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The Blue-Collar Hellscape of the Startup Industry

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

On November 13, Marcus Vaughn filed a class-action lawsuit against his former employer. Vaughn, who’d worked in the Fremont, California factory for electric automaker Tesla, alleged that the manufacturing plant had become a “hotbed for racist behavior.” Employees and supervisors, he asserted, had routinely lobbed racial epithets at him and his fellow Black colleagues. 

Vaughn said he complained in writing to the company’s human resources department and CEO Elon Musk, but Tesla neglected to investigate his claims. In true tech executive fashion, Musk deflected Vaughn’s misgivings, shifting the blame to the assailed worker. “In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology,” he wrote in a May email. In late October, according to Vaughn’s suit, he was fired for “not having a positive attitude.”

The news of rancorous working conditions for Tesla employees is merely the latest in a series. Vaughn’s case signals the broader social and physical perils of couching traditional factory models within the frenzied, breakneck tech-startup framework of high demand, long hours and antipathy toward regulation.

Tesla’s Fremont facility has bred a number of allegations of abuse, from discrimination to physical harm. Vaughn’s is at least the third discrimination suit filed this year by Black Tesla workers alleging racism. A former third-party contracted factory worker, Jorge Ferro, has taken legal action to combat alleged homophobic harassment. The cruelty wasn’t strictly verbal: Not long before, in an ostensibly unrelated but similarly alarming turn of events, reports surfaced that production-floor employees sustained such work-related maladies as loss of muscle strength, fainting and herniated discs.

In response to Ferro’s allegations, Tesla told In These Times that it “takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously.” But the company denied responsibility on the grounds that Ferro was contractor, not an employee.

Tesla’s factory conditions evoke those reported at another Silicon Valley darling: Blue Apron. In the fall of 2016, BuzzFeed detailed the consequences of the lax hiring practices and safety standards governing the food-delivery company’s Richmond, Calif. warehouse. Employees reported pain and numbness from the frigid indoor temperatures and injuries from warehouse equipment. Many filed police reports stating co-workers had punched, choked, bitten or groped them, amid threats of violence with knives, guns and bombs.

At the time of these complaints, both companies had fully ingratiated themselves to investors. Tesla’s reported worth is so astronomical even the most technocratic corporate mediaand Musk himselfquestion it. Blue Apron, which went public this year, snagged a $2 billion valuation in 2015. (Blue Apron has since seen a marked decline, a development that maybe have been spurred by BuzzFeed’s report.) As a result, both companies have habitually placed escalating pressure upon their employees to generate product, their executives eyeing the potential profits.

Predictably, these companies’ legal compliance appears to have fallen to the wayside in the name of expediency. Tesla and Blue Apron factory employees have found themselves working 12hour shifts, in some cases more than five days a week. Tesla employee Jose Moran wrote of “excessive mandatory overtime” and “a constant push to work faster to meet production goals.”

In 2015, Blue Apron appeared to violate a litany of OSHA regulations, ranging from wiring to chemical storage. It also hired local temporary workers via third-party staffing agencies—likely to circumvent the costs of such benefits as health insurance. As BuzzFeed noted, these staffing agencies independently screened candidates in lieu of internal background checks. Compounding the problem, the company expected temps to operate machinery they were unqualified to handle. (Blue Apron has since euphemized its OSHA violations and claimed to have axed these staffing agencies. The company has not responded to requests for comment.)

Aggravating an already fraught atmosphere, the companies appear to have used punitive tactics to coerce laborers into greater productivity. While some Tesla workers are placed in lower-paying “light duty” programs after reporting their injuries, others are chided for them. One production employee, Alan Ochoa, relayed to the Guardian a quote from his manager in response to his pain complaint: “We all hurt. You can’t man up?”

Equally culpable is e-commerce goliath Amazon. Bloomberg reported that the company mounts flat-screen televisions in its fulfillment centers to display anti-theft propaganda relating the stories of warehouse workers terminated for stealing on the job. (This offers a blue-collar complement to the 2016 New York Times exposé on its draconian treatment of office employees.) According to a former employee, managers upbraid workers who fail to pack 120 items per hour, heightening their quotas and, in some cases, requiring them to work an extra day. Those who don’t accept overtime shifts, meanwhile, lose vacation time.

Amazon told In These Times, “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Blue Apron and Amazon warehouses generate high turnover. In fact, this is likely by design. By creating working conditions that not only extract vast amounts of labor at low costs, but also drive workers away, tech companies can skirt the obligation to reward employees with raises and promotions. A companion to the profit-mongering schemes of Uber, Lyft and now Amazon (through its Amazon Flex delivery vertical) to classify workers as contractors, this form of labor arbitrage ensures that owners of capital avoid the risk of losing wealth to hourly workers—a class they deem thoroughly disposable.

Tesla has caused similar workforce tumult, firing employees for the foggy offense of underperformance. Of the hundreds of terminated employees from both its Palo Alto, Calif. headquarters and its Fremont facility, many were union sympathizers who’d been in talks with the United Auto Workers. The move has thus aroused suspicions that the company sought to purge dissidents—a reflection of the anti-union posture that has characterized Silicon Valley for decades.

If the near-ubiquity of factory and warehouse worker exploitation in the news cycle is any indication, tech capitalists—through their regulatory negligence and toothless “solutions”—have fostered a culture of barbarism. Low-wage laborers have little to no recourse: They’re either left to endure imminent social and physical harm, or, should they seek protections against the anguish they’ve borne, are stripped of their livelihood.

The blue-collar hellscape Tesla, Blue Apron and Amazon have wrought is what laissez-faire, startup-styled late capitalism looks like. At a time of such disregard for the fundamental health, safety and humanity of low-tier workers, the tech-executive class has proven nothing is sacred—except, of course, the urge to scale.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 29, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

 About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Facebook’s gender bias goes so deep it’s in the code

Wednesday, May 3rd, 2017

A hurricane has been brewing at Facebook.

After years of suspicion, a veteran female Facebook engineer decided to evaluate what if any gaps there were in how female and male engineers’ work was treated.

She did it “so that we can have an insight into how the review process impacts people in various groups,” the Wall Street Journal learned exclusively.

Her analysis, conducted in September, found that female engineers’ work was rejected 35 percent more than their male counterparts based on five years of open code-review data. Women also waited 3.9 percent longer to have their code accepted and got 8.2 percent more questions and comments about their work.

Only 13 percent of Facebook’s engineers are women, 17 percent across all tech roles.

The identity of the engineer is unknown, but her findings sparked a whirlwind discussion of gender bias inside the social network after it was released last year. A group of senior Facebook officials led by Facebook’s head of infrastructure, Jay Parikh, conducted their own review of the engineer’s analysis and concluded that the rejection gap was because of the engineer’s rank rather than gender.

Facebook confirmed Parikh’s findings, calling the engineer’s data incomplete, the Wall Street Journal reported. Parikh said in an internal report revealing his analysis that while the gender component wasn’t “statistically significant” it was “still observable and felt by many of you,” and urged employees to take the company’s voluntary implicit bias training.

The report is the latest incidence of the tech industry’s rampant diversity and inclusion problem. In recent years, tech companies such as Facebook, Google, and Yahoo have tried to tackle this by releasing annual diversity reports, which have shown marginal improvements in racial and gender disparities.

But Silicon Valley’s gender problem goes beyond the numbers. Facebook is the second major tech company this year to have potentially damning evidence of gender bias exposed by an employee. Earlier this year, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler detailed her experiences with sexual harassment and stalled career path at the company. Fowler’s story ballooned into a media firestorm, one that Uber still hasn’t recovered from.

Neither of Facebook’s analyses and methodologies have been independently verified, but the preliminary results and Facebook’s response fall in line with how companies have previously dealt with allegations of sexism. Past surveys and studies have found that men in tech often don’t think there’s a gender problem in the industry. And when women report incidents of sexual harassment as culturally pervasive, men have said they were unaware.

Hopefully, Facebook’s voluntary bias training, which stresses bias’ impact and how to get rid of it, will become mandatory.

This post appeared originally in Think Progress on May 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

Lauren C. Williams is the tech reporter for ThinkProgress. She writes about the intersection of technology, culture, civil liberties, and policy. In her past lives, Lauren wrote about health care, crime, and dabbled in politics. She is a native Washingtonian with a master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s of science in dietetics from the University of Delaware.

Will Artificial Intelligence Mean Massive Job Loss?

Friday, September 30th, 2016

arthurmacewan_cla_fall2012_hb_bioIn the late 1970s, my early years at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB), the Department of Economics had two secretaries. When I retired, in 2008, the number of faculty members and students in the department had increased, but there was only one secretary. All the faculty members had their own computers, with which they did much of the work that secretaries had previously done.

I would guess that over those thirty years, the number of departmental secretaries and other secretaries in the university declined by as many as 100, replaced by information technology—what has now become the foundation of artificial intelligence. As I started writing this column, however, I looked on the university’s web site and counted about 100 people with jobs in various parts of the Information Technology Department. Neither this department nor those jobs existed in my early years at UMB. The advance in technology that eliminated so many secretaries also created as many jobs as it eliminated—perhaps more.

My little example parallels the larger and more widely cited changes on U.S. farms in the 20th century—a century when the diesel engine, artificial fertilizers, and other products of industry reduced the percentage of the labor force working on farms from 40% to 2%. No massive unemployment resulted (though a lot of horses, mules, and oxen did lose their jobs). The great expansion of urban industrial production along with the growth of the service sector created employment that balanced the displacement of workers on the farms.

Other cases are cited in debates over the impact of artificial intelligence, examples ranging from handloom weavers’ resistance to new machinery in the early stages of the Industrial Revolution to a widespread concern about “automation” in the 1960s. Generally, however, the new technologies, while displacing workers in some realms of production, also raised productivity and economic growth. There has, as a result, been increased demand for old products and demand for new products, creating more and different jobs.

Historically, it seems, each time prophecies foretold massive unemployment resulting from major technological innovations, they turned out to be wrong. Indeed, often the same forces that threatened existing jobs created new jobs. The transitions were traumatic and harmful for the people losing their jobs, but massive unemployment was not the consequence.

Is This Time Different?

Today, as we move further into the 21st century, many people are arguing that artificial intelligence—sophisticated robotics—is different from past technological shifts, will replace human labor of virtually all types, and could generate massive unemployment. Are things really different this time? Just because someone, once again, walks around with a sign saying, “The world is about end,” doesn’t mean the world really isn’t about to end!

In much of modern history, the substitution of machines for people has involved physical labor. That was the case with handloom weavers in the early 19th century and is a phenomenon we all take for granted when we observe heavy machinery, instead of hand labor, on construction sites. Even as robotics entered industry, as on automobile assembly lines, the robots were doing tasks that had previously been done with human physical labor.

“Robotics” today, however, involves much more than the operation of traditional robots, the machines that simulate human physical labor. Robots now are rapidly approaching the ability, if they do not already have it, to learn from experience, respond to changes in situations, compare, compute, read, hear, smell, and make extremely rapid adjustments (“decisions”) in their actions—which can include everything from moving boxes to parsing data. In part, these capabilities are results of the extreme progress in the speed and memory capacity of computers.

They are also the result of the emergence of “Cloud Robotics” and “Deep Learning.” In Cloud Robotics, each robot gathers information and experiences from other robots via “the cloud” and thus learns more and does so more quickly. Deep Learning involves a set of software that is designed to simulate the human neocortex, the part of the brain where thinking takes place. The software (also often cloud-based) recognizes patterns—sounds, images, and other data—and, in effect, learns.

While individual robots—like traditional machines—are often designed for special tasks, the basic robot capabilities are applicable to a broad variety of activities. Thus, as they are developed to the point of practical application, they can be brought into a wide variety of activities during the same period. Moreover, according to those who believe “this time is different,” that period of transition is close at hand and could be very short. The disruption of human labor across the economy would happen virtually all at once, so adjustments would be difficult—thus, the specter of massive unemployment.

Skepticism

People under thirty may take much of what is happening with information technology (including artificial intelligence) for granted, but those of us who are older find the changes awe-inspiring. Nonetheless, I am persuaded by historical experience and remain skeptical about the likelihood of massive unemployment. Moreover, although big changes are coming rapidly in the laboratories, their practical applications across multiple industries will take time.

While the adoption of artificial technology may not take place as rapidly and widely as the doomsday forecasters tell us, I expect that over the next few decades many, many jobs will be replaced. But as with historical experience, the expansion of productivity and the increase of average income will tend to generate rising demand, which will be met with both new products and more of the old ones; new jobs will open up and absorb the labor force. (But hang on to that phrase “average income.”)

Real Problems

Even if my skepticism is warranted, the advent of the era of artificial intelligence will create real problems, perhaps worse than in earlier eras. Most obvious, even when society in general (on average) gains, there are always losers from economic change. Workers who get replaced by robots may not be the ones who find jobs in new or expanding activity elsewhere. And, as has been the case for workers who lost their jobs in the Great Recession, those who succeed in finding new jobs often do so only with lower wages.

Beyond the wage issue, the introduction of new machinery—traditional machines or robots—often affects the nature and, importantly, the speed of work. The mechanized assembly line is the classic example, but computers—and, we can assume, robotics more generally—allow for more thorough monitoring and control of the activity of human workers. The handloom weavers who opposed the introduction of machines in the early 19th century were resisting the speed-up brought by the machines as well as the elimination of jobs. (The Luddite movement of Northwest England, while derided for incidents of smashing machines, was a reaction to real threats to their lives.)

More broadly, there is the question of how artificial intelligence will affect the distribution of income. However intelligent robots may be, they are still machines which, like slaves, have owners (whether owners of physical hardware, patents on the machines, or copyrights on the software). Will the owners be able to reap the lion’s share of the gains that come with the rising productivity of this major innovation? In the context of the extremely high degree of inequality that now exists as artificial intelligence is coming online, there is good reason for concern.

As has been the case with the information technology innovations that have already taken place—Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook leap to mind—highly educated or specially skilled (or just lucky) workers are likely to share some of the gains from artificial intelligence. But with the great inequalities that exist in the U.S. educational system, the gains of a small group of elite workers would be unlikely to dampen the trend toward greater income inequality.

Income inequality in the United States has been increasing for the past 40 years, and labor’s share of total income has fallen since the middle of the last century—from 72% in 1947 to 63% in 2014. The rise of artificial intelligence, as it is now taking place, is likely to contribute to the continuation of these trends. This has broad implications for people’s well-being, but also for the continuation of economic growth. Even as average income is rising, if it is increasingly concentrated among a small group at the top, aggregate demand may be insufficient to absorb the rising output. The result would be slow growth at best and possibly severe crisis. (See “Are We Stuck in an Extended Period of Economic Stagnation?” D&S, July/August 2016.)

Over the long run, technological improvements that generate greater productivity have yielded some widely shared benefits. In the United States and other high-income countries, workers’ real incomes have risen substantially since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, a significant part of the gains for workers has come in the form of an increase in leisure time. Rising productivity from artificial intelligence holds out the possibility, in spite of the trends of recent decades, for a shift away from consumerism towards a resumption of the long-term trend toward more leisure—and, I would venture, more pleasant lives.

Yet, even as economic growth over the past 200 years has meant absolute gains for working people, some groups have fared much better than others. Moreover, even with absolute gains, relative gains have been limited. With some periods of exception, great inequalities have persisted, and those inequalities weigh heavily against the absolute rises in real wages and leisure. (And in some parts of the last two centuries—the last few decades in particular—gains for working people have not followed from rising productivity and economic growth.)

So even though I’m skeptical that artificial intelligence will generate massive unemployment, I fear that it may reinforce, and perhaps increase, economic inequality.

This article originally appeared at dollarsandsense.org on September 29, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

 is professor emeritus of economics at UMass-Boston and a Dollars & Sense Associate.

Unemployment: Why Won’t Congress Talk About It!?

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Change to WinAn interesting look at the unemployment rate. “What is currently a temporary long-term unemployment problem runs the risk of morphing into a permanent and costly increase in the unemployment rate” unless Congress takes action to create jobs. 

Why the Unemployment Rate Is So High – New York Times

Unemployment claims have increased slightly. “The Labor Department says applications rose 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 371,000, the most in five weeks.”

Unemployment claims rise slightly in latest week – USA Today

“We need to avoid a lost generation of young people who will be playing economic catch-up their whole lives. We cannot stop pressing our leaders to help struggling poor and middle-class Americans.”

Crowdsourcing our economic recovery – CNN 

Even though the economy is improving, we need to do more to ensure the long term unemployed get back on their feet. Long term unemployment makes it harder and harder to provide for one’s family, and causes dramatic increases in mental illness. It’s time Washington gets busy putting people back to work. 

Long-Term Unemployed Winning Jobs Or Giving Up? – Huffington Post

This article was originally posted by ChangeToWin on January 11, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Change to Win is an organization created by over 5.5 million workers – if corporations can join together to hire an army of lobbyists, working and middle class Americans must also band together and restore balance by making sure we have a strong voice and a seat at the table again.

(Colleen Gartner is an intern at Workplace Fairness.)

Workers Cheer Living Wage Victory in Austin

Monday, December 3rd, 2012

Barbara DohertyConstruction workers and others in the Austin, Texas, area are celebrating a coalition victory this week after Travis County commissioners approved a first-ever economic development policy that includes a living wage requirement.

The policy requires contractors asking for tax incentives to move into the county to pay all employees at least $11 per hour. It’s a significant improvement over the prevailing construction hourly wage of $7.50.

On the same day the county provision passed, a subcommittee of the Austin City Council passed a similar policy, which will come to the full council in the coming months. As reported in the Austin American-Statesman, both the city and county have been criticized about generous tax incentives offered in recent years to major companies such as Apple and Marriott.

Along with faith-based and student organizations, the Texas Building and Construction Trades Council, the Laborers (LIUNA), the Electrical Workers (IBEW), AFSCME Local 1624, Education Austin (AFT) and Texas State Employees Union (TSEU)/CWA Local 6186 participated in the yearlong campaign spearheaded by the Austin-based Workers Defense Project (WDP). The 1,000-member WDP has worked for 10 years on wage theft and other workers’ rights issues.

Austin Interfaith and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) were among others that supported the campaign.

“Really, what this means is construction workers are starting to have a say in their working conditions and their pay,” WDP organizer Greg Casar told a celebratory crowd after the county commissioners voted.

This post was originally posted on November 30, 2012 at AFL-CIO NOW. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Barbara Doherty: My dad drove a laundry delivery truck in San Francisco and I came to appreciate unions sitting in the waiting room at the Teamsters vision center there. More than 30 years ago, I joined the international SEIU publications staff (under the union’s legendary, feisty president, George Hardy). Living in California, Massachusetts and Washington, D.C., over the years, I have contributed countless news and feature articles, as well as editing, to the publications and websites of unions in the public and private sectors and the construction trades.

CES

Monday, January 10th, 2011

Image: Bob RosnerSince technology today is mostly synonymous with business, your intrepid blogger decided to journey to the bleeding edge of technology, the annual Consumer Electronics  Show (a.k.a. CES), in Las Vegas. It’s a rough job, somebody has got to do it.

I’ve read a lot of articles on this year’s conference. Most talk up tablet computers and 3D everything. And yes, both were here in abundance. But to discuss CES and spend most of your time discussing two types of technology is like obsessing how many cup holders are in a car you’re thinking about buying. Factually correct, but mostly missing the point.

CES is wretched excess in a place that invented the term, Las Vegas. Vegas is one of the few places today that allows people to smoke anywhere and then charges you for a hit of oxygen.

It feels like the amount of floor spaced dedicated to the world’s leading technology trade show is somewhere between the size of the State of Iowa and New Jersey. But it felt more like the size of Texas to my poor feet.

Sure there are 3D TVs, amazingly small devices of all types, cars with more technology than the average office building and more languages being spoken than the United Nations. Along with high-technology cigarettes, “iGrill” an application that gets your iPhone and iPad involved in grilling your steaks and a variety of hi-tech bidets.

But that is barely scratching the surface. There are entire hotel ballrooms filled with switches, cable and plugs of all sorts. Think of it as everything related to all the technology that most of us devour at work on a regular basis.

Which all got me thinking about the famous line from the movie Spinal Tap. “There is a thin line between clever and stupid.” I’ve never been in a place where that line is more porous than CES. The brilliant is right next to the craziest thing you’ve ever seen. The only problem is that you don’t always know which side of the line YOU are on.

Let’s face it, we’ve all made fun of technology that we quickly find essential, stuff that we made fun of only weeks earlier (yes iPad, I’m talking to you). CES is interesting for it’s glimpse of new technology, but it’s even better as your own personal Rochard test, about who we are and where we’re all going.

But the best part of being in Las Vegas for CES is what else is going on in town. No, I’m not talking about Elvis impersonators, the ubiquitous leafletors on the Strip, seeing if Cirque du Soleil has hit double digits on the number of shows it has in Vegas or the buffets (my favorite is the $39.99 all day pass at eight different buffets, turning gluttony into a science here).

No, my favorite is how Vegas manages to pair people like Guy Kawasaki and Ron Jeremy, both spoke in Vegas this weekend. Kawasaki is the former evangelist with Apple Computer and he spoke at CES on his big ideas about the future of technology. Jeremy also has had the word big tossed his way a time or two, and he spoke at the annual Adult conference, also in Vegas this same weekend.

Nerds, porn stars and Vegas. Okay, it may sound to you like the end of civilization at you know it, but it makes for a very entertaining weekend. Back to CES…

About The Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Tech’s New Frontier

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerFlash mob. I was faintly aware of the concept. Mostly it had to do with pillow fights and Michael Jackson tributes. Then on Saturday I stumbled upon one. It left me remarkably hopefully. Really. And there is even a business point here, but first more on the mob.

My daughter Frankie and I were walking across the Seattle Center grounds. We suddenly noticed that there were hundreds of people milling about. You just got the sense that something was in the air. So we wandered over. The energy was palpable.

There seemed to be a focal point, at one end of the park. We decided to check it out. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gymnast started doing cartwheels and forward rolls across the field. It was incredibly dramatic.

Then approximately thirty dancers started dancing to the song “Don’t Stop Believing.” Clearly there were two star-crossed lovers. When the woman leaped into the man’s arms the crowd exploded in joy.

Now is when the really freaky part starts. Hundreds of people started dancing to the music. It felt like every aerobics class that I’ve ever seen, that everyone else was privy to dance routines and that I hadn’t gotten the memo.

Remember, I had no idea what was going on. It was like a Broadway show suddenly burst upon us. Amazing, intoxicating, but most of all very fun.

Later I learned that this was called Flash Mob Seattle. That there were videos online that taught the dance moves and that the core group of dancers that started off the festivities had gone to a rehearsal. But that didn’t diminish the remarkable energy from the young kids, old people and everyone in between.

What does this have to do with work? I saw the power of our technology not to isolate people, but to bring them together. In a remarkable way.

Tools are tools. But I felt a sense of community in that gathering that I’ve hardly ever felt in my life.

Here is a link to another gathering that happened on the same day. Unfortunately you miss the initial gymnast, but you’ll get the rest of the performance (there is an ad at the beginning of it, but it’s for the local paper not me). http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/flatpages/video/mediacenterbc3.html?bctid=77243206001

Community, the amazing thing, once you get a taste of it you just want more and more. At least I do. It got me thinking about all the ways that people have to communicate, to collaborate and to create community. Here’s to an amazing new set of possibilities.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Also check out his newly revised best-seller “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

Sharing Information or Cheating, You Decide

Monday, February 15th, 2010

Image: Bob RosnerI read an article about a school in Washington State that allows students to search the Internet during tests.

Yes, you read that correctly. Students at Mill Creek Middle School can go online during tests to search for information. But some schools don’t stop there; they even allow students to beam or IM information to other students during a test.

Beyond wishing that we had such tools when we were in middle school, this raises a great question about the essence of education. Is the goal to cram information in our heads, or should the goal be the know how to get the information that you need?

Let’s not forget that a student can burn a lot of time searching for information on the web. Or information that is beamed to them by a fellow student could be wrong. Rather than seeing this sharing of information as cheating, I believe that it is creating a generation of students who are more discerning about information—where to get it, how to evaluate it and how to use it.

What does this have to do with business? Plenty.

As more of us find our interactions with coworkers limited to three sentence emails, we are rapidly moving from organizations with many brains to constellations of individuals who are increasingly flying by the seat of their pants as they go through their work day.

Think about it. When was the last time that you brainstormed with a colleague over coffee or lunch? When was the last time that you networked or checked in with a colleague that you hadn’t seen in a while? Heck, when was the last time you didn’t eat lunch at your desk?

Technology was supposed to bring us all together. Yet, the connections between people are at an all time low.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating a 40 hour a week coffee klatch. But I do believe that each one of us should all institute a policy where we follow up ten emails with a phone call and twenty with an actual face-to-face conversation. (Remember those?)

Organizations talk a great deal about team work. That people are the greatest asset. Yet, when it comes to paying people, recognition and priorities, it’s all about individual effort.

Great teamwork isn’t cheating. But to achieve it organizations need to do a much better job of cultivating it, rewarding it and encouraging it. Wouldn’t it be amazing if our organizations truly became the sum of their parts?

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. Also check out his newly revised best-seller “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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