Big data and Evidence-based Management

An intriguing article by the NY Times recently on the growing influence of data analysis in HR:

These are some of the startling findings of an emerging field called work-force science. It adds a large dose of data analysis, a k a Big Data, to the field of human resource management, which has traditionally relied heavily on gut feel and established practice to guide hiring, promotion and career planning.

Work-force science, in short, is what happens when Big Data meets H.R.

No company would admit to making important personnel decisions without any concrete basis, yet this is precisely what is happening in most companies. Think of how you were recruited, evaluated, and managed by your employer. How many of the decisions were based on real evidence, and how many were based on instinct?

This is a healthy trend, and part of a larger movement called evidence-based management. Put simply, management should be based on hard science and not gut feel. That was how modern medicine moved away from alternative medicine and witch doctors.

It’s about time the field of management does the same.

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Kayak ride with Adam van Koeverden

Adam van Koeverden is one of the best sprint kayakers in the world. Check out his beautiful technique in this video – both from the front and back.

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Facebook Home on my Nexus 4

“Facebook phone”

Now that Facebook has gone public, there is incessant pressure to increase revenues. With the growing importance of the mobile platform to Facebook’s success, it’s no wonder that over the years, Mark Zuckerberg has had to regularly debunk persistent rumours of a so-called “Facebook phone”. After all, Facebook has dipped its toes into the waters before with the HTC Cha Cha in 2011, which featured a dedicated button to quick-launch the Facebook app:

The HTC Cha Cha was launched in 2011, and featured a dedicated button to launch the Facebook app.

The HTC Cha Cha was launched in 2011, and featured a dedicated button to launch the Facebook app.

But as Zuckerberg shrewdly pointed out, such a phone could never hope to reach more than a fraction of their billion-plus users. For example, Samsung’s Galaxy S3, the best-selling Android phone by the world’s largest smartphone maker, has shipped out 50 million units as of March 2013. An impressive achievement, but a mere 5% drop in the Facebook blue ocean.

Last week, Facebook held a press conference to unveil their vision of the Facebook phone – they want every phone to be a Facebook phone.

“Facebook Home” is an app launcher for the Android platform. App launchers are basically software that determine the look and feel of your phone’s lock screen, home screen, and app drawer. It’s the part of the phone that users interact directly with, and Facebook is determined to claim that space as its own.

With Home, Facebook is in your face from the second you turn on the screen. For example, you can browse even through your Facebook newsfeed without unlocking the phone. This makes snacking on little nuggets on Facebook a much more streamlined process.

Facebook Home screens (from left to right): lockscreen, Chathead (closed), Chathead (open), and app drawer.

Facebook Home screens (from left to right): lockscreen, Chathead (closed), Chathead (open), and app drawer.

Here’s a quick demo review by The Verge:

Facebook Home was initially available at launch for a selected range of HTC and Samsung phones. But new software updates in the past week have introduced limited functionality for other Android smartphones and iOS devices. I’ve been trying out Facebook Home for the past week, which is probably enough to provide an accurate overview.

Overview

There are three parts to Facebook Home: the app drawer, Chat Heads, and lockscreen.

The app drawer is similar to your typical app drawer containing icons of all your installed apps. Swiping right reveals extra pages for your most frequently used apps. The biggest difference is the addition of dedicated Facebook shortcuts at the top of the screen to update your status, upload a photo, or check in at a location. I disabled the app drawer after just five minutes. This is a real pain to use – I needed extra swipes and taps to open my favourite apps, and widgets are no longer possible. No widgets? That’s one of the greatest benefits of using an Android smartphone over an iPhone, and Facebook for some reason have decided to eliminate them.

Chat Heads allows you to message your friends from within any app simply by clicking on a floating bubble of your friend’s profile photo. It combines both Facebook messages and conventional SMS text messages. It makes conversations much less of a hassle as you no longer need to jump between apps. Playing pong by flicking the bubbles across the screen is pretty entertaining too. Useful for many, but not for Whatsapp users like me.

The new lockscreen is the most intrusive part of Facebook Home. I see status updates and photos from the instant I turn my screen on. However the presentation is beautiful, with elegant typography and photos scrolling slowly across the screen. Even mundane photos look measurably better here. After my initial shock, I actually began to like the lockscreen. It sure makes for a refreshing change from my static lockscreen, providing a different “wallpaper” every time.

How to get Facebook Home

Facebook Home is officially available for the latest HTC and Samsung phones, such as the HTC First and Samsung Galaxy S4. But helpful hackers have already found a workaround, which was how I have installed Facebook Home on my LG Nexus 4.

Chat Heads is available for most smartphones if you update to the latest version of Facebook messenger.

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Why is John Kotter still talking about management vs leadership?

Former Harvard Business School professor John Kotter is a leading authority on the topic of leadership. So when he speaks, people listen.

Unfortunately, his recent article on Harvard Business Review dragged out for yet another public airing the tired decades-old debate on the differences between management and leadership.

Kotter doesn’t actually define the terms in his article. Instead he provides examples of each:

Management is “planning, budgeting, structuring jobs, staffing jobs, measuring performance and problem-solving, which help an organization to predictably do what it knows how to do well.”

Leadership is “taking an organization into the future, finding opportunities that are coming at it faster and faster and successfully exploiting those opportunities. Leadership is about vision, about people buying in, about empowerment and, most of all, about producing useful change. Leadership is not about attributes, it’s about behaviour.”

Below are the three main misconceptions about leadership according to Kotter, and my thoughts on each of them:

1. People think management is the same as leadership.

Well, why shouldn’t they? Most employees are not academics splitting hairs on technical definitions. They are people who want to do a good job, and care deeply about what kind of support they are getting from the company, be it adequate staffing or a clear corporate vision.

2. People think that only senior executives lead.

Kotter talked about leaders setting a vision and getting buy-in, empowering people and producing useful change. I don’t see how these are not the sole responsibilities of senior executives. In fact, I imagine they would be pretty miffed if every employee starts persuading everyone else that the CEO’s vision is wrong and how theirs is the right way forward for the organisation.

Of course, employees should provide feedback and contribute their ideas, but at the end of the day, it’s up to the CEO to make the call and decide on the destination.

3. People think that leadership is personal charisma.

Kotter is now running his own consultancy firm, Kotter International. On his company web page on Change Leadership, he says:

“When leadership exists without management, the company is only as strong as its charismatic leader.” (emphasis added)

So on one hand, Kotter argues that leadership is not about personal charisma. On the other hand, he tacitly acknowledges the prime role of charisma in a leader.

We are persuaded by our feelings and emotions. How effective can a bland and colourless senior executive be in selling his vision? The good news is that like any other skill, persuasion and salesmanship can be practised and improved. So what we think of as charisma is not a mysterious innate and immutable quality, but a changeable attribute that can be moulded over time with deliberate practice.

I’m not sure the average employee would care much about whether “problem-solving” is resides in the “management” or “leadership” basket. But he would probably expect the senior management to do all of the above well, so that he could just get on with his work.

Instead of mulling on the differences between managers and leaders, we should be talking about management skills and leadership skills. A company needs to possess the right amounts of the right skills to overcome the challenges they are facing, whether these skills reside in a single person or a team.

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Listening to books and playing a TV show – experiencing The Hobbit and The Walking Dead

When Lord of the Rings (LOTR) first hit the big screen in 2001, I was proudly proclaiming to everyone that I had read the entire tome by J.R.R. Tolkein. But my memory had failed me in that instance. I hadn’t read the books; I didn’t even have them. I had played the computer game, and only the second one at that (The Two Towers). The game wasn’t very good. I inadvertently found a bug which allowed me to slip on the Ring and walked unseen all the way to Mordor, unmolested by enemies. It was fun the first 10 minutes, but hours of walking does not make for exciting game play.

More than a decade later, I was proudly proclaiming that I have read The Hobbit. I was closer to the truth this time: I had purchased a hard cover that was specially discounted at a used bookstore in Nottingham during my undergraduate days. It made for a pretty decoration on the bookshelf but unfortunately, I had never gotten around to actually reading it.

To make up for it, I decided to listen to the audio book version of The Hobbit during a recent long drive up North. I found an excellent 1991 recording by Rob Inglis. He used memorably distinctive voices for each of the main characters, and get this, even sang all the songs in the book. You might not know this from the movies, but there were a lot of rhymes and songs in the J.R.R. Tolkein books. Being an unabridged recording, every single word in the book was narrated or sung. The tense exchange of riddles between Bilbo Baggins and Gollum in the cave left an especially deep impression. I was listening to it in bed and Inglis’s interpretation of Gollum gave me shivers and insomnia.

Riddles in the Dark

Riddles in the Dark

So, S is a huge fan of zombie shows, so no surprise that she has been following The Walking Dead TV series with unsuppressed excitement. It could be our never-ending fascination with apocalyptic end-of-the-world stories (hey it’s the end of the world today!), but this TV series has been garnering much critical acclaim since the pilot.

And you know what follows a successful show these days: computer game tie-ins. Given my history with The Two Towers, I thought this was yet another cynical marketing exercise to milk more money from a loyal fan base.

The Walking Dead PC game

The Walking Dead PC game

To my surprise, the rave reviews for The Walking Dead: A Telltale Games Series kept pouring in. Our local tech blog Techgoondu gushed how it was “easily one of the best storytelling gaming experience” of the year. Metacritic gave it an exceptional score of 91%, which is practically unheard of for an indie game publisher. I missed the recent autumn sale on Steam, but this title is sitting pretty at the top of my wish list. The TV series was in turn based on the award-winning comic book series (don’t they call them graphic novels these days?) by Robert Kirkman.

At the end of the day, how the story is told does not matter. It’s no longer about the format, but all about the experience.

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Quick review of Seagate Momentus XT 750GB solid state hybrid disk drive

I just purchased a new hard disk drive from Seagate. The Momentus XT 750GB is a new breed of hybrid drives, combining the speed of solid-state drives with the high storage capacity of traditional spinning drives. The drive caches frequently open applications and OS programs in 32 MB of cache and 4 GB of flash memory, giving a claimed performance boost of up to 100% over traditional hard disk drives.

It sounded wonderful on paper so I purchased the 750 GB version from Amazon, and had it shipped over on expedited delivery. Using the free cloning software from Ease US, I easily duplicated my existing hard disk onto the new hybrid drive.

The first thing I did was to run the Windows experience index score again. The result remains at 5.9 for the hard disk performance. OK, this benchmark is probably not sensitive enough to capture any performance improvements.

The computer bootup time didn’t see much different either, taking about 2 min to complete the start-up sequence (I do have a fair number of programs running in the background).

What I did notice so far was that frequently used applications, such as the chrome browser, open almost instantly. I believe that as time passes, the hard disk will learn intelligently which data to store in the cache and the speeds will become noticeably faster. I will do an update on the performance in the near future.

Solid-state drives are still the best performing hard disk drives. Unfortunately even though the capacity to price ratio has been improving, they are still too expensive. For example, the Crucial m4 SSD drive costs US$406 for 512GB (US$0.79/GB) vs US$140 for the 750GB Momentus XT (US$0.18/GB), which is more than four times the unit cost.

For now, this makes hybrid disk drives a very palatable alternative indeed.

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First impressions of Android 4.1 Jelly Bean on Samsung Galaxy Nexus

One of the beautiful things about getting a Nexus Android phone is that the Nexus series are always first in line to get the latest software updates from Google. Frequently described as a “pure Google Android” experience, there were none of the lengthy delays associated with manufacturer customisations such as Samsung’s TouchWiz or HTC’s Sense user interfaces.

The newest version of Android’s dessert-themed OS is 4.1 Jelly Bean, and was recently announced at the Google I/O developer conference on 27 July 2012. Within hours, the developer preview version was available for download at the XDA Developer forums.

Here’s an installation video with instructions you can follow:

I was previously running a custom ROM on my rooted Samsung Galaxy Nexus, so it took me less than 15 minutes to download and install the Jelly Bean ROM. I have been testing it for the past few days, here are some first impressions:

1. It’s Buttery Smooth (Mostly)

Google poured considerable effort into tackling one of the biggest bugbears of Android – the dreaded “Android lag”. In the past, there were frequently delays, stutters, and unacceptable jerkiness when navigating around the smartphone. With their cheekily named Project Butter, Google claims to have solved this problem:

Pretty impressive stuff, and most of the time, it works. Scrolling through the app drawer is a drastic improvement from stock Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich (ICS), though comparable to the AOKP ROM on my rooted Galaxy Nexus. There are also improvements in opening the recent apps screen and returning to home screen.

I still notice some lag though. For example, it takes about 1-2 seconds to launch an app from the home screen. Scrolling in the Chrome browser is generally smooth though there is some jerkiness. It is inexplicable, given the power of the 1.2GHz dual-core CPU.

2. Better Battery

An unexpected bonus of Project Butter is the dramatic improvement in battery life, lasting a full day of moderate use. A Galaxy Nexus running stock ICS has pathetic battery life and requires constant recharging throughout the day.

One should easily hit at least 3 hours of on-screen time on the standard 1750mAh battery, which is a common measure of active phone use. I use an extended 3000mAh battery and regularly clock 5 hours of on-screen time.

3. User interface improvements

Placing widgets is now much more convenient. Icons on the home screen will shuffle around to make room for the widget, which can also be automatically re-sized to fit into available space.

I also like the look of the new YouTube app, with a new column layout inspired by Microsoft Windows Metro UI. It is now easier to access the channel feed for subscriptions. Swipe from the right, and large video preview icons slide into place. It’s intuitive, and looks great.

4. Extra features and capabilities

Voice Typing is now possible, even without a data connection. The download package is a minuscule 22mb – pretty impressive stuff. Accuracy is OK after a few minutes of practice, regularly getting around 80% to 90% of the words correct. But probably not good enough to replace typing on the screen.

The new stock Android keyboard now features word prediction, which can save you a considerable number of taps. Some users have reported laggy response when the word prediction option is turned on, but I have not encountered this problem.

Google Now has been billed by some as Google’s answer to Apple’s Siri, but it goes way beyond that. Google Now takes information search one step further by proactively providing you with what you need.

For example, I searched for good steakhouses around Funan Centre. I selected one of the results, Black Angus Steakhouse. Shortly later, there was a notification that the estimated time of arrival to the restaurant from my current location is 22 minutes. Pretty cool, but its relevance needs to be enhanced.

There was a “hidden” feature called Google Song Search, which was disabled by default in the ROM. I used an app called Titanium Backup to restore it, and it then became available in the widget section. This is a song identification app, in the vein of Soundhound and Shazam. But it’s free and has the might of Google behind it. These companies have a fight on their hands now.

Conclusions

The hardware specifications of current high-end phones are currently so powerful, the performance bottlenecks now lie in the phone software. Samsung understood this, which was why its latest flagship, the Galaxy S3, was all about the software enhancements such as SmartStay and S-Voice.

Jelly Bean has made the Galaxy Nexus feel like a brand new phone. It is faster, smoother, and more powerful. I love it.

Unfortunately, most phones in the market will not be upgraded to Jelly Bean. Even if an upgrade is in the pipeline, you better be prepared to wait at least 6 months for the manufacturers to tinker with it.

I expect the next iterations of the Android software to be as big a leap over Jelly Bean, as it was over Ice Cream Sandwich.

This is why I will only buy Nexus smartphones from now on.

[Edited on 5 July 2012: Added installation video.]

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