2019-06-23 Digest

| Slack versus Email | IQ Rates Dropping | The New Dropbox | Neil Irwin and the Platform Superstar |

Beacon NY - 2019-06-23 — I am using the satires from the Work Futures Daily — not the Minipost — for the various stories in this Digest. Perhaps that will convince the free subscribers to upgrade to a paid sponsorship.


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Slack Wants to Replace Email. Is That What We Want? | John Herrman pokes at the promise and purpose of Slack and its competitors. He wisely compares the rise of work chat with the earlier rise of email, from which we still have much to learn, anthropologically:

Is Faster Really Better?

Slack reduces email, and email is bad, and so therefore it must follow that Slack is good. Furnishing a considerable tailwind to this marketing pitch is that people really do resent their email. Don’t you?

In a 2011 study published in the journal Organization Science, researchers noted that while email was widely regarded as a “growing source of stress in people’s lives,” research also suggests that it affords people “flexibility and control by enabling them to communicate from anywhere at any time.” To attempt to address this contradiction, the researchers drew on interviews from nearly a decade earlier, conducted when email itself was still ripping through American offices, and producing its own stories of relief, ambivalence, and horror. Employees’ worries will sound familiar, and in hindsight maybe not unwarranted. “Although, in theory, email’s asynchrony should have granted recipients the leeway to respond at a time that was convenient for them,” the study said, “our informants described strong cultural expectations about not keeping senders waiting.”

Email, the paper suggested, had actually become an “interpretive scapegoat for the workers’ perceptions that they were expected to do more than they could reasonably accomplish in a day.” Email itself was new and required adjustment. It also provided a “culturally sanctioned rhetoric of complaint about overload as well as a tangible ritual for regaining control: to cope with overload, trim your inbox.” Complaining about work might be risky. But email? Even your manager complains about that.

Stephen R. Barley, a professor of technology management at the University of California Santa Barbara and a co-author of the paper, remembers subjects lamenting, nearly 20 years ago, the erosion of work boundaries as symbolized andenacted by email. “I think what they’re really expressing, and most white-collar workers would never say this, is that these technologies are appropriating time at the beginning and end of days, without any kind of payment,” he said in a phone interview. “It’s an encroachment of work into other spaces in your life.”

But with Slack, there is no perfect equivalent to inbox zero; an instant message from your boss during the day might demand not just a quick response, but an instant one; it will be up to us, but mainly our bosses, to establish what a late-night Slack message means or demands, as compared to an email, and what noise or vibration it should cause in the phone that many of us have moved closer to our beds.

This again raises the question of the second-order effects of communications tools. The introduction of new lines and forms of communication always change power relationships. If the transition to work chat leads to greater control by the organization over the lives of the participants, making us move our phones closer to our beds, then it is pretty clear where the power dynamics are headed.

Another story about Slack by Caroline Sinders: Slack doesn’t care that you can’t block a workplace harasser. There is no way to block users on Slack, which makes it a possible vehicle for workplace harrassment.


IQ rates are dropping in many developed countries and that doesn't bode well for humanity | Evan Horowitz reports on a startling trend:

A range of studies using a variety of well-established IQ tests and metrics have found declining scores across Scandinavia, Britain, Germany, France and Australia.

Details vary from study to study and from place to place given the available data. IQ shortfalls in Norway and Denmark appear in longstanding tests of military conscripts, whereas information about France is based on a smaller sample and a different test. But the broad pattern has become clearer: Beginning around the turn of the 21st century, many of the most economically advanced nations began experiencing some kind of decline in IQ.

One potential explanation was quasi-eugenic. As in the movie “Idiocracy,” it was suggested that average intelligence is being pulled down because lower-IQ families are having more children ("dysgenic fertility" is the technical term). Alternatively, widening immigration might be bringing less-intelligent newcomers to societies with otherwise higher IQs.

However, a 2018 study of Norway has punctured these theories by showing that IQs are dropping not just across societies but within families. In other words, the issue is not that educated Norwegians are increasingly outnumbered by lower-IQ immigrants or the children of less-educated citizens. Even children born to high-IQ parents are slipping down the IQ ladder.


The New Dropbox: A Pivot, More than an Upgrade | I take a look at the new Dropbox:

Dropbox has released an early version of a ‘New Dropbox’, one that will reposition Dropbox from a file sync-and-share appliance — a product space that is rapidly being commoditized — and instead shifting toward a new center of gravity, as a content-centric work management utility. They build on the design of the virtual file system from the old Dropbox, and extend it with ideas derived from Dropbox Paper, in the form of a formatted text description area at the head of each folder, with text styling, lists, and — most critically — tasks. Files can be commented on in the new Dropbox folders (currently only through the new desktop app), and @mentioning of other users is also supported (currently only through the new desktop app).

If you have tasks, however, you need a way to filter tasks, such as 'show me all the tasks assigned to me ordered by date', and the new Dropbox does not have that yet.

I plan a follow up post, because I have found a way to integrate Dropbox Paper docs — which I use for work management — into the new Dropbox File system. (If you don't get it, just wait. The next installment will lay it out for you.)


How Data Can Help You Win in the Winner-Take-All Economy | Neil Irwin argues that the best chance for a successful career is in the platform 'superstar' companies that dominate their fields':

In nearly every sector of the economy, people who seek well-paying, professional-track success face the same set of challenges: the rise of a handful of dominant “superstar” firms; a digital reinvention of business models; and a rapidly changing understanding about loyalty in the employer-employee relationship. It’s true in manufacturing and retail, in banking and law, in health care and education — and certainly in tech.

What it means to do a job well is changing faster than most people’s ability to navigate those changes. This has made the workplace seem scarier, particularly to midcareer people who suddenly find that their parents’ advice — show up early, work hard, learn your craft — is no longer enough. But just as important, these changes have conferred an advantage on those strategic enough to shift their approach.

If you’re looking to make a career out of creating great art, or changing the world through activism, or otherwise eschewing the conventional business track, I wish you the best. But this article isn’t for you: I’m here to address those seeking fortune in modern capitalism. And across industries, I’ve found, more and more of the most compelling opportunities are at companies that dominate their fields — global, profitable, well managed, technologically adept.

I’m not arguing that this is entirely a good thing. Clearly, consolidation gives large employers too much power to hold down wages, and political clout they can use to tilt the field against competitors and entrench advantages. Worse, as the recent tech backlash shows, the concentrated might of the Silicon Valley titans is disturbing in ways we are only starting to comprehend.

What I am arguing is that even if there is legislative action or antitrust enforcementto rein in these companies, their rise is driven by powerful technological forces that aren’t going anywhere. As a result, these superstar companies — and the smaller firms seeking to upend them — are where pragmatic capitalists can best develop their abilities and be well compensated for them over a long and durable career.

Irwin's comments about what former VoloMetrix people — acquired by Microsoft — found through analyzing the metadata associated with office productivity tools is fascinating:

They wanted to know things like: Is there an optimally productive length of the workday? Should salespeople focus on deep contact with a few clients or shallow relationships with lots of them? Ms. Klinghoffer and Mr. Fuller came up with some answers that amount to a data-driven guide to being a successful employee — not just at Microsoft, but at nearly any ambitious corporation.

One of their findings was that people who worked extremely long work weeks were not necessarily more effective than those who put in a more normal 40 to 50 hours. In particular, when managers put in lots of evening and weekend hours, their employees started matching the behavior and became less engaged in their jobs, according to surveys. Another finding was that one of the strongest predictors of success for middle managers was that they held frequent one-on-one meetings with the people who reported directly to them. Third: People who made lots of contacts across departments tended to have longer, better careers within the company. There was even an element of contagion, in that managers with broad networks passed their habits on to their employees.

Biggest takeaway: being forced to attend too many big meetings makes people sad.

Go read the whole thing.

Quote of the Day

Never accept work where you’re not learning.

| Charles Eames