Just ducky: Engineers develop robots to replace ducks in cleaning and patrolling rice paddy fields.

Aigamo ducks in a rice paddy.

It’s a common theme that we hear: Artificial intelligence and robotics are coming for many of the jobs that have traditionally been performed by humans.

But what about the fate of animals?

That prospect was raised recently by David Mantey, a writer for Thomas Publishing, in an article about what’s happening in rice paddy fields.  And it involves ducks.

More specifically, aigamo ducks, which are a cross between mallards and domestic fowl. There is a farming method, originating in Japan, that employs these creatures to clear and keep unwanted plants and parasites out of rice paddy fields.

Essentially, it’s an environmentally-friendly practice in which the ducks keep the paddies clear without the need for pesticides. As an ancillary benefit, the ducks’ own waste acts as fertilizer for the rice plants.

The centuries-old practice was revived in Japan the mid-1980s, and has since become a popular natural rice farming method beyond that country, used in places like China, Iran and France.

Broadly speaking, approximately 15 ducks can keep more than a 10,000 sq. ft. area clear of weeds and insects, while also enriching the water with oxygen via stirring up the soil beneath.

It seems like a neat and tidy solution all-around — and one that works based on decades of experience with the farming practice. But as it turns out, it’s something that a robot can accomplish, too (well, maybe not the duck waste bit) — with certain improvements on the original tradition.

A rice paddy robot doing its thing.

While ducks can be “trained” to patrol specific areas of a rice paddy, it isn’t a foolproof proposition. As for the robotic version (which looks more like a white, floating ROOMBA® than it does a duck), it utilizes wi-fi and GPS technology to stir up the soil and keep the bugs at bay.

Reportedly, the robot is more accurate and more consistent in its execution compared to the aigamo ducks.

At the moment, the rice paddy robot is in an experimental phase with beta prototypes patrolling paddies in Yamagata Prefecture in northern Japan — and it’s too soon to know if or when the robot will be deemed ready for commercialization.

But the development goes to show that robots are spreading into some very surprising corners.  Indeed, it seems that robotics technology knows no bounds.

Open office concepts: Employers love ’em … employees hate ’em.

You probably suspected this already, but employee surveys continue to show that open-plan workplaces are a source of job dissatisfaction.

One of the most recent research studies surveyed ~4,000 adults who work in offices and found that employees dislike open office concepts for a host of reasons, including:

  • Lack of privacy
  • Interruption and/or distraction from fellow employees
  • Noise levels
  • Inescapable odors
  • Temperature control issues

In fact, feelings run so strongly against open offices that employees would prefer to give up the following perks as a tradeoff:

  • Vacation days
  • Year-end bonus
  • Office coffee machine
  • Access to a window or natural light

And for the cherry on top, a significant percentage of respondents claimed that an open office environment would be a deal-breaker when considering a new job — either inside their current company or going someplace else.

At a time when companies are having a difficult time finding qualified candidates to fill open positions, that factor is perhaps the most impactful one of all.

Against this backdrop of “passive-aggressive” attitudes about open-plan workspaces, many companies keep on merrily designing open-office environments or renovating existing spaces to conform to new open-plan design schemes.

Purportedly the reason for open office environments is to save money — but is that really the case? It’s true that some building and partition costs can be reduced, but how about the impact on worker productivity?

Actually, there’s another, perhaps unspoken reason why companies love open offices: they can monitor (read: spy on) their employees more easily.  That’s something most people find quite distasteful — at least here in America where “individualism” continues to thrive as a bedrock cultural principle.  And the plain truth is that people like having some control over their workspace.  After all, it’s a place where they spend eight hours of every workday.

But even with these basic truisms at work, there are new developments that could be changing the whole notion of the office environment. It’s more than just conceivable that we’ll be seeing more spaces adapt to accommodate workers who move from environment to environment based on the needs of the moment.

As more of the “guts” of the office are housed electronically — and portably — the whole notion of a “home desk” may be becoming less and less relevant. Jay Osgerby, a partner in workspace design firm Barber & Osgerby puts it this way:

“The desk is dead. I don’t even know if the office building as we know it today will be in existence.”

I’m not at all sure that Osgerby’s prediction will come true any time soon. Who knows, his view might turn out to be as off-base as the open-office concept.  But it is interesting to observe how the office environment is changing as the nature of business evolves.

What about your own office environment? What’s good and not-so-good about the concept?  What sort of personal horror stories do you have — or conversely, do you have good tales to tell?  Please share your observations with other readers here.

“Wake me when it’s over”: Corporate podcasting goes over like a zinc zeppelin with employee audiences.

Just because podcasts have become a popular means of communication in a broader sense doesn’t mean that they’re the slam-dunk tactic to successfully achieve every kind of communications objective. Still, that’s what an increasing number of large corporations have decided to do.

And yet … an article by writers Austen Hufford and Patrick McGroarty that appeared last week in The Wall Street Journal paints a picture of what many of us have suspected all along about podcasts that are produced by corporations for their employees and other “stakeholders.”

These self-important testaments to “corporate whatever” have as much impact as the printed memos of yore – you know, the ones with sky-high BS-meter ratings – had.

Which is to say … not much.

Invariably, podcast topics are ones which next to no one in the employee trenches cares anything about. As a result, corporate podcast open stats are abysmal – running between 10% and 15% if they’re lucky.

And the paltry open rates alone don’t tell the entire story. How many people are tuning them out after just a minute or two of listening, once it becomes clear that it’s yet another yawner of a topic that senior leadership deems “important” and that corporate communications departments try mightily but unsuccessfully to bring alive.

More often than not, the production values of these corporate podcasts have all the pizzazz of a cold mashed potato sandwich. Consider this breathless declaration by PR director Lindsay Colker in a December 18th Netflix podcast:

“I think that Netflix has taught me so much more than information about a job. The person that I was, coming into Netflix, is an entirely different person than the person I am now.”

This response, posted by a Netflix employee on the Apple iTunes store site, is all-too-predictable:

“Hard to follow, boring and dry hosts, and tooooo long.”

Or this recent American Airlines podcast that covered the company’s three major strategic objectives for 2019. After company president Robert Isom described the strategies for the podcast audience, host Ron DeFeo, an American Airlines communications vice president exclaimed, “That’s awesome!”

Employee reaction was far different. Here’s one response from an American Airlines pilot:

“How about you tell me why I should listen to this? A healthy employee doesn’t live and breathe their job 24/7, and the last thing they’re going to do after being on a plane for 12 hours is listen to a podcast.”

Ouch.

Perhaps because of this kind employee pushback, one company, Huntington Ingalls Industries, permits its workers to count the time they spend listening to the company’s podcast on their time sheets.

One suspects that absolutely every HII employee is posting 15 minutes on their timesheets each time a podcast is released – whether or not they’re actually listening to it. (That may also explain why each HII podcast is strictly limited to just 15 minutes in length …)

Every company interviewed by the writers of The Wall Street Journal story admitted that engagement levels with their corporate podcasts are disappointing.  PPG Industries’ response is illustrative.  With only a few hundred listeners tuning in each month out of a total employee base of more than 47,000 workers, “We have a ways to go,” admits Mark Silvey, PPG’s director of corporate communications.

What do you think? Will corporations find themselves riding a wave of success with their podcasting?  Or are they swimming upstream against the triple currents of apathy, ennui, and snark? Will corporate podcasting become tomorrow’s “obvious tactic” or end up being yesterday’s “glorious failure”? Feel free to share your perspectives with other readers.

What are the most stressful jobs in America?

Soldier, firefighter and police officer positions are obvious, but jobs in media are right up there, too.

It’s human nature to complain about workplace stress. But which jobs are the ones that actually carry the most stress?

If you ask most people, they’d probably cite jobs in the military, police and firefighting as particularly stressful ones because of the inherent dangers of working on the job. Airline pilots would be up there as well.

And yes, those jobs do rank the highest among the many jobs surveyed about by employment portal CareerCast in its newest research on the topic. But of the other jobs that make the “Top 10 most stressful” list, several of them might surprise you:

Most Stressful: CareerCast Stress Scores by Profession (2019)

#1. Enlisted military personnel (E3, 4 years experience): 73

#2. Firefighter:  72

#3. Airline pilot:  61

#4. Police officer:  52

#5. Broadcaster:  51

#6. Event coordinator:  51

#7. News reporter:  50

#8. PR executive:  49

#9. Senior corporate executive:  49

#10. Taxi driver:  48

According to the CareerCast research findings, based on an evaluation of 11 potential stress factors including meeting deadlines, job hazards, physical demands and public interaction requirements, more than three-fourths of respondents in the 2019 survey rated their job stress at 7 or higher on a 10-point scale.

The most common stress contributors cited were “meeting deadlines’ (~38% of respondents) and “interacting with the public” (~14%).

Upon reflection, it’s perhaps understandable why workers in media positions feel like they are under particular stress – what with “fake news” claims and a constant barrage of criticism from both the left and the right which can go beyond being simply irritants into some much more stress-inducing.

What if someone wanted to make a career change and switch to a job that’s at the opposite end of the stress scale? CareerCast has identified those positions, too.  Here are the “least stressful” jobs as found in its 2019 research results:

Least Stressful: CareerCast 2019 Stress Score by Profession

#1. Diagnostic medical sonographer:  5

#2. Compliance officer:  6

#3: Hair stylist:  7

#4. Audiologist:  7

#5. University professor:  8

#6. Medical records technician:  9

#7. Jeweler:  9

#8: Operations research analyst:  9

#9. Pharmacy technician:  9

#10. Massage therapist:  10

Interestingly, one might assume that the most stressful jobs in America would carry a commensurate salary premium, but that doesn’t turn out to be the case.  The average median salary for the Top 10 “most stressful” jobs in America is hardly distinguishable from those of the Top 10 “least stressful” jobs – differing by only around 4%.  It seems like those latter workers are onto something!

More information about the CareerCast findings can be viewed here.

Trucking services: Burgeoning demand hastens fundamental changes in the industry.

The trucking services industry is a fascinating field right now. On the one hand, demand for trucking services has never been higher – thanks to fundamental shifts in the way consumers shop for and purchase merchandise.

On the other hand, we may be on the cusp of fundamental changes in the way trucking services are handled as a result.

Thanks to data compiled by the Thomas Index Report, we can see that sourcing activity for trucking services is growing at a substantially faster rate than its historical average – to the tune of ~10% higher demand above the norm.

There’s no question that a key reason for this demand growth is because of changes in how consumers shop – with much less reliance on brick-and-mortar retail and more emphasis on online purchasing.

According to freight exchange services provider DAT Solutions (aka Dial-a-Truck), for every 12 loads needed to be moved, just one truck was available during 2018.

That ratio is unsustainable over time. And it doesn’t help that there’s been a persistent shortage of long-haul truck drivers.  That’s actually a 25-year trend, but it’s been becoming more acute with every passing year.

When Walmart finds that it needs to hire long-haul drivers whose all-in compensation approaches $85,000 annually, that’s when you know the fundamentals need to change.

And fundamental change is happening – even if you may not have seen it “up close and personal” yet. A group of manufacturers are working on developing self-driving (autonomous) semi-trailer trucks. Among the companies committed to this initiative are GM, Volvo, Daimler and Tesla.

Driverless trucks are already on the road, including ones developed by Waymo that began delivering freight for Google’s data centers last year. Amazon is hauling cargo via autonomous trucks produced by Embark, another self-driving truck developer.

The rapid pace of development means that it’s quite likely self-driving trucks will become mainstreamed during the 2020s. If that happens, we could then be looking at another set of issues – how to channel sidelined truckers into jobs in other fields.

Perhaps some of those people can find employment in several ancillary industry segments that are benefiting equally well because of shifts in how consumers shop and buy. Naturally, demand is robust and growing in the freight-related categories of crates, pallets and containers.

… On the other hand, it’s probably best if the displaced workers don’t try to get new jobs working at a shopping center …

Reuters: In 2019, publishers will experience “the biggest wave of layouts in years” … and massive burnout among the journalists who remain.

The bad news continues for the publishing industry in 2019.

I’ve blogged before about the employment picture in journalism, which has been pretty ugly for the past decade.   And just when it seems that news in the publishing industry couldn’t get much worse … along comes a new study that further underscores the systemic problems the industry faces.

The results from a recent Reuters survey of publishers worldwide point to declines that will only continue in 2019.  In fact, Reuters is predicting that the industry will experience its largest wave of layoffs in years, coming off of a decade of already-steadily shrinking numbers.

The main cause is the continuing struggle to attract ad revenues – revenues that have been lost to the 600-lb. gorillas in the field – particularly Facebook, Google and Amazon.

Growing subscription revenue as opposed to a failing attempt to attract advertising dollars is the new focus, but that will be no panacea, according Nic Newman, a senior research associate at Reuters:

“Publishers are looking to subscriptions to make up the difference, but the limits of this are likely to become apparent in 2019.”

In addition to boosting subscription revenue, publishers are looking to display advertising, native advertising and donations to help bankroll their businesses, but advertising is the main focus of revenue generation for only about one in four publishers — a far cry from just a few years ago.

Putting it all together, Reuters predicts that it will lead to the largest wave of publishing job layoffs “in years” – and this in an industry where employment has been shrinking for some time now.

With yet more layoffs on the horizon, it’s little wonder that the same Reuters research finds employee burnout growing among the employees who remain. As Newman states:

“The explosion of content and the intensity of the 24-hour news cycle have put huge pressure on individual journalists over the last few years, with burnout concerns most keenly felt in editorial roles.”

A major reason why:  Even more is being asked from the employee who remain – and who are already stretched.

Journalism salaries are middling even in good times – which these certainly are not.  How many times can an employee be asked to “do more with less” and actually have it continue to happen?

Even the bragging rights of journalists are being chipped away, with more of them relegated to spending their time “aggregating” or “curating” coverage by other publishers instead of conducting their own first-hand reporting. That translates into perceptions of lower professional status as well.

In such an environment, it isn’t surprising to find editorial quality slipping, contributing to a continuing downward spiral as audiences notice the change — and no doubt some turn elsewhere for news.

Last but not least, there’s the bias perception issue. Whether it’s true or not, some consumers of the news suspect that many publishers and journalists slant their news reporting.  This creates even more of a dampening effect, even though in difficult times, the last thing publishers need is to alienate any portion of their audience.

How have your periodical and news reading habits changed in the past few years? Do you continue to “pay” for news delivery or have you joined the legions of others who have migrated to consuming free content in cyberspace?

(For more details from the Reuters research, you can sign up here to access the report.)

Chief Marketing Officer: The most thankless job in the corporate world?

Few people I know would claim that being the Chief Marketing Officer of a company is a job without risks. Indeed, numerous articles in the business press point to an average length of tenure in a CMO position that is often measured in months rather than in years – indeed, the shortest length of time among all C-level jobs.

And now, a recently completed survey of CMOs  underscores just how wide-ranging the reasons are for those employment characteristics. Branding consulting firm Brand Keys tested a number of issues to see which are the ones that keep CMOs “awake at night.”

Three-quarters or more of the respondents to the Brand Keys survey reported that every factor presented was significant enough to cause them to lose sleep.  Leading the list with near-universal high-alert concern is ROI factors. Other factors of concern to nearly every respondent in the survey are big tech and data security issues.

Listed below is how each of the factors tested by Brand Keys turned out with CMOs in terms of “losing sleep” over them.

90%+ lose sleep worrying about:

  • ROI/ROMI factors
  • Big data, big tech and big security issues
  • Establishing trust with customers
  • Innovation, AI, technology and marketing automation developments
  • Consumer expectations regarding privacy and transparency

80%-90% lose sleep worrying about:

  • Managing social networking
  • Creating relevant advertising content
  • Successfully deploying predictive consumer behavior analytics/technologies
  • Dealing with consumer advocacy and social activism
  • Developing long-term strategies that align with corporate growth goals
  • Having the ability to engage with audiences – not just find them

At the “bottom” of the pile … 75%-80% lose sleep worrying about:

  • “Democratization” of the digital world and protecting brand equity within it
  • “Political tribalism” and its effect on brand reputation
  • Being relevant when tweeted about
  • Keeping consumers engaged with the brand
  • Creating better cross-platform synergies for marketing campaigns
  • Creating an “unlearning curve” to move away from legacy marketing metrics
  • Creating marketing synergies among different generational/age cohorts
  • Being replaced by the chief revenue officer

This last worry factor – losing their job – seems almost preordained given the tenuous circumstances more than a few CMOs deal with in their positions.

… and likely made more so because CMO’s are quick to be blamed when things don’t go well, even if they aren’t in the strongest position to effect the changes that may be needed. “Responsibility without authority” is the stark reality for too many of them.

What are your thoughts about the dynamics faced by CMOs in their companies?  Whether you speak from personal experience or not, I’m sure other readers would be interested in hearing your views.