This week: When your boss has a beef with meat, flat hierarchy facade, and sad robituaries. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
Other stories we bring up
It’s a Musk
Robot of the week
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Disclaimer: We'd like to advise that the following program may contain real news, occasional philosophy and ideas that may offend some listeners.
Intro: This is The Future, This Week on Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter. And I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful and things that change the world. Okay let's start. Let's start!
Kai: Today on The Future, This Week: when your boss has a beef with meat, flat hierarchy facade, and sad robituaries.
Sandra: I'm Sandra Peter Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. Dr Peter, nice to see you.
Sandra: Hello professor.
Kai: We're back. What are we doing?
Sandra: We're back with Season 4 of...
Kai:...The Future, This week it's called still. So let's get right into it. We have some updates for you. Things happened while we were away.
Sandra: And while it's so tempting to talk about what's new with artificial intelligence in healthcare or debate new things in energy and renewables and new regulations, policies, I'm somehow still tempted to start with the Tom Cruise story.
Audio: Singing of Mission Impossible theme song by Kai, Sandra and Megan.
Sandra: So it turns out you can use data science and math to determine how well Tom Cruise's movies will do at the box office based on how long and how far he runs in his movies. This comes via Mashable but it's based on a Rotten Tomatoes...we calling this a study?
Kai: Of sorts, yeah. So the data shows that in the Mission Impossible movies he ran by far the farthest a Mission Impossible 3: three thousand two hundred and twelve feet. Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol: three thousand sixty six feet. By far the most successful of his movies according to the Rotten Tomatoes score and this almost a perfect match when it comes to scores vis a vis how far he runs.
Sandra: So data shows that Tom Cruise's running has a net positive effect on his film. He needs to run more than a thousand feet which is about 300 metres and that has on average a 71 percent improvement on his score as compared to movies where he runs less. So a box office average of about 500 million dollars extra for every 300 metres more he runs.
Kai: So I suggest we put this to the test and create a movie called Tom Runs where he just runs all the time doing random stuff that should be a hit.
Sandra: Brought to you by Insights into Data.
Kai: Fantastic. Great start to season four me thinks. So what else is new?
Sandra: To more serious stories now - an update our facial recognition special which we'll again include in the shownotes where we went into a bit of depth into the different types of face recognition technologies and where we are with the technology at the moment, we're back with Amazon's Rekognition with a 'k' which was used in a test in the American Congress and it turns out that 28 members of Congress were falsely identified as suspects through Amazon's facial recognition technology according to a test that was conducted last week.
Kai: How many were correctly identified as suspects?
Sandra: He wasn't in the room at the moment.
Kai: Okay. He's also not a member of Congress. Now six of those were part of the Congressional Black Caucus. Which also means that there's a disproportionately high number of black members of Congress that were incorrectly identified as suspects by the software.
Sandra: So the bias that we spoke about previously based on the data that is used to train these algorithms was again revealed last week with most of the politicians misidentified being of black or Latino descent.
Kai: So this was reported in The Root but also made news in the New York Times and the consensus was that maybe not quite right for prime time facial recognition in this context because the total number of false positives is obviously concerning and also the racial bias. To our next update.
Sandra: Our next update comes from Sydney but also comes from pretty much all over the world where bike sharing companies are starting to experience some problems and bike sharing companies are something that we've previously discussed on The Future, This week, actually a number of times, and we've been looking into the business models behind these companies. And whilst we haven't predicted this we made it quite clear in previous conversations that the economics of bike sharing don't really hold up, that probably a lot of the money that these companies make is through the deposits that they get which was around sixty nine dollars per bike for each of the users because there were just not enough rides especially in places like Australia or the US, not enough rides daily for this to be a profitable venture and maybe from selling the data that the users would generate. And lo and behold two bike sharing companies Ready Go and Ofo are leaving Sydney and are leaving a number of Australian cities.
Kai: And so where we had multicolored bikes littering the pathways and streets it's all orange now because as far as I can see it's only MoBike operating in Sydney now.
Sandra: Increasingly monochromatic and you also won't be able to get your $69 dollar deposit back as this option has disappeared from all of the ride-sharing apps that are leaving Australia.
Kai: On the upside when Ready Go exited Sydney, it gave away its bikes for free to its users so you could line up at its Alexandria warehouses and just get a bike for free. We have no information how popular that option was but the bikes have been called hideous and uncomfortable in the media before. So, there you go.
Sandra: So back to the future.
Kai: This week.
Sandra: Our first story of today concerns companies going completely vegetarian. So this story is from the New York Times and it's titled 'Memo from the Boss: you're a vegetarian now' and it concerns WeWork. WeWork is the coworking giant that we've mentioned on the podcast before and coworking spaces is something that we research here at the University of Sydney Business School (we'll include all the details in the shownotes) and we've spoken at length about coworking spaces as one of the new trends that swept not only the US and Europe but also Australia. Turns out it's no longer a safe space for carnivores. Earlier this month WeWork has announced that it will no longer serve things like prok, red meat, chicken at any of the corporate functions. Nor will it reimburse any of its employees should they want to order meat and pay for it using a corporate card.
Kai: So the company justifies its decision with its corporate responsibilities to the environment. They say they can save a whole lot of water and contribute to lower carbon emissions because of course producing meat is carbon intensive. While this is of course a great idea, companies being conscious of their impact on society and the environment, it raises all kinds of questions about how far a company can go to enforce an ideology, a set of values, a point of view on its employees or indeed its customers as well.
Sandra: So to us, this is an interesting look at the future of business because we've seen large organisations we're seen companies like Apple or Google or Facebook or indeed Qantas in Australia but we've also seen small organisations all of them imposing corporate values that reflect not only on the working lives of their employers but also more on the personal lives of their employees. This has been in many respects seen as a response to the demands that employees have these days that their corporations become more environmentally responsible or become more attuned to social values.
Kai: So WeWork is by no means the only one who have done this or tried this indeed in the past. In 2015 IBM banned employees from using Uber basically, citing safety and liability concerns, and famously employees rebelled and the company did a u-turn a day later and General Electric and others have successfully paid employees to quit smoking. Then there's also an interesting Google case where Google much like WeWork now had a beef with meat, they didn't come out with a policy, they tried to nudge their employees into abandoning meat one day a week. They installed Meatless Mondays but again employees didn't quite like it, staging a protest barbecue instead.
Sandra: So interestingly it seems companies have gone about in two ways trying to impose their values on their employees and one of them is what we've seen from places like WeWork or IBM as we've mentioned setting out rules, regulations, policies around what you can and cannot do in the organisation. For instance no meat. Whilst at Google what we're seeing is more of the nudge - Meatless Mondays - you are just nudged into eating less meat, not banning it but trying to eat less.
Kai: And famously Google has worked much broader with the idea of nudging having redesigned their kitchens to entice people to take more steps, offering fresh foods instead of sweets to encourage a healthier lifestyle.
Sandra: Smaller plates, more salad bars, but overall this is part of a larger trend of values becoming more and more prominent in conversations that employees or the public are having with organisations. Remember this comes on the back of Google withdrawing two months ago from its controversial military AI project and contracts because of a backlash from employees and from customers...
Kai:...which is a case where this idea of enforcing certain values work the other way, where employees came together to say Hey Google we are the company and we want to have a say in what this company is doing and we want the management to consider not contributing to military technology.
Sandra: Which brings us to quite a strange place because increasingly every company in our lives stands for something or doesn't stand for something else and every decision we make from coworking spaces, to the tissue companies that we use, to the restaurants where we eat, the airlines that we take - they all stand for something and it's becoming increasingly difficult to navigate not only your own personal values but am I really concerned that my airline stands for cruelty-free bathroom products.
Kai: And who gets to decide right and who gets to identify with this. To me I think we're at an interesting crossroads where values, certain ideologies, what we want, purpose, enters the work place and also the marketing of products. But at the same time it feels a little bit as an add on to the traditional capitalist system and so we're now at a point where both in workplaces and in the market vis a vis consumers, businesses will have to find new ways of negotiating in a more or less public discourse what they stand for and also where the limitations are to which a brand can actually carry social conscience. And the broader purpose.
Sandra: And this theme of values carries through through to our second story of the week which comes from The Guardian and it's titled "No bosses. No managers: the truth behind the flat hierarchy facade"...
Kai: Written by Andre Spicer who's a professor at the Cass Business School in London and he's also the author of a nice book called Business Bullshit.
Sandra: And it tackles the idea of the increasing number of companies that stand for no hierarchy. So the companies with absolutely no bosses. You get a handbook and you get to decide together with your colleagues how you want to work. So there are no layers of management. You get to decide on what projects you work on, when you work on them and with whom you work. If you don't like it you can just redesign your team, you can redesign where you sit or where you move.
Kai: This comes off the back of a movement towards new ways of working a certain Silicon Valley startup ideology, egalitarianism, design thinking and the kind of idea that's more equal engagement less hierarchy, less formal structures will actually unlock creativity innovation and also the well-being of employees.
Sandra: So the article gives the example of the Valve Corporation which is a American company that develops video games. And it's a company that's been featured for its unique and amazing flat hierarchy in everything from the Harvard Business Review to the BBC but increasingly over the last few years employee reports have started to describe how actually the company had a flat structure only on the surface. There was a hidden layer of very powerful management structures within the organisation that were just not explicit. So they compared it to a little bit like high school.
Kai: So employees reported that so-called 'barons' emerged and a neo feudal structure which was ripe with hidden bullying and the necessity for employees to be in the "in-group", to cozy up to certain people not to be fired when the next so-called firing cycle would come along. So as Spicer outlines in cases where companies have tried to abandon hierarchy and structure altogether, these hidden structures were able to flourish. And he gives the example of Hollywood and companies over there and Harvey Weinstein in how sexual harassment can flourish in famously unbureaucratic, flat organisations which were dominated in a more informal way by strong personalities and not always with great outcome for everyone.
Sandra: And Spicer so rightly also points to history, to things like the women's liberation movement in the 60s where political scientist Jo Freeman also warned of the "tyranny of structurelessness".
And she pointed out that quite often the lack of structure can quickly become a smoke screen behind which only the strong or the lucky manage to establish unquestioned power over the rest.
Kai: And it is here that we want to pick a bone with Spicer's article because we believe that it jumps a little too short because Spicer seems to equate a lack of hierarchy with a lack of management and a lack of structure per say but that's not true of course because a lack of hierarchy does not mean that we have to abandon all organisational structure and I think this is where the problem lies. That many companies who want to be less hierarchical make the mistake not to fill that void that abandoning hierarchy leaves with an alternative structure.
Sandra: So here we want to point to a couple of examples where companies have done away with either hierarchy or with structure but have replaced it with something else. So one of our examples is the Morning Star Company which is the largest tomato processor in the world and the Morning Star Company farm has been in business journals and in books for almost a decade now for being a company that has no managers, no titles, no promotions. Famously in a Harvard Business Review article by Gary Hamel we see a company that employs 400 full time employees and up to four thousand part time employees during high tomato picking season and has almost a billion dollars in annual revenues, has grown at double digit paces over the past two decades. Yet manages to do this without any managers. However a close look at the company reveals actually a very clear structure. Morning Star relies on contract style agreements between workers so all employees at the company rely on what they are called CLOUs - Colleague Letters Of Understanding - CLOUs - each one being negotiated annually so they will end up with about 3000 of them in effect at any given time but this connects all the employees within the organisations and sets out the shared responsibilities, the shared expectations and the way in which we can judge whether someone's done a good job or not. So Morning Star relies on these letters of understanding for everything from hiring someone, to buying a new piece of manufacturing, to delivering certain goods or services across the supply chain which means that they don't end up working in a vacuum but rather working in a very defined structure that allows you not only to be able to defend the quality of your work but also to know what the performance of your peers is like. And whilst this seems very very simplistic let's remember what kind of company we are talking about.
Kai: So Morning Star grows and cans tomatoes so that's a reasonably well understood and straightforward format and so they have found a non-hierarchical organisational structure that fits this particular business process. But of course it wouldn't work in other contexts such as the creative industries or innovation rich contexts and it is here that I want to mention agile. Often times agile is misunderstood on the back of this ideology to abandon all hierarchy and all structure as a sort of an anything goes philosophy which is not true of course because agile is quite rich with certain practices and certain structures so Scrum for example relies on a certain rhythm of work. It requires quite disciplined behaviours, daily stand-up meetings, review meetings, adherence to deadlines but of course it also delivers on the promise to create self organising teams where there is no traditional project manager who would distribute tasks among team members where it is the team that support each other and the team has to actually come up with its own ways of working thereby being able to unlock creativity and being innovative. But it is by no means structureless environment because while we have these self organising teams they are of course embedded in quite an elaborate structure sometimes especially and we're talking multiple teams that work together in an organisation. So what we're seeing is that abandoning hierarchy doesn't mean abandoning all management or all structure.
Sandra: Nor does it mean necessarily having the Silicon Valley young creative types which is the other prerequisite that people seem to bring up for the democratised workplace. It is always one of the startups in Silicon Valley or one of the new unicorns on the block where as companies like Morning Star makes ketchup and pizza sauce or tomato paste, its employees are not young creatives are not in that demographic managed to do this and we've also seen agile employed across a number of different industries many traditional industries. Sometimes with more and sometimes with less positive outcomes which is often driven indeed by the ideology that drives the implementation. But we also want to mention that it is not easy to strike the right balance between granting freedom and empowering employees. And we want to point to the famous Zappos example and their idea of holacracy which famously tried to abandon hierarchy and replace it with a different set of principles which seemed to work quite okay for a while. But in 2016 there were a number of articles which outlines the different problems which this whole holacracy principle, largely an organisation principal, borrowed from software engineering imposed on people rigid meeting structure, rigid decision making structures that did not rely on hierarchy but on peer to peer decision making which in the end drove many people away because they found it too bureaucratic and complicated ironically.
Sandra: Come to think of it is a bit strange though that whilst on the one hand this idea of values leads companies to take choices away from employees.
Kai: Can't have meat.
Sandra: Can't use Uber, can't do this, can't smoke. On the other hand it is seemingly the same companies that are giving employees their choices back but you can organise your work in what ever way you want, we won't tell you what to do at all.
Kai: Be agile. Don't eat meat. On The Future, This Week.
Sandra: So maybe this just shows us how much influx the world of work is.
Kai: Well the good news is that there is a lot of appetite for experimenting with new forms of organisation, with being a bit more bold in terms of what a brand stands for. And of course some companies will overshoot, there will be pushback, but by and large it is good to see that there's a way to renegotiate the relationship between the corporates and its employees and customers more broadly.
Sandra: And because we've been away for three weeks of course now we have to turn Elon Musk - he's again said something while we were away.
Kai: Yeah he said something and you know "It's a Musk".
Sandra: So what's happened while we were away is that the new study came out in Nature Astronomy last Monday and it was subsequently reported in Discover Magazine that considered the two often mentioned approaches to transforming Mars into a livable planet.
Kai: Which also concurs with a study in Science in 2017 which dismissed the terraforming of planets as belonging to the sphere of science fiction as not something that is feasible. So this recent study caught the eye of Elon Musk.
Sandra: In fact Discover Magazine tweeted at Elon Musk "sorry Elon there is not enough CO2 to terraform Mars.".
Kai: Because Elon Musk had previously gone on the record on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert and said this:
Audio (Elon Musk): But eventually you could transform Mars into an Earth like planet, you'd warm it up. There's the fast way and the slow way. The fast way is drop thermal nuclear weapons over the poles".
Sandra: And of course Elon had his response ready saying there's a massive amount of CO2 on Mars absorbed into the soil and that's released upon heating. And he said "with enough energy via artificial or natural (sun) fusion you can terraform almost any large rock body."
Kai: So this is a real Musk because here is the science doing the calculations of how much CO2 there is saying that no this is by far not enough to create an atmosphere. And here is Elon Musk who says there's a massive amount of CO2 and of course I can do it. Now who needs science when you have strong opinions right?
Sandra: Whilst I think many of Elon Musk's initiatives are absolutely amazing and groundbreaking and future focused, this approach to science actually reminds me of someone else. We're not going to see his name on the show.
Kai: No and no. But we are going to talk about robots now.
Sandra: Wasn't there one that burnt tweets?
Kai: Yes it seems there used to be because the last one is from the 19th of February so it seems to have burned out...
Sandra:...which is a really good segue into our 'Robot of the Week'. We thought since it's a new season we should have a Robot of the Week and we checked up on some of our previous robots...
Kai: And the news isn't good folks.
Audio: Robot of the Week.
Kai: (Music Playing) So this is the sad story of the dying robots we're calling it...
Sandra: Robituaries. The adorable home robot Kuri is being discontinued.
Kai: So Kuri is or was a social robot. This little thing that looks a bit like an oversized Lego figure with no arms was designed to become a family member, to read to kids, to play with pets and just to be there to take photos of family gatherings but Mayfield Robotics, the company that articulated the bold vision for domesticated robots in 2015 has quietly announced in a blog post that Kuri will no longer be available to join your family.
Sandra: So so long Kuri who we think Siri or Alexa probably killed you.
Kai: While Siri or Alexa certainly are not as cute and can't wheel around, they do now fulfill many of the things that Kuri was intended to do.
Sandra: And this is why we also say goodbye to another one of our Robots of the Week - Jibo.
Kai: Another social robot, Jibo was launched as a project on Indiegogo. And he turned out to be an Indienogo. Despite raising over three point six million in crowd funding. Maybe the 900 dollar price was just too high or again it was Siri or Alexa meddling with the affairs of cute social robots.
Sandra: So whilst the cute social bots are gone we've got some good news. Remember those dogs that could open doors from Boston Dynamics that freaked out the Internet.
Kai: Turns out they're building a whole army of those dog bots.
Sandra: Boston Dynamics is building a massive pack of robot dogs that you can purchase starting next year.
Kai: Not cute but may be more fit for survival we think.
Sandra: And that's all we have time for this week.
Kai: Thanks for listening and hope you enjoy Season 4 of The Future, This Week.
Sandra: We'll see you next week.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week made awesome by the Sydney Business Insights Team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music is composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Spotify, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online on Flipboard, Twitter or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss please send them firstname.lastname@example.org.