The intersection between HR strategy and HR technology

Serendipity versus Decision Support

Serendipity versus Decision Support

Mar 14, 2011

Would I be where I am today if I had all the facts every time?  I’m actually confident that if it were up to me, I would be digging ditches for a living somewhere (not to demean ditch diggers).  Let’s face it, I started off all on the wrong foot.  Being an Asian American kid with a prodigy brother, I was definitely the stupid one (I’ll assume you’ve all read about the Asian “Tiger Mom” thing lately).  I was the kid who, at the age of 6, was told by my piano teacher to quit.  I was the kid who was told by my 5th grade teacher, “too bad you’re not your brother.”  I was the Asian kid who graduated high school with only a 4.2 GPA.  (All of that is true btw).  I was also the kid who by some miraculous stroke of good fortune, managed to get accepted to my first choice college.  Being of relatively low income, my parents were quite please when I got a significant financial aid package (nothing compared to the brother, who incidentally got into every single Ivy League – also true).  At some point in the summer, I was sent a letter from my college of first choice and informed that they would no longer be able to offer me the amount of aid that I required.  With quite a large amount of desperation, I called around to various colleges, and was re-admitted to my (I think) 4th choice school with the financial aid that I needed.

It was at this school (one of the Claremont Colleges in S. California), where rather than hoards of students in large auditoriums being lectured to (a system that had clearly failed me so miserably to this point), I was instead surrounded by classes of maybe 15.  OK, maybe 20 max.  Rather than being lectured to, we sat around a table and talked about the book we read in the prior week.  I sat around on committees where I was literally a vote as a student to decide whether professors got tenure or not.  Rather than simple learning, I began understanding.  I really do consider this to be the first of several unplanned turning points.  Listen, I’m serious when I say that I was not a good student.  But learning for me happened a different way than for most.

We often talk about analytics and how it changes how we operate in HR.  High quality data leads to high quality choices – and often times that is true.  But it is also true that we don’t always have all of the data that we need at any specific point in time – if we had everything we needed to know, we might make vastly different choices.

I’ll take succession planning as an example.  We know who the top 10 succession candidates are for top positions (hopefully).  We know when they will be ready, what their relative skills and competencies are, and how their strengths compare to one another.  But we don’t know which of them are going to jump ship and go to another company before the position becomes vacant.  We don’t know which of them are going to stop growing, regardless of our best efforts to continue developing them.  The best that we can do, is to invest in a pool of candidates, and hope that one of them, the right one, is ready when the time comes.

We use decision support and analytics to crunch the numbers for us, but at the end of the day, it’s still serendipity – it’s still luck.  The hope here, is that while analytics and decision support can’t be a perfect predictor, we can in fact “make our own luck.”  We can improve our odds at getting the best outcomes.  At the end of the day, it is not serendipity versus decision support, but a combination of the two that will make our best data work for us.

One comment

  1. As you note, diversification is a hugely important strategy, not just because you can’t determine with certainty internal resources, but because the external environment will change, necessitating different types of resources.

    Reporting and information systems are too often designed from a technical perspective and often miss how we interpret information. Usability is probably the number one aspect that differentiates the effectiveness of systems.

    As an example, how many reports do you see which include confidence intervals? How many integrate even the basic decision-making-under-uncertainty techniques?

    The consequences of our decisions are usually asymmetrical. Understanding this enables us to make better decisions in an uncertain world.

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