Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Big vs small company

What is the absolute number one thing that you learn working at a big company? Big company politics, and how to play the game

What is the absolute number one thing that you learn working at a small company? How to know a little about, and be involved in, every aspect of the business

Whilst on the face of it, the latter seems a lot more valuable, that skill-set doesn't necessarily help you succeed in a big company where the focus is typically on specialism and politics.

Employee focused recruitment consultant

Recruitment consultants appear to be an increasingly important part of the hiring process. But unfortunately for the potential employee, their business model is based on satisfying the needs of employers - they're the ones that pay. This business model creates some perverse incentives which may result in behaviour that doesn't benefit the potential employee.

This model can potentially be flipped, with the recruitment consultant being paid from, and in proportion to, the increase in salary of the employee they place in a new job. The recruitment consultant would operate on a "no pay-rise, no fee" basis. This way the employee always wins (assuming they pass the interviews), as the fees would be less than the increase in income.

An interesting aspect of this model is that the recruitment consultants would be most incentivised to place employees that are underpaid relative to their market rates - the more they are under-paid, the more the recruitment consultants can make. This could potentially have a levelling effect on the market.

Anonymous timesheet service

Understanding how employees spend their time is an important part of making an organisation efficient. Unfortunately, the act of measuring how employees spend their time may significantly alter how such employees behave, potentially in deleterious ways (an example of the Hawthorne effect / observer effect).

The author hypothesises that a key driver for the change in behaviour is a belief by the employees that they will be challenged on what they are booking their time to. A possible solution to this is a third party online timesheet service that guarantees that employers cannot identify what time employees are booking their time to, but only provides data in aggregate. This anonymisation technique is already in use for surveys, and as such it should be possible to automate the anonymisation (i.e. not giving the employer granular data where this would enable identification of employees). The employer would still be able to check whether employees were filling in timesheets or not.

The system may not work for small organisations or for projects where only a few people work on them, and of course would need good security to gain the trust of the employees.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Runaway biotechnology

I think the general principle for scientific research should be freedom by default, and restriction by exception (incidentally, I would advocate a similar principle for the openness of government/public information, or information within companies, i.e. shared by default, restricted by exception). The other day a scenario that seems a prime candidate for restriction that occurred to me: cellulose metabolism.

Cellulose is the most abundant organic polymer on Earth. It is also relatively difficult to break down (cellulolysis). However, if man were to, through biotechnological research, develop an enzyme that could more efficiently break down cellulose, such an enzyme could pose a significant risk. For example, if this enzyme is engineered into a bacteria (as is common practise in this kind of research) and this bacteria is released into the wild, the competitive advantage to the bacteria at being materially better at breaking down the most abundant food source could result in its rapid proliferation.

Once released, eliminating the bacteria from the wild would be nigh-on impossible due to difficulty in targeting the bacteria and the relatively rapid rate of evolution of bacteria (one possible solution would be nuclear strike on the release zone before the bacteria has had the chance to spread).

The effects of the engineered bacteria could be extensive. Plants existing immune-like mechanisms could potentially be effective, however the increased efficiency of break down would allow such bacteria to breed faster, potentially out-matching these defences. The impact on the world could be apocalyptic.

(The similarity of this thought to the "grey-goo" concept is noted. However, the biological basis for this is more thoroughly understood than self-replicating artificial nano-machines.)