Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Video Games & Office Hours

Just recently Amazon has begun testing something almost blasphemous in the America Corporate environment.  Beginning this month, a sub-section of the company will begin working a 30-hour week - while remaining full-time employees.  Amazon's stated goal is to determine whether or not this type of approach to managing employees can pay enough dividends that it can be extended to its entire workforce.

I am extremely interested in seeing how this experiment pans out for a number of reasons.  Why you might ask?  I could write five blog posts on why, but the biggest reason why I am fascinated is because this strategy appears to be rooted, at least partly, in video game design theory.  Amazon is clearly conducting a very intricate, highly analytical psychological experiment upon its workforce.  But are they inventing the psychology or did it originate somewhere else?

There are many people who play online video games and many more that don't.  Yet, video games are some of the most highly profitable and significant entertainment products ever made.  You don't believe so?  Take a close look at the two numbers to understand the significance of gaming.

  • In 2015, the total cumulative box office for all the movies shown in theaters within the United States came to just about $11 Billion.
  • During the same year of 2015, total sales for all video games purchased in the United States almost reached $24 Billion.
Yes, Hollywood has its stars, franchises, and of course the annual Academy Awards.  But from a business perspective, movies as a form of entertainment are merely the "poor relatives" of the gaming industry.

One of the most successful online games of all time (not World of Warcraft) was titled "Destiny" and first came out in Q3, 2014.  For several years before its release, the studio behind the game, Bungie, had a number of doctoral level scientists working to develop behavioral psychology that would integrate into the game's mechanics.  The goal was to maximize player involvement, loyalty, and overall play time.  For a in-depth look at what they did you can look here to see the Reddit article that goes into the detail about what Dr. John Hopson and his team did to mold the Destiny player experience.

Tying this information back to Amazon, I want to focus on several aspects of the psychological gaming theory utilized by Bungie that has direct applicability.  Borrowing liberally from the information laid out in the Reddit article, I believe that Amazon is going to focus heavily on the evaluation of what is called "Fixed Ratio".

Fixed Ratio definition:  "(It's) a very distinct pattern that gives a burst of activities to do at a time but (is) then followed by a long pause."

Rather than requiring the workers to follow a standard (minimum) 40 hour work week that implicitly rewards time spent with "butt in seat", Amazon is specifically constraining the available amount of time to complete tasks.  This represents a gigantic shift in thinking for the traditional American worker.  Most of us have been inculcated with a belief that long hours in the office are good and that with a willingness to stay late and/or work weekends, the time to complete a task can be stretched.  Amazon is basically saying to that philosophy: "Nope, you've got 30 hours and no more to get all of your tasks done.  Now go!"

Another concept that Amazon is seemingly aiming to tackle deals with the subject of "Avoidance".  This term, often associated with procrastination, refers to the tendency of humans to avoid doing hard or unpleasant tasks as long as possible in order to avoid "pain".  In a video game like Destiny, this behavior might manifest as doing simple low risk activities like "Patrol".  However, in terms of the story related to Destiny the most important but most difficult activity is referred to as "Raiding".  

In the video game, players are forced to tackle the hardest tasks if they ever want to progress.  And progressing is fun.  In the workplace, completing a project, innovating a new product, or landing a sale is much more important than filling the copier with paper or making a fresh pot of coffee.  By creating a scarcity of time in which employees can work, Amazon appears to be explicitly emphasizing the requirement/reward of doing the harder, more important work first and de-prioritizing non-value added "make work".  Another side effect of introducing scarcity into the available work hours is the tacit emphasis on collaboration.  Just as in video games, players (or employees in this case), almost universally find more success working in teams as opposed to individual effort.  We might be seeing a very clever strategy by Amazon to create an "organic" desire for people to work together within its workplace rather than mandating collaboration as a rule.

We should all watch this experiment very closely to see whether it works well enough to for Amazon to take it corporate-wide.  Imagine how the entire working experience would change if, instead of dreading a grindingly long work week, you came in eagerly knowing that the clock starts ticking the moment you step into your office.

Would you be more productive, energetic, and enthusiastic if your employer constrained your work hours rather than promoting them while holding you to the same production output levels?

It looks like our work places may start to feel like action video games if Amazon has its way...

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Connecting Your World

Imagine that you lead the technology functions as CIO or Head of IT for a global business.  Your operations extend across four continents, all with different regional and logistical problems.  As you might expect, the company is going to look to you to ensure that business in every country is empowered with the same IT resources - networking, applications, phones (telecom), and systems.  How do you go about ensuring that the technological needs of all your company's employees are met? 

Let's take the scenario a little further.  Up until today your company has operated solely within the United States. Due to a large acquisition, the company has, overnight, inherited operations in Europe, South America, and Africa.

As might be expected, there are many answers to this question, all of which will have some merit.  The interesting thing is that this scenario is not really new or esoteric.  It happens all the time, especially when an influx in business capital opens up all sorts of new opportunities for previously static companies.  More than one CIO has been faced with the mandate to extend the IT portfolio of a U.S.-based company into regions where the leadership has no experience or business contacts.

The answer to the question, "What to do?" can derived from a return to basics.  In order to deliver IT services to multiple locations across the globe the "price of entry" or starting point is the conception and formation of a worldwide network (WAN).  This structure is the backbone required to connect your IT services and functions to all locations.  Without a foundational network, almost no IT services can be provisioned or delivered.  Yet, this return to basics can be a very painful journey for even the most season IT veterans.  Why?  Because providing network services is completely dependent upon the ability to delivery raw Internet bandwidth to any location.  With the advances in Internet service and availability in many cities most people (IT folks included) believe that this progress is a universal occurrence.  The facts are that while cities are easy to network, most of the United States and the rest of the world are still rural.  Outside the city environment, Internet service availability is far from being a given.  Telecommunications service, be it phones, cellular, or Internet bandwidth, is handled much differently in rural areas and is almost always provided by committee.  In other words, in the countryside the number of potential telecom companies who participate in delivering service is much, much greater than a city dweller would expect.

This juncture is where many CIOs make a fundamental yet very avoidable mistake.  By understanding that bandwidth is key, the CIO and staff quite often set about establishing Internet service coverage by entering into contracts with local telecom and bandwidth providers.  Initially this doesn't seem like a bad idea because each contract signed represents progress.  However, in areas that are more rural or remote, contract negotiation becomes more problematic.  Take for example just the State of Texas (USA).  In Texas there are just about 26,000 telecom providers.  If your company has field operations that are spread out in many rural areas, you could be facing the prospect of managing dozens if not hundreds of contracts for just one State!  

Now imagine facing the same prospect in a foreign country - different laws, different language, foreign business practices and cultures.  How are you going to manage all of those aspects when you are very likely facing time pressures to bring up and extend your IT systems - yesterday?  The problem becomes quite daunting indeed.  So what is the solution?

The answer comes not from better contract management skills but from telecom aggregation.  Many years ago global companies realized what a nightmare it could be if they had to engage each and every provider across the world in order to stand up a global network.  This problem was initially posed to the giant telecommunications providers of the time - AT&T, GlobalCom, BT, NTT, DT.  These giants began to offer services where they would offer to deal with each telecom provider on the behalf of the business customer.  Through aggregation a company could establish a 1:1 relationship with a telecom giant who would handle, on behalf of that company, all of the contracts across all the geographical region.  Talk about true one-stop-shopping!

Over the progression of several decades many other aggregating companies have stepped into the competitive arena.  It has been just such as company (Masergy) that has helped me solve the problems of establishing and maintaining a highly dynamic, changing global network over the years.

Remember that you don't have to do it yourself.  Aggregating services can be incredible resources to use if you ever find yourself in charge of operating a global IT shop.  There are many from which to choose so always do your homework to ensure that you find the right fit.  But once you do, hand over the heavy lifting to the experts so that you can focus on the truly important tasks of being a global IT leader.