T@W Weekly: The Illusion of Choice

Regulating platforms, ERP pains, and retaining top talent

The Word: Oligopoly

Last week, T-Mobile and Sprint received approval from the U.S. Department of Justice to merge. The $26 billion merger, which bring together the U.S.’s third- and fourth-largest cellular networks, still faces hurdles from a group of state attorney generals.

Yet, we shouldn’t be surprised. In big industries, like telecom, getting close to something that looks like a monopoly with a few players is advantageous for any company that survives. In other words, an oligopoly.

Nearly 40 years ago, the government broke up AT&T and created the Baby Bells, seven regional entities that spanned the country. This action also led to the creation of Sprint as a long distance carrier. Today, only one of those Baby Bells are an independent entity (CenturyLink, formerly U.S. West). The rest? All now owned by either AT&T or Verizon.

That cycle of consolidation, break up, and re-consolidation is easy to see in telecom. In the era of Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple, it’s less obvious.

Tim O’Reilly writes in Quartz that antitrust regulators will have to come up with new tools to regulate a new wave of reduced competition. He lays out the problem well:

All of the internet giants—Amazon, Google, Facebook, and insofar as app stores are considered, Apple—provide the illusion of free markets, in which billions of consumers choose among millions of suppliers’ offerings, which compete on the basis of price, quality, and availability.

But if you recognize that what consumers really choose from is not the universe of all possible products, but those that are offered up to them either on the homepage or the search screen, the “shelf space” provided by these platforms is in fact far more limited than the tiniest of local markets—and what is placed on that shelf is uniquely under the control of the platform owner. And with mobile playing a larger and larger role, that digital shelf space is visibly shrinking rather than growing.

O’Reilly aptly demonstrates that while consumers may not pay more—a key factor in traditional antitrust concerns—it allows platform players to extract fees and an advantaged position. More importantly, it allows them to pick winners and losers—often in line with their financial incentives.

As regulators look to new answers to determine whether platforms are truly fair, I’d expect to see the same rigor eventually applied to workplace technology. How do you find a job? What benefits are you offered? What learning and development opportunities are available? Some of these are driven by simple or complex search tools.

If Indeed had to disclose how it made decisions about what job recommendations it made to candidates in their database, would they change anything? How is recommending a job much different than an e-mail from Amazon telling you that you might need some batteries or toilet paper?

The changing face of choice and what it looks like will have an impact beyond consumer markets. It’s time to consider these issues now.

What the Click?

  • Real HR is rarely as neat as the conference sessions suggest. Robin Schooling illuminates the differences between what you might see at a conference versus the reality of HR (Hint: it involves being the pee police)

  • The gig economy gets a lot of press but what are organization’s doing about it? Todd Raphael of ERE talks to Asal Naraghi of Phillips North America about how they are integrating contract and remote talent into their recruiting process.

  • Steve Goldberg of Ventana Research covers some newer employee experience software out there. I’m curious about Pandexio as well, as they cover a pain point in most large enterprises that is not easily solved.

  • How do organizations find a balance between AI and decision making within talent management? Steve Boese’s latest column covers this precarious tight rope walk that every company has to carefully consider.

  • Harvard Business Review asks not if AI can assess job candidates but should it? Instead of putting the ethics of using things like voice and appearance to predict performance aside, we should first be asking whether it’s the right thing to do.

  • In Human Resource Executive, Andrew McIlvaine shares some of the research Next Concept HR Association did on the rising importance of retention. Keeping great employees is relatively cheap but most organizations feel like they could be doing a much better job.

Paying People Right is Tougher Than it Looks

Here in Portland, the county’s new pay system doesn’t have many fans. The Portland Tribune reports that four unions are threatening class-action lawsuits against Multnomah County over the government’s Workday implementation.

The issues include incorrect pay, where some received zeroed out paychecks, to others who were erroneously paid $120 per hour, owing thousands back to the county. The $4.2 million system, which was to originally go live in July of 2017 was pushed back until January of this year. The article goes on to state:

According to the class-action notice, "The uncertainty caused by not knowing whether you're going to be fully paid or owe money back to the County is damaging to morale and the financial security of our members' families ... We have patiently attempted to resolve these problems for the past five-plus months, but we continue to receive either no responses or unsatisfactory responses."

Oregon hasn’t had the best of luck with enterprise software giants. Three years ago, the state settled a lawsuit against Oracle for their failed implementation of an Affordable Care Act exchange to the tune $100 million. That figure is far short of the $240 million it paid Oracle to create it. The state eventually joined the federal exchange.

While tech review sites like G2 Crowd have existed for years, much of the issue with complex enterprise technology in particular isn’t driven by tech but by implementation. Sites like Raven Intel are a good start, as consultancies and implementation partners are often the deciding difference between relatively smooth transitions and whatever happened in Multnomah County.

T@W Playlist of the Week

I won’t speak the gospel of Dave Matthews Band in mixed company, but Matthews and his long time collaborator Tim Reynolds put together one of the seminal acoustic albums. Released 20 years ago this year, Live at Luther College is two hours of calm, yet upbeat, acoustic guitar playing.

And Finally… Thank You

Since I started Tech@Work, I’ve received great feedback and added dozens of new subscribers. I appreciate you sharing this out with the world!

I collect stories throughout the week on workplace trends and technology. What gets shared is stuff that matters to me and I think what matters to the trends we see at work.

If you have a story that you think I should be covering or sharing, please don’t hesitate to @ me on Twitter (@thelance) or hit me up via e-mail (lancehaun@gmail.com). Same thing with feedback about what you’d like to see or not see.

Cheers, Lance