It’s done.

(crossposted on the Otter Advisory blog)

This morning, at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, I successfully defended my PhD.  I completed the written work last year, and getting the oral defence done today is the final step in what has been a long road.  There is a bit of admin to do before I can formally use the title, but the work is done.

There are many people I would like to thank. The support I have had along the way from friends and colleagues has been remarkable. herewith an extract from the acknowledgments.

Well over a decade ago, Klaus Tschira suggested that I talk to Professor Thomas Dreier at the ZAR at KIT. I’m grateful to Klaus for many things, but I’m especially thankful for that. Klaus is sorely missed. Professor Dreier’s patient encouragement enabled me to push through to submission. Thank you.

Dr Oliver Raabe has been a most dedicated and willing mentor and guide. His knowledge, encouragement, generosity seem limitless. Without his support, much of this work would have remained mere ideas. Dr Thorsten Schwarz at the KIT SZS went out of his way to help me with the lab test for the blind and visually impaired students, and provided support and advice as I learnt about the challenges that software can inflict on people with disabilities. Max, Florian, Joshua and Philipp, thank you for your deep and focused engagement with testing. Thank you also to Professor Andreas Oberweis for being the secondary supervisor. Thanks to Daniel Vonderau for his help with legal citations and research, and others at KIT for their support. It is a most welcoming and special place

I’m very grateful to the nearly 600 people who to took time to diligently respond to the survey, and to those that publicised it, especially James Governor. Thanks to Irina Sedenko and Dr Ron Fisher for their assistance with the statistical analysis. Professor Armin Trost, your encouragement and advice helped me develop more discipline and rigour. Thanks also to the people I interviewed along the way, Matthew, Liz, Michael, Anne, Neil, Chirag, Janet, Nichole, Jerome, Nigel, Rebecca, James, Jonas, and Dr Fuchs.

To my wife, Charlotte, and our children, thank you for all you do. I’m sure I have not been that easy to live with during the final push. Charlotte’s proof reading was invaluable but any remaining random punctuation is entirely my fault.

And finally, thanks Dad, your gentle but constant chiding was a brilliant bit of parenting.

It has taken me over a decade, so I’m going to take a nap to celebrate.

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Global leadership at Heilbronn

Many years ago, I had the excellent experience of being the corporate supervisor of Sabrina Dick’s Master thesis on HR shared service. Sabrina has since developed into a very successful HR manager at SAP, now leading HR in Eastern Europe.  I caught up with her a couple of months ago, and she mentioned that she had been doing some guest lecturing at her alma mater, in Heilbronn, and for the past few years she has run a series of lectures on global leadership.

Universities of Applied Science have a strong tradition of tight collaboration with industry.  I’ve always thought that the relationships between the Universities of Applied Science and Industry are a key element in German competitiveness.  The new campus in Heilbronn is really impressive, with generous support from the Dieter Schwarz Foundation, the founder of Lidl.

With Sabrina spending more time in Prague and other cities, she was looking for someone to take over the undergrad lecture on global leadership. I met Prof Erner, who leads the department, we agreed that I would run the course for the spring semester.  The course runs over two weekends, with a long evening lecture on Friday, continuing through most of Saturday. Then in June, the students will present their assignments back to me and the class.   You can see more about the broader programme here.

The role of the external lecturer is to augment the core teaching program, and it is expected that you combine your own practical experience with the appropriate theory.  The cool thing for me was that Sabrina had already established a successful program structure, so I didn’t need to build the curriculum from scratch.

Over the course of the first two days, we mixed discussion, theory overview, case studies, I shared rambling examples of my own leadership successes and especially blunders.  I’d spent some time reviewing the text books, especially Northouse, Schein, Gundling, etc.  Given my South African background, I made sure we touched on the work of Adrian Furnham on management and leadership and I also introduced the students to Ubuntu, as I found most of the leadership textbooks to be rather US centric.  Sabrina had put together some excellent materials on how SAP develops leaders and managers, so that brought an additional practical element to the party.

Reviewing academic and practitioner materials on leadership was interesting, if sometimes a little frustrating.  There are no simple answers, and models are riddled with caveats.  There is still a lot that we don’t understand about how the human mind actually works, especially at work.

I have always admired Google’s approach to HR, at least from afar, in that they attempt to apply analytical rigour to what they do, by measuring and testing a lot.  I’m also pleased that Google like to share what they discover.  I was wondering why they share their findings so readily, given the competitive need to attract and retain, in what is a hyper-competitive employment market.  I suppose it is a form of virtue signalling, in that it enables them to communicate about their organization practices and values to prospective applicants, and more broadly to their stakeholders  (more on that another day).

A recent google study noted the importance of  psychological safety as a factor for team performance and it is one that I will more consciously aim to encourage in my own work environment.  See here for more of psychological safety.  I really need to figure out what Laslo’s new venture is all about too.

Back to the course. I enjoyed first weekend, and I hope the students did too. Now the students will work in teams, and are going to prepare  presentations on the following topics.

  1. Are people born as leaders or shaped?
  2. Traditional leadership theories in the context of global leadership.
  3. the role of trust in the context of global leadership
  4. Growing global talent pools
  5. Case studies of global leadership
  6. The challenge of intercultural teams. how best to manage them
  7. Diversity in the context of global leadership
  8. Learning from the google research into psychological safety.

I’m really looking forward to see what they will come up with.I’ll blog more after the presentations.

 

 

 

Handed in.

diss

It has taken a while longer  than I originally envisioned, but yesterday I dropped off this weighty tome at the university. I’m not celebrating yet, as it still needs to be assessed, and then I need to defend it, but I’m very pleased to have got it to this point.  For the first time in a while I slept without dreaming about footnote citation styles.

The interaction between software and law is a rather messy and interesting  place.

 

 

Weak ties and breakfast

I was in Hamburg this week, with my family.  My Dad and I were able to go to the the New year’s eve daytime concert at the Elbphilharmonie. That experience will be the subject of another blog post, I’m still processing the majestic marvel that is the Elbphilharmonie. And I’m really impressed by Hamburg.

Just before heading up to Hamburg, I pinged Paul Jozefak to see if he could meet up for a coffee.  We met up for breakfast, and I’m very glad I did.  He is wise beyond his years, and generous with his advice and ideas.  We both enjoy cycling and as relatively eingedeutsched  ex-pat/immigrants we had similar views on living and working in Germany. Both of us have been here for the best part of 20 years, without really planning to be. 

Paul’s insight into the state of digitalization and the opportunities that it opens up in German economy is profound, and I have not met many people who understand the big company world, venture capital, and start ups as well as he does.  He has an excellent, long running, blog.  

It was Jeff Nolan who introduced us many years ago, and we stayed in touch via social media. I think this was the first time we had managed to do face to face since then.

It reminded me of the Dunbar number and Granovetter’s research on weak ties that I first learnt about from reading JP Rangaswami and Andrew McAfee, if my memory still works correctly.  

While social media can be time sink, at times it offers up a connection and relationship that makes me realise that it has real utility.

That reminds me, it is high time that I meet JP in person too. But rather than breakfast, I hope it is at tea, at the Oval, or Lords, perhaps.

 

Sandalwood and SaaS.

It was a lovely day in Geneva.  The lake and sky were competing for which had the nicest shade of blue.  The alps looked close enough to touch.  It even smelt like spring.  I’d like to say it was the blossoms on the trees, but it wasn’t.  Colleagues from SAP SuccessFactors and I were visiting L’Occitiane’s office. I’m not sure what precisely they were distilling that morning, but I do remember the lovely scents of sandalwood, lavender, and jasmine.  I’m sure there was a lot more in the air, but that is where my olfactory sophistication ends.

That day, we met Xavier, who was pushing hard for a major HR transformation at L’Occitiane.  We talked a lot about the business, and how it was this mix of retail, marketing, design, fashion and R&D. We heard from him about the history of the business and how it has grown rapidly, but that it still has its roots in Provence. He was passionate about building better processes for the employees across the organization.

L’Occitiane were kind enough to give me a bunch of product samples that afternoon. These were quickly annexed by my girls when I returned home.

It made me smile today when I saw their SuccessFactors go live press release.  Congratulations to Xavier and the team. The scent of sandalwood somehow made its way back through my memory. It also reminds me that I still have Christmas shopping to do. Their after shave balm is rather nice too.

Asking the awkward question about employee engagement surveys.

For all of my working career, I’ve argued that HR needs to get more analytical, so I’ve welcomed HR’s growing interest in data based analysis and benchmarking. I have been something of a flag-waver for data driven HR for many years.  I’m thrilled to see the increasing sophistication in workforce analytics. The posse of machine learning, predictive, big data, and artificial intelligence is going to transform HR in ways we can’t imagine today.

But for analytics to work, to add business value, and to be fair and just, it needs to be based on robust methodologies. The analytics are only as good as the frameworks and models they are built with.  No matter how compelling the charts and graphics, if the models are weak, we risk doing the business and its employees a massive disservice.

Employee engagement is a hot topic in HR circles. Start ups, HR tech vendors and consultancies of all sizes and shapes are building solutions and practices focusing on improving and measuring employee engagement.  Gallup’s survey though, is the granddaddy of them all.  It is used for as the justification for all sorts of HR interventions.

Armin Trost, a German HR professor, asks some awkward questions of the Gallup employee engagement. Have a read here.  Here is a quote:

So, why is this bothering me? I am a social scientist and expect clarity as all good social scientists do. Published scientific results must be replicable so that others could repeat studies in the same manner. Empirical methods and outcomes not being communicated in a clear way are useless in the eyes of the scientific community.

When algorithms are hidden behind the firewall of intellectual property, it makes it hard to really know how robust they are. If we are to base major decisions on poll data, it is beholden on us to make sure that we know how the results are derived.

After the failure of polls to effectively predict politics, it is time for a lot more scrutiny and indeed scepticism. Not just for this survey, but for the whole industry.

I am always nervous when mentioning physics and psychology in the same blog post, but the words of Richard Feynman popped up in my twitter feed as I was writing this, so I couldn’t help myself.

 

 

Of Cobblestones, Solomon, Paula, Gunter, Joseph and the GDPR.

I’ve been reading a fair bit of software vendor marketing and press from around the world about the GDPR. It seems to me that a lot of it misses the point. GDPR is seen as a compliance burden, an unwelcome dose of EU bureaucracy or at best a useful opportunity sell security software.  It is perhaps useful to reflect on why the GDPR and its predecessors in data protection legislation came into being.

I was walking to the train station in the rain this morning, and I paused for a moment by the pair of  Stolpersteine (tripping stones) on the corner of the street where we live. I’m not sure why I took the picture today,  perhaps they glistened from the drizzle.  I  wondered what Salomon and Paula were like, what were their hobbies and their foibles, did they watch football or play tennis together, what jobs did they do, was she left handed, who were their friends, what colour was his favourite tie,  did he make puns that made her smile, did she play Chopin on piano so that the notes drifted down the street on the breeze, did they hold hands as they walked beside the Neckar on that summer’s evening for the last time?

stolperstein image. two next to each other. Deutsch family.

Gunter Demnig began this art project in 1992. The first stone was laid in Salzburg, Austria, and now there are over 27,000  plaques across  22 countries, and growing.  Think of it as a distributed  museum.   They all follow the same format, size and font.  In situ, on the doorsteps of houses, for me they are more powerful and poignant than any centralised memorial or museum. They bring an uncomfortable intimacy and they force me to think about  how easily such an evil could come into being.  (check out more about the stones  here).

The GDPR exists to protect our data (and our person)  from abuse.

This Regulation protects fundamental rights and freedoms of natural persons and in particular their right to the protection of personal data. (Article 1 (2) GPDR) 

Software has the potential for enabling goodness, yet it can also empower evil. Software can encourage democracy, but it can undermine it too. Software can level the playing field, or it can entrench privilege.   The power of software to find, sort and group people is both awesome and awful.  It is a mighty thing that we wield.

As an industry we need to see people’s data as something to treat with care and respect. The GPDR is a long overdue firm nudge for us to remember that.

One of the pioneers of artificial intelligence,  Joseph Weizenbaum, fled Berlin for the US as a child in the 1930’s.  I suspect there is a stoplerstein for his family on a street in Berlin. His book, Computer Power and Human Reason, should be required reading for all those building software.

““The computer programmer is a creator of universes for which he alone is the lawgiver. No playwright, no stage director, no emperor, however powerful, has ever exercised such absolute authority to arrange a stage or field of battle and to command such unswervingly dutiful actors or troops.”

We proclaim gleefully that software is eating the world, and data is more valuable than oil, so it is high time the software industry took its human rights responsibilities more seriously.

I, for one, welcome the GDPR.