Conflicting messages in data collection

I’ve seen how relinquishing some of my autonomy can be a good thing.

There’s a strange set of narratives around information sharing. From one side, there’s acknowledgement that putting your information online reduces your agency. I’ve seen this in articles like this one from frog that are trying to make the case that sure, you’ll give up some measure of privacy, or secrecy, but you’ll get something better in return.

But from the other side, there’s the idea that by putting your personal information online and trusting an organisation with it, you’re taking charge of it. I’ve seen this recently in a lot of the marketing for electronic health records. “Give us your health information,” the marketing copy says, “so you can be in charge of it.”

It’s not a particularly convincing message.

Further thoughts on “portfolio” careers

Last week I wrote a critique of Charles Handy’s concept of the Shamrock Organisation and touched on the concept of “portfolio careers”. In The Australian’s Higher Ed section this week there was an article on the casualisation of academic jobs where “portfolio careers” coincidentally came up. The article began with parts of an interview with the CEO of Universities Australia, Belinda Robertson who said, in part:

“casualisation suits a lot of people who take a portfolio approach to their career; they mix and match academic work with work in industry, consulting and so on.”

To which Kate Bowles quipped: “said no casual academic I know”.

Robertson positions portfolio work as a choice, but the empirical work on portfolio employment (that I have found in my very limited and casual searching) instead shows that people adopt portfolio work in a variety of circumstances, only one of which is a free choice.

In a paper describing the secure-to-portfolio career transition of a group of former NHS managers (paywalled), Mary Mallon wrote:

The literature on new career forms, of which portfolio careers is an example, stresses the positive, the potential liberation, the opportunities to grow and develop without dependence on an organisations. A normative view has begun to emerge without empirical evidence to substantiate claims of how people will act and feel.

But (Mallon again):

The findings present a more ambiguous picture of their experience of portfolio work than the normative literature might suggest. Each merit of portfolio working was constructed as a drawback and vice versa. So, while there may be more variety, this leads to a loss of deeper attachment; while there may be a chance to grow and develop, this proves difficult outside the umbrella of organisational employment; while they are more free to pick and choose work, financial matters have to be considered; while they want to believe they have made a positive and successful move, the reputation of portfolio working, as many perceive it, rather taints and undermines them; while they feel they have more freedom, they still constrain their own behaviour by reference to workplace norms.

There’s lots going on here but one thing that I’m seeing in much of the portfolio work literature is an assumption that a portfolio worker and the organisations they work for are in some way equal partners (you can laugh here). Brian O’Reilley, writing for Fortune in 1994, captured this idea:

The era that traded loyalty for job security is virtually dead. The new contract is: There will never be job security. You will be employed by us as long as you add value to the organization, and you are continuously responsible for finding ways to add value. In return, you have the right to demand interesting and important work, the freedom and resources to perform it well, the pay that reflects your contribution, and the experience and training needed to be employable here or elsewhere.

Anyone working as a casual academic is entitled to wonder when they’re going to get the “in return” part that O’Reilley writes about.

In a more theoretical paper (again, paywalled, sorry), Cawsey, Deszca and Mazerolle write:

A prime assumption [of the portfolio career] is that organizations are trustworthy. The individual must first deliver value added, and only then does the organization entertain the idea of training him or her for the next job on the next level up. This has the individual bearing all of the risk. Even if a person performs well but things just don’t work out for reasons not related to performance, the most one could hope for would be a good reference.

What all this means generally, I don’t know. What it means specifically, though, is that talking about the casualisation of higher education work as “something that suits a lot of people” assumes only benefits and glosses over any potential downsides.

More questions than answers


Just back from a very good presentation/workshop that was mostly reporting quantitative data about uni students experiences of university. Lots of lickert-scale response graphs. And I always have the same kind of reaction to those sort of things, which is that they just raise more questions for me than they answer. Not just about the data presented but, e.g., the idea that there’s a difference between “strongly agree” and “agree” that matters. Anyway.

epub vs pdf for borrowed ebooks


I’m in a group of academics putting together a subject in Research Methods for design students. We’ve got a book we want to use for assigned readings. I’ve been going through, picking out chapters and sections of chapters. The university library offers the book as an ebook which can be borrowed and viewed on an iDevice. You get two options for how you’d like to download the text, as an epub or a pdf. Either way you need to view it in an app called BlueFire Reader because the text is protected with some sort of Adobe DRM that Bluefire can authenticate. My preference is to get the epub as the file is smaller and the text is resizable. But, as I’ve just realized, it doesn’t use consistent page numbering and so all my careful notes about which sub-sections I want to match with which lectures are all wrong.

This is me shaking my fist at the epub file while I wait for the pdf to download.

You can’t CV Dazzle your whole body

Genevieve Bell tweeted a link to a NYT article today, “When No One is Just a Face in the Crowd“. It’s about commercial face recognition systems being used in stores for identifying shoplifters or big spenders.

I’m sure facial recognition software is getting better all the time, but, from what I understand, it’s still a bit delicate. Change the lighting or the angle of the camera and recognition accuracy takes a dive. Or you can mess with the set of points on your face that the recognition engine is trying to identify.

Colleagues of mine have been working on what they call Soft Biometrics. Here’s the abstract to a recent book chapter:

In a commercial environment, it is advantageous to know how long it takes customers to move between different regions, how long they spend in each region, and where they are likely to go as they move from one location to another. Presently, these measures can only be determined manually, or through the use of hardware tags (i.e. RFID). Soft biometrics are characteristics that can be used to describe, but not uniquely identify an individual. They include traits such as height, weight, gender, hair, skin and clothing colour. Unlike traditional biometrics, soft biometrics can be acquired by surveillance cameras at range without any user cooperation. While these traits cannot provide robust authentication, they can be used to provide identification at long range, and aid in object tracking and detection in disjoint camera networks. In this chapter we propose using colour, height and luggage soft biometrics to determine operational statistics relating to how people move through a space. A novel average soft biometric is used to locate people who look distinct, and these people are then detected at various locations within a disjoint camera network to gradually obtain operational statistics. (Denman, Fookes, et al. (2012) Identifying customer behaviour and dwell time using soft biometrics in Video Analytics for Business Intelligence [Studies in Computational Intelligence, Volume 409].)

Now, that’s pretty heavy on jargon, but what it means is rather than using facial recognition, it’s possible to identify a person based on their height, clothes and gait, without having to get a good picture of their face. Denman, Fookes et al are able to identify someone as that person walks from camera to camera through a space, still based only on non-facial features. Actually, the system picks each person-shaped-and-moving thing in a video stream and assigns it an identifier and then tries to get as much biometric information about each person-shaped-and-moving thing as it can. In the demo I’ve seen, it’s possible to query a video archive in near-natural language, for “a person of average height wearing dark blue pants and a red short-sleeve shirt” and have it return a series of clips matching that criteria.

This is less accurate than facial recognition for identifying a person who you know. You can’t tell a soft biometric system to “see if Ben was in the mall in the last three hours”. But you could link it to a credit-card data stream and then tell it, “if Ben made a purchase on his credit-card in the mall in the last three hours and we had a camera at that point-of-sale terminal, what time and through which door did he enter the mall?”

Cool/scary, right?

Shamrock Organisations and the Present of Work

I’ve been (re)-reading a late 80s management book lately. It’s called The Age of Unreason by Charles Handy.

My friend said to me, “why are you reading a management book!?”. Because, I said, it helps me think through some of the changes in work and, importantly, the things that people are saying about changes in work.

The Age of Unreason is about changes that Handy saw happening in white-collar work in the late 80s and early 90s. One of the concepts that’s most often referenced from TAoU is the “Shamrock Organisation”. A Shamrock Organisation is comprised of three “leaves”. The British Library’s Management and Business Studies Portal has a good summary of the three leaves.

The first group is a core of qualified professional technicians and managers. They are essential to the continuity of the organisation, and have detailed knowledge of it, and of its aims, objectives and practices. They are rewarded with high salaries and associated benefits, in return for which they must be prepared to give commitment, to work hard and to work, if necessary, long hours.

The second group consists of contracted specialists who may be used, for example, for advertising, R&D, computing, catering and mailing services. They operate in an existential culture; and are rewarded with fees rather than with salaries or wages. Their contribution to the organisation is measured in output rather than in hours, in results rather than in time.

The third group – the third leaf of Handy’s shamrock – consists of a flexible labour force, discharging part-time, temporary and seasonal roles. They operate within a role culture; but Handy observes that while they may be employed on a casual basis they must be managed, not casually, but in a way which recognises their worth to the organisation.

I’ve found this a really good lens for thinking about how people talk about the new kinds of work that are “just around the corner”. Or for thinking about how people, for example casual lecturers (or adjuncts in the American sense) are effectively locked out of the sort of employment they aspire to. Or for thinking about why the kind of permanent positions experienced by people in my parent’s generation may never be available again.

For example, Dan Pink’s Free Agent Nation is about people leaving the first leaf of the Shamrock, the professional core, for the second leaf, the contracted professionals. (Pink briefly refers to TAoU in FAN.) FAN is pretty positive about the changes in employment status of the people who make up the case studies in the book.

One thing that Handy notes is that the Shamrock organisation is compelled to always try to reduce the size of the core. So, if you’re in the core and you choose to leave for the second leaf, that benefits the organisation. But, what this also means is that getting in to the core is pretty difficult and that even if you’re in the core, the organisation is incentivised to push you into another leaf.

Handy thought that people would be pretty happy to forego the dedication to the organisation required by the core for the freedom offered by the second leaf. He thought that the lack of security experienced by people in the second leaf would be balanced by the “Portfolio Careers” they’d develop. Many of Handy’s examples of these Portfolio Workers are of people like him: mature upper-middle class professionals who’ve already had well developed “core” careers. It’s not clear how someone starting out would develop the expertise needed to build a suite of careers, rather than (just) one.

It helps to remember that TAoU was written at the height of the boom in the UK. For a certain type of person, in a fairly narrow sort of career, everything that Handy was talking about came to pass. And it was awesome. These days, not so much. Right?

In an age of austerity, and in a highly service-oriented economy, the Shamrock Organisation takes a darker turn. The pressures to reduce the core are the same but now there are fewer opportunities in the other leaves — fewer opportunities to develop expertise and fewer opportunities to move between leaves as time and circumstances require.

Handy said that the core embody the culture of the organisation. But the constant pressure to reduce the size of the core seems like it would have two effects on the organisational culture — it would encourage overt displays of loyalty and it would compel moves to downsizing the outsourcing. This is apparent in Universities with the well known situation of the casualisation of teaching and the contract-isation of research positions.

If you’re in the contract leaf or the project-work leaf, things like the casualisation of employment are a problem. Labour rules are set up for core workers. Back when most people were core workers, that was a good idea.

But, if you’re in the core and your job is to shrink the core and keep it small, the casualisation of employment is brilliant! Instead of the organisation carrying all those core workers and, thanks to labour laws that were set up for core workers, all the liabilities associated with their entitlements (you know that simply having your annual leave on the books costs your employer money, right?) you’ve now got a far more focusable and flexible workforce, able to take advantage of new strategic opportunities that arise.

Overall, what this means is that there’s no going back to the long term job of old. It just can’t be done because the organisations where the jobs are don’t want to return to that time.

It’s a bit gloomy but that’s why I read old management texts. Come back next week when I go through Handy’s fascinating/terrifying (and possibly already in progress) vision for the future of education.