Posts Tagged ‘Communications’
0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
-Isaac Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics with the additional Zeroth Law-
I just finished reading a science fiction book by one of my favorite writers, Greg Bear. Hull Zero Three is about a massive ship that is sent to colonize another planet in our galaxy, that colonization being the last best hope for mankind’s survival after having systematically exploited and destroyed the Earth. That makes it a fairly typical story as these things go, but when one of the colonists wakes early to find the ship badly damaged, he determines, over the course of the novel, that a civil war had occurred on the ship while he “slept”. Most of those who were to colonize the new planet were kept unaware of the methods and goals that the designers of the ship were willing to employ to assure mankind’s survival and when those goals and methods were uncovered dissention in the ranks ensued. The civil war, internal to the ship, was fought over differing visions of what the ultimate goals of the ship should be and how they should be accomplished.
So here you have a senior group, the designers/managers of the mission, who felt it was necessary to keep overall organizational goals and methods secret from those who were to carry out the mission, the “real” goals being on a “need to know basis” in order to assure success of the mission. Sounds like fiction doesn’t it? Who could believe that senior managers of an organization would not be clear to others within the organization regarding ultimate organizational goals and methodologies? Hidden agendas, ulterior motives, political manipulations, or simply poor communications are the makings of a good story, unless of course that story unfolds in the real world in your company or organization.
The pursuit of efficiency and the corresponding breakdown of work into its subcomponents, with each subcomponent being performed by an expert in that task was one reason that people lost sight of the bigger picture, what the organization stood for, its goals and how it was going to go about accomplishing those goals. Craftsmanship can be lost when an individual’s tasks are performed in isolation of the other tasks required for ultimate organizational functioning. It then can become very easy to perform blindly, overlooking or literally not seeing ineffective or perhaps even distasteful, illegal or immoral practices occurring elsewhere within the organization. A sales group who has no idea what operations can actually deliver upon, marketing being similarly divorced from an organization’s actual capabilities are not rare occurrences. Overall operational quality can go by the wayside if the view I have of my job is to simply put bolt A into slot B and my perception is that quality will be delivered by the quality control department, or that others will be the ones to worry about things that are beyond my own task. Conversely, those in operations/engineering/service delivery may be oblivious to the need to manufacture or provide what will actually sell or to stay closely in tune with what customers want. What you begin to develop is O Robot, the organization acting in a robotic-like fashion to develop, market, sell and deliver its products and or services, with each simplistic robot/employee doing the individual element for which it was organizationally programmed or because of interest, skill, or willingness to expend effort, programs itself.
But I feel like I might be doing robots a disservice. Isaac Asimov’s fictionalized robots were much more advanced than those notions and behaved according to the laws of robotics stated above. And large advances are being made in the real world to make robots behave in a more human-like fashion. According to a paper in the journal Interaction Studies (2007) among the traits a robot will need to exhibit to be viewed as more human-like are:
- Acting with autonomy
- Containing intrinsic value – being valued for simply being, not only for what it can do
- Being held morally accountability for its actions
- Engaging in reciprocal relationships – adjusting its expectations and desires as it interacts with others
- Demonstrating creativity
- Imitating other’s behaviors normatively– because of a desire to fit in socially
- Distinguishing or identifying actions that break social conventions.
It might be considered a step up if humans operated consistently or valued others according to a similar list of what we expect from our future robots to make them seem more human.
In the 1970s, there was for a time the notion of job enrichment. It was all the rage. Organizations, it was felt, had gone too far in breaking down jobs into elemental components, and in order to achieve happier, more satisfied or engaged workers, what was necessary was to enrich their jobs to make them less robot-like. Workers therefore were given more of a “whole” piece of work to do. You don’t hear much about job enrichment today, do you? It was not carried out very well in the majority of cases and in some cases workers whose jobs were enriched were not happier, but went on strike for higher wages and/or benefits, since more was being expected of them. This occurred not because enriching jobs was wrong, but because of fundamentally poor management practices or poor implementation of the job enrichment schema. In some cases workers were given new skills and responsibilities, but were in many ways still treated and compensated as unskilled labor, destroying any sense of fairness or equity they may have had.
An organization’s ethics is a broad and somewhat nebulous definition, but can generally be stated as the values to which the organization subscribes. How it behaves from a legal perspective is only one piece of the ethics equation. Over the years I have found that each organizational member’s view of ethics can be quite varied and is very dependent on where within the organization that member sits. The definition of ethical behavior by a blue collar worker is indeed different than the definition of ethics by management and ethical definitions will differ between professionals and administrative assistants or supervisors etc. And there are often differences in understanding or saliency of communication as different groups think about what is ethical to them. Forgive me, Isaac Asimov, for taking liberties with your Laws of Robotics, but given the way some organization attempt to operate in a robot-like fashion, I could not help but adapt the Robotic Laws into Organizational Laws that might just form a basic foundation for big-picture ethical behavior in organizations.
- An organization may not harm the Earth, or, by inaction, allow the Earth to come to harm.
- An organization may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
- An organization may not harm a constituent (e.g. employee, customer, citizen, supplier, member), or through inaction allow a constituent to come to harm.
- An organization must follow societal laws and regulations except where such laws and regulation would conflict with the First, Second or Third Law.
- An organization must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the other Laws.
One has to wonder that if these relatively simplistic Organizational Laws were widely followed would we be better off today in terms of our environment and society? Or are these notions too simplistic? How do rewards and punishment fit into the organizational role? What is the role of the organization if it decides to punish one member for harming another? And what is the role of rewarding members differentially based on merit? Etc. Possibly too simplistic, but I have to say I am intrigued by the overall framework. Thoughts?
© 2011 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
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DO YOU REMEMBER HOW WE USED TO TALK ABOUT cancer? People were afraid to mention it out loud, as though by saying the word and recognizing its existence that somehow that would give it credence, or power allowing it to more fully enter our lives. I remember being with others and talking about an ill relative, and if what that person had was cancer, 1) you would likely not get a clear answer about that was wrong, or 2) if you got an answer the person providing it would whisper the word. “What is wrong with Uncle Joe?” “He has cancer” would be the reply, with the word cancer being supplied in barely audible tones. You almost never got any specifics, describing prostate cancer, or pancreatic cancer, or bowel cancer, and the reason was not TMI, as the term is often applied today, rather the reason was ignorance and fear. (For those of you of an older generation TMI means too much information, I checked with my daughter.)
People were and many still are terrified of cancer and perhaps rightfully so. At the time a diagnosis of cancer was almost an automatic death sentence, and while today there are still many forms of cancer that are often fatal, there is a great deal more that can be done to provide treatment and hope, possibly a cure or at least remission. The ignorance and fear surrounding cancer at the time did no one any good and it may have caused many deaths. By not openly dealing with the issues, and encouraging people to get examinations and screening many cancers went undiagnosed until they were in advanced stages. For instance, even today some will hesitate to talk about a colonoscopy, as though having a doctor shove a tube up your rear to check for cancer is inappropriate or embarrassing. I got news for you, if all I have to do to save my life is allow a doctor to shove a tube up my rear, …well where can I get in line?
Ignorance and fear still surround us and this pattern of not dealing with uncomfortable or what is deemed as socially unacceptable topics shows up in the public discourse, in private conversations, not to mention in our workplaces and in other organizations to which we belong.
Don’t ask. Don’t Tell. The policy of discharging gays from the military if they disclose that they are gay immediately springs to mind, as though by not asking about it, and encouraging gays not to discuss it, to live a lie, that somehow they are not really there and the topic can simply be avoided. There have been gays in the military ever since there was a military, and this anachronistic policy changes nothing, only trying to hide what statistically has to have been true.
Each year in the Super Bowl there is a competition to see who can come up with the most attention grabbing advertising. Beer ads are plentiful, as are ads showing very attractive, scantily clad women, others show animals that try to steal your heart. This year an ad was deemed as pushing the envelope just too far. Two men were to be seen eating potato chips out of a bowl and when their hands touch they recognize how much they mean to each other. The ad was for a homosexual on-line dating service. CBS declined to run the ad that they felt stepped over the line (I have to wonder which line). Perhaps they don’t want people having to admit that homosexual men might be drawn to watch the most macho of sports – would that make the sport less attractive to heterosexuals? Or perhaps if the viewing audience sees that two men are attracted to each other that they run the risk of destroying family values of those watching the show, as though touting the benefits of beer drinking or how little clothing women should wear to make themselves attractive would not. Certainly seems a bit hypocritical to me.
All of this can be roughly compared to Ahmadinejad, when he says there are no gays in Iran, for whatever reason his twisted mind deems that necessary. Do we really want to be comparable to his logic that if we don’t admit a thing it is not true? That is like agreeing with him that Iran is pursuing nuclear capability for peaceful purposes only. Only if you define peaceful purposes as being able to intimidate or destroy your neighboring countries so you can do whatever you so choose peacefully, without anyone opposing you.
Within organizations, sometimes those uncomfortable topics are financially related, with organizations viewing poor financial performance as something to be hidden, playing “hide the weenie” with employees, customers and investors. Perhaps thinking to buy a little more time, and allowing the financial issue to just work itself out. Product defects can be inappropriately handled as well by a failure to disclose or discuss. All you have to do is contrast Toyota’s handling its stuck accelerator issues with how Johnson & Johnson handled their Tylenol troubles. Other times the issue may deal with an individual manager who while having a lousy track record on the people side, may have a track record on the financial side of making the numbers, so let’s not deal with the people issues, regardless of the impact on individual’s lives. Transparency in organizational functioning, especially given today’s flows of information is one critical component of organizational success.
There is an old story coming out of Spain, at the time of the inquisition, of a physician, who prior to leaving on a several week trip to see an ill patient, brings his newlywed bride out behind the barn. Standing by the manure pile, she asks him not to go on the dangerous trip, for what would become of her if he was killed on the perilous journey. When he indicated that as a doctor he must go, she asks that she accompany him, so as not to separate themselves from each other for such an extended period of time. He indicates that the trip is just too dangerous and in order to demonstrate his love for her he shows her what is under the manure pile.
At the time, rarely did one count on institutions to provide any kind of personal or financial protection. Banks for the common person did not exist and the FDIC was not even a glimmer in someone’s eye. The safest place, thought this physician, for his family’s fortune was buried under the manure pile, a place where no one would look. In my head this story could have taken two distinct paths. One path was that as soon as the physician had left on his journey, a band of marauders, or perhaps those from the inquisition would come upon the house and upon seeing the lone female would ransack the place. Finding no treasure they would ask themselves where the most unlikely place that someone would hide their treasure, and it would not take too long before some said “I know, let’s look under the manure pile, for the physician would have thought that no one would look there”. Another possible ending was that the physician would return safely and the couple could continue to leave their fortune buried under the manure pile safe and sound. Of course keeping your treasure buried under the manure pile doesn’t really do you much good does it?
Institutions, organizations, or people that simply keep their treasures buried under the manure pile never get to utilize those treasures to benefit their own organizations, lives or the lives of others. The gay translator in the military who is discharged, does not get to translate the message that could save hundreds perhaps thousands of lives. They gay soldier who leads a contingent that secures a neighborhood or saves his platoon from an ambush is simply not there. The gay football fan or player cannot enjoy life as openly as you or I do. Customers are left wondering about the safety of their automobiles and whether they should take the family out visiting friends, as they ponder the honesty and openness of the manufacturer and whether the problem will truly be fixed. Employees are sent a message that only the financial performance of the organization matters, and if their life is a living hell because of a supervisor, well that is just not that important to the organization’s senior management. They should bury their concerns if they really cared and are loyal to the organization. Is it any wonder why employee loyalty withers?
Human nature makes it expedient to sometimes bury the uncomfortable, those things that some of us might find difficult to discuss or acknowledge and by not being forthright we sometimes buy a little time in not dealing with painful or personally embarrassing issues. But a question that consistently returns is what is lost by keeping your treasures buried under the manure pile?
© 2010 by Jeffrey M. Saltzman. All rights reserved.
There was a woman who accompanied her husband to the doctor. The doctor after running a number of tests and spending hours examining her husband called her into his office for a private conversation. “You husband is quite ill and is dying”, he said. “However, if you follow these instructions very carefully over the next year there is a chance that he will live and make a complete recovery”. The woman asked the doctor what she had to do. He began, “He no longer will be able to take the garbage out, cut the lawn or wash dishes, he needs to be greeted each morning with a hot breakfast waiting for him at the table, the kids need to be smiling and cheerful to him in the morning, when he gets home from work you should greet him at the door with his favorite beverage and slippers, he needs to eat a home cooked meal for dinner every night, after dinner he will need to relax in front of the TV, his feet up without any interruptions, fresh linens should be on the bed each evening, and he will need a back message every night. After leaving the doctor’s office the man turned to his wife and asked, “What did the doctor say to you?” She replied, “He said you were going to die”.
Communication errors are common enough in of our lives that they have become part of the vocabulary of comedy. Was her reply because she only heard the parts she wanted to hear from the doctor? Or was it due to a conscious decision regarding how open and honest communications with her husband would be; only relaying part of the message? Was she trying to hide the truth because she found it unpleasant or simply trying to control the message? Or was it just as in the game telephone, as a message gets repeated it becomes more and more garbled? The option which makes this humorous is that she was intentionally misleading or miscommunicating to her husband.
Two good friends, Ralph and Fred, were out in the woods hunting for deer. After a long day of tramping through the woods they came to a steep hill. As they climbed the steep hill Ralph grasped his chest and falls over collapsing into unconsciousness. Fred was frantic, not knowing what to do. Finally he pulls out his cell phone and calls 911. He talks to the operator. “We are in the middle of the woods, out hunting and Ralph grasped his chest and collapsed. I think he is dead. I don’t know what to do.” The emergency operator assures Fred, “Relax, I can help you, just do as I say. The first thing we have to do is make sure he is really dead.” “Ok”, says Fred and he put the phone down. After a few minutes the operator hears the noise of a gunshot over the phone. Fred gets back on the line, “Now what?”
Part of the reason these old jokes are funny is because they involve a common occurrence that we can all relate to and have experienced, miscommunication. They simply take it to an extreme which induces us to smile, if not laugh out loud. The first joke is funny because we perceive the message as being intentionally garbled by the wife so as to relay only the portion of the information of her choosing, the portion that she perceives as best serving her own interests. It also plays off the natural tensions that exist in any kind of relationship. The second joke is funny because it involves the misinterpretation of commonly used phrases or words. We can relate, but hope that we would never make the same error as it is only funny when it happens to someone else. There are also jokes that point out how communications can shape opinion without overt communications, affecting our subconsciousness. Sometimes what is funny in them is very subtle. Here is one that while politically incorrect drives home the point.
Two beggars were sitting on the sidewalk in Ireland. One is holding a large Cross and the other a Star of David. Both are holding out hats to collect contributions. As people walk by, they ignore the guy holding the Star of David but drop money in the other guy’s hat. Soon one hat is nearly full while the other is empty. A priest watches and then approaches the men. Trying to be helpful, he turns to the guy with the Star of David and says, “Don’t you realize that this is a Christian nation? You will never get any contributions in this country holding a Star of David.” The guy holding the Star of David turns to the guy holding the Cross and says, “Moishe, look who is trying to teach us marketing.”
The joke is funny when you realize that the beggars, who you did not automatically relate to each other, are both Jewish as Moishe is a common name among Jews of a certain generation, and that they have set up the contrast of charity options on purpose. Second, the implication is that if only one beggar had been sitting there with a Cross, the money offered by passersby would have been less. The contrast between the two is what led to the greater financial gain. This is the same contrast that is commonly used by those trying to convince us to take one course of action over another. For instance, a restaurant will put more expensive options on the menu, so that it can sell more of the moderately priced ones and not solely the lowest priced items, intentionally trying to shape our decision making. Third, the helpful priest is funny because he missed what to the beggars was an obvious strategy to maximize their success, gentle fun is being poked. While perhaps unintentional, this joke is perfectly laying out some important concepts of human decision making and how subtle communications can be.
These jokes were not created in a lab full of graduate students studying underlying human behaviors, but by comedians who intuitively knew how aspects of the human condition work. We can learn a lot by simply paying attention to what is going on around us and how society commonly expresses itself through its communications, even when or perhaps especially so, when those communications are jokes.
There was an examination of comedy that aired on PBS recently. It looked at the forms that comedy took during different economic periods. During economic down-cycles comedy tended towards the nonsensical, making people feel good while overlooking the severity of the situation. Abbott and Costello’s nonsensical routine of “Who’s on First?” became popular during the first great depression. It made people laugh while not reminding them of the troubles of the day. During healthy economic times, poking fun at leaders, political and otherwise, was deemed as more acceptable, and funny, partly as a way of ensuring that they did not get too full of themselves. And during wars, comedy tends to be outwardly focused, poking fun at the outside world and peddling softly any issues at home. Comedy is, as are many other aspects of our lives simply a reflection of the times and pressures in which we live.
“Get one pound of best galls, half a pound of copperas, a quarter pound of gum arabick, a quarter pound of white sugar-candy; bruise the galls and beat your other ingredients fine, and infuse them all in three quarters of white wine or rain-water, and let them stand hot by the fire three or four days; then put all into a new pipkin set it on a slow fire, so as not to boil; keep it frequently stirring, and let it stand five or six hours, till one quarter consumed. And when cold, strain it through a clean coarse piece of linen, bottle it and keep it for use.” (Forgotten English, 1999, Jeffrey Kacirk)
Any idea what the recipe above is cooking up? Many times as the distance between original sources of information is increased our understanding of that information is diminished. Sometimes as distance increases we look upon that information with incredulity and wonder how anyone could have ever thought that way or held that belief. Distance can make some things, such as information and attitude more obscure but can also give perspective. For our purposes here, let’s define distance as a separation by time or place between an event or a piece of information and our interpretation of that event or information.
This past week I attended the graduation of one of my nieces from Barnard, a women’s college that is part of Columbia University (Magna Cum Laude I am proud to say). The awards given out and speakers at the commencement included the CEO of Pepsico, a distinguished Harvard University professor who is working to save historical artifacts in Iraq, and the US Secretary of State. There was one thing all of three of these highly accomplished people had in common, they were women. The ceremony included a speech given by one of the students, who said something interesting. She indicated that her mother stated that when she grew up she wanted to be like her daughter. It was the rephrasing of a common response of how little girls often answer when asked what they want to be when they grow up that caught my attention. The mother of this very articulate student said she was desirous of all of the opportunities that would be open to her daughter as she began her career, opportunities that were not available to women of her age/generation. Do opportunities and attitudes change over time? Do we operate today on some assumptions, attitudes and beliefs that future generations will deem as absurd? You judge.
Here are three examples of advice separated from us by time given by Transportation Magazine which in 1943 published a “Guide to Hiring Women”. The guide gave eleven helpful tips on how to hire and motivate women who were now needed in the workforce because of the labor shortages associated with World War II. I wonder how many of the eleven tips could be found in the hiring practices of any of today’s corporations.
“Pick young married women. They usually have more of a sense of responsibility than their unmarried sisters, they are less likely to be flirtatious, they need the work or wouldn’t be doing it, and still have the pep and interest to work hard and to deal with the public efficiently.”
“Give every girl an adequate number of rest periods during the day. You have to make some allowances for feminine psychology. A girl has more confidence and is more efficient if she can keep her hair tidied, apply fresh lipstick, and wash her hands several times a day.”
“Give the female employee a definite day-long schedule of duties so that they will keep busy without bothering the management for instruction every few minutes. Numerous properties say that women make excellent workers when they have their jobs cut out for them, but that they lack the initiative in finding work themselves.” (Transportation Magazine, Guide to Hiring Women, Western Properties, 1943)
Even the Supreme Court of the United States has handed down judgments that when viewed through a lens of more modern thought seems absurd. An example can be found in Plessy vs. Ferguson. In Louisiana, Homer Plessy boarded a car on a train that was reserved for whites on June 7, 1892. Classified as a black man, Mr. Plessy was arrested when he refused to leave the car, setting the stage for a Supreme Court ruling on racial segregation. In 1896, the US Supreme Court ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that “separate but equal” did not violate the constitution thereby clearing the path for the proliferation of racial segregation. Separate was never equal, but this ruling held until the 1954 case, Brown vs. Board of Education repudiated the notion. We look back on that now and have difficulty understanding how the notion of “separate but equal” as being equal ever arose. That notion unfortunately, would not be foreign in some other parts of the world today.
We can get into the sociological or the psychology of why individuals within certain groups, cliques or other groupings feel compelled to look upon those that are somehow different, whether by choice, by birth or by accident and feel that they must be labeled somehow as “less”, either less able, or less likely or less deserving, but suffice it to say for now that the sociology and psychology is fairly well understood. Look around today at individuals and groups that are discriminated against for no other reason than they are different or a minority (hence non-conforming) within the larger societies in which they exist, and the challenge is not to find examples which can be used to illustrate the point, but rather the overabundance of choices that can be used as illustration.
The good news is that things change and over time some of our societal and attitudinal absurdities are likely to fade away. The bad news is that it will take time for societies to change. I, for one however, am reluctant to simply be patient. You have to wonder how much human potential is being squandered by not giving equal opportunity to excel at whatever task or opportunity is desired to all.
The obscure recipe above, if you did not recognize it, is for ink.