. We also must make sure tomorrow’s workforce is leaving school or university with the digital skills that employers require. Just as importantly, we must enable people already in employment to retrain or up-skill in order to meet the demands of the changing workplace.

“The IoD has called for the government to increase the use of technology in education — such as use of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) — to provide training at much lower costs and improve access to learning for all. We have also suggested the creation of tax incentives to encourage and enable people at all stages of their career to return to education and learn new skills”.

“The Committee says the UK needs another three quarters of a million workers with digital skills by next year. In order to meet the immediate shortfall, businesses must be able to access workers with the right skills from abroad.”