The intersection between HR strategy and HR technology

I Could Have Been A Ditch Digger

I Could Have Been A Ditch Digger

Feb 13, 2013

Note of warning:  Stereotypes follow in plenty. Last year I wrote a post titled “I could have been a rice farmer.”  It’s completely true that had my parents not moved from Taiwan to the United States before I was born, the possible alternatives to my life are infinite.  However, I probably would not actually have been a rice farmer even though the family residences are surrounded by them.  I come from a family where most of the members are teachers/professors, or (to my great surprise) artists of some fashion or another.  Even if I go back 4 generations, the number of teachers is astounding.  (My maternal grandmother and grandfather were “arranged” by their uncle – a good match because they were all teachers).  The point though is that with the competitive educational system in Taiwan, I probably would never have made it through.  You see, in Taiwan, you have to test well to get into better schools, and the best of the best students get into the top schools based on test scores.  It’s basically a stack ranking system that begins in the very earliest of school experiences.  I don’t think I’m a total slouch in the grey matter department, but I’m by far one of the worst Asian students that ever was.  Given my lack of capacity for learning in a structured schooling environment, I probably would have exited the educational system for a profession that did not require my brain.

Fortunately for me, we in the US live in a society where opportunities abound to give second and third and fourth chances.  While a horrible classroom learner and incredible un-studious slacker, I managed to get good enough SAT’s and GPA (1) Asian Slacker SAT=1275-ish and GPA=4.2-ish to get into a number of small, liberal arts colleges including Pitzer, my alma mater.  Here, I had yet more choices, all of which I failed at from a learning perspective.  However, I excelled at the experience that was provided to me.  I was active in many ways including politics (one of my core college memories is single handedly inciting a protest march of almost 1000 students), team sports (this is when I learned how to ride and race a bike), and college programs (as a student, I was on the committee of 8 people who made professor tenure decisions).  Most importantly for my future, I was also skilled at the discussions that happen in liberal arts settings.  Ultimately, even coursework became less about how well I could cram for an exam, and more about sitting around a table with 5 other students and a professor and having a conversation about the book we read that week.  Structured learning out of a textbook was replaced by learning through thoughtful discussion, and this is really what a liberal arts education meant to me.  The replacement of having to be “book smart” for thoughtful and intelligent converted my capability to be in the workforce.

At the end if it all, what defined my ability to craft a future for myself, was the ability to have that discussion and analytically derive a point of view and opinion.  It was the ability to influence, convince, and sometimes concede that point of view.  Every Asian student I knew was supposed to be a doctor, engineer or accountant, but had I entered US college with that aim, I would at best be a middling in my trade.  If I was still in Taiwan, I would never have made it into college.  Any success I’ve had in my career initiates from that initial deviation from “textbook learning” to flexible social thinking.

Here’s what I’ve been pondering – there are many ways to get a person to a goal, but there are also a few fundamental problems.  First, we don’t always know what that goal is.  Second, the best path for each individual is also unknown.  Finally, we in Human Resources have continued to fail at providing performance and goal events that are meaningful at individual levels.

It’s no surprise to anyone that Talent Management has failed.  From HR to executive ranks, we complain about performance reviews with such a unified voice it’s sometimes the only thing we all agree on.  The problem is not that we fail to track goals and objectives, or that we can’t identify issues with how employees excel at their tasks.  The problem is that most managers do this once a year, and certainly not in real time.  Employee performance does not occur at a once a year interval.  it occurs every day as they are working on tasks that move our organizations towards strategic goals.  Their ability to move us slower or faster depends on the quality of direction we are able to provide them, and if we only do this once a year, we have completely failed.  Since we actually do only do this once a year, we indeed have failed – specifically, performance management programs have failed.

The solution is quite simple, real time feedback on work, goals and objectives.  Organizational strategy is not static, so why should the individual goals and objectives that employees have be static?  Indeed, if any level of objective should be as flexible as possible, it is at the employee level.  Our daily lives are not dictated by a year long striving for single-minded achievement.  Instead, we flex our activities to constantly changing micro-tasks that emerge along the way.  While the organizational strategy probably remains at least 90% constant through the course of the year, changing business conditions, sales, service needs, operational realities, and technology all drive adjustments on a daily basis.  Employees react and should be measured in their agility to manage these changes while still staying on the strategic path.  Setting goals in real time that reflect the realities of the day or week not only change how employees receive feedback, but it also changes the way we reward employees, and their ability to connect rewards with their own actions.

We’ve also failed at ensuring appropriate development occurs in meaningful ways through the talent process.  Basically, the path to the goals we just talked about are not clear.  Even if we are working on real time goals and objectives, the tasks and activities needed to get to effective achievement   Today’s conversation is all about “gamification,” but I’m not totally a fan of how HR has been applying gamification to learning.  We seem to have taken gamification too literally and have been trying to create games from learning activities.  This is not the holy grail.  What we should be doing instead is understanding the mechanics of game as they apply to the human psychology, and providing frameworks for employees to excel, achieve, and advance.  Basically, learning should merge with goal outcomes that provide paths to effective employee achievements.

Once again, the problem is that we treat learning as a macro activity.  You go to a class, and after a week of training, you exit that class with a supposedly learned skill.  But the basic framework is an assumption that you needed that skill to begin with, based on some large project plan, HR created career ladder, or some job description.  As with performance management, these courses often have nothing to do with a person’s daily activities.  What gamification should be (and is in the minds of guys like Bunchball) is a structured approach to funneling people through flexible tasks to reach an end goal.  If I want to teach someone how to create a report, a class is ok, but enforcing the necessary tasks and activities within the actual job is better.  Through gamification, an employee can advance through various levels from data queries to advanced analytics, all of which can and should be tied to those performance goals we just talked about as well as a real time rewards system.  Many organizations have separate social gamification and learning teams, but indeed these practices need to be fused together.  Gamification of tasks if not configured in the broader context of learning activities is asinine, as is continuing a single minded focus on 1 time, macro learning events.  As individuals, we learn not because we’re told we should acquire a skill, but when that skill is truly needed and used in our daily routines.  Once again, the theme of “real time” dominates effectiveness of results.

What is exciting is that in 2013, we might finally have the technology to fix our failures.  Real time performance management has arrived for the masses, and gamification is penetrating all the major social tools.  In 2012 we were still theorizing about this stuff from an HR context, but in 2013, the technology has arrived.  While I don’t know what the adoption rates will be this year, I do think that 2013 will mark a transitional point in our approach.  In the following years, I’m confident we’ll see a downward trend in traditional talent tools, and a markedly upward trend in social talent management (probably the 2 approaches combined together).

Back when I was 2 years old, the options I had for a successful career in my parent’s eyes was quite limited.  They would have wanted me to be an electrical engineer (seriously).  But clearly the path for me to get there was not quite as straightforward, and indeed, almost 40 years later we’ve all realized that not only did the overall outcome shift, but the path to get there for me personally was not what any of us would have predicted.  I could still have a good career, but I was not cut out to be an engineer, nor was I cut out to learn from textbooks in a traditional way, nor was captivated by the pursuit of straight A’s.  What did work for me was the ability to have an education that provided me with constant conversations and an approach to thoughtfully analyzing the world that took 4 years to teach.  If my parents could have set a path for me at birth, I would have gotten straight A’s, gone to MIT, gotten a PhD in engineering, and be some world renown dude with a hundred patents.  NOPE!  We have to flex, manage, and learn every step of the way.

References

1.
  Asian Slacker SAT=1275-ish and GPA=4.2-ish

3 comments

  1. Ian Turnbull /

    Your comments about performance management are right on the money. Thank you for describing the issue so well.

  2. Renette Hier /

    Great post! I am also a Pitzer alum – class of ’79. My degrees in Psychology and English have helped me in my HR career although I never thought of HR as a field to work in when I was in school. That unique collaborative learning style that Pitzer practices, however, has had the most influence on my career, not necessarily the degree subject matter itself.

  3. Very interesting perspective on learning and how skills are actually acquired. Thanks for the insight.

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