The intersection between HR strategy and HR technology

Jocks vs. Nerds

Jocks vs. Nerds

Nov 13, 2013

“There’s this idea of the jocks vs. nerds thing. That sort of ended when the nerds won decisively. We now live in this era where your big summer tentpole movies can be hobbits and minor Marvel Comics superheroes and boy wizards. If you had told me when I was in junior high there would be a $200 million movie about Hawkeye andBlack Widow, I’d be like, ‘Hawkeye — that guy’s lame!’” Jennings says. “Those nerds started running Hollywood studios, and our captains of industry became Asperger types with acne scars.”

I was reading about what Ken Jennings (of Jeopardy! fame) was up to these days, and there was the above quote that I found hilarious.  It’s totally try though, especially for a guy like me who lives in the Silicone Valley.  High school might have been a time when the jocks ruled the world, and college was a transition time, but once you get into the workforce, there are really grate charismatic guys running businesses, but the people who are really redefining the world and how we change our behaviors to adapt to the world on a daily basis are quite clearly the nerds.

(Credit to the HR Technology Conference and Bill Kutik bringing IBM’s Watson computer for making me think about Ken Jennings)

I’m continuously thinking about analytics these days and I start to think that HR has also started the transition from “people people” to something a bit nerdier.  Maybe we are in that college stage I mentioned above – we’re no longer just the people that you go to for benefits and worker’s comp – that was over a couple decades ago.  We’ve started down the path of Talent Management, and we’re probably still trying to figure that out.  We keep talking about really great analytics, but we really don’t do it well.  I think what we need to really get to a mature level of HR as a profession is we need to get nerdier.

Talent Management:
It’s entirely possible we’ve been wrong for the last decade.  We’ve built these incredible competency models, tracked how and when a goal should cascade, and automated all of our talent processes.  I don’t think the business is convinced that we’ve actually improved the core employee’s ability to get developed.  Think about what you yourself did 10 years ago.  Big deal that you can now enroll yourself in training on-line and you have a cooler performance tool that is not a piece of paper.  Have the majority of employees in any company really experienced a perceptible difference in talent and development outcomes?  I’m guessing not.

It’s entirely possible we need some nerds to take over.  I don’t care how much HR shepherds the process along – if the employee and manager don’t own their own talent, it’s game over.  The only way to do this (that I can currently think of) is to create easy to use, social, real time, talent engines.  I’m thinking of an engine that quickly allows a manager to give feedback or development instructions when and where they think of it, then have seamless execution (again in real time) by the employee.  All of this has to happen without the HR practitioner and then roll up at the end of the quarter or year so we get that macro view of progress.  Without real time integration with the employee and manager though, all we have is another failed HR process.

Where HR gets involved is not in shepherding the process, but instead in managing success.  If we can mine the data and understand who is doing what, what works, and where we are missing the mark, that is where the value is.  Somewhere and some point, process people are still important as we make the transition, and certainly we need great change people to get manager adoption, but what we really need are analytical nerds who get how to interpret data.

HR Analytics:
I really hope we don’t have illusions that we are any good at this – we’re not.  We have technical people and we have functional reporting people helping our organizations create reports.  We have vendors feeding us cool dashboards that we then flip and roll out to our managers and executives.  What seems to be missing to me… the statisticians.

Have you ever talked to the finance guys about what they are doing in their analytics functions?  The stuff they produce is absolutely amazing – and they are set up in a pretty different way than we are.  Financial models are very complicated, but shouldn’t our models of people resources be just as robust?  In fact, if anything we have more complex, more dynamic, and more diverse data sets.  If we were dealing with numbers, our lives would be easier – but we deal with more complexity with less sophistication.  No wonder we walk into the executive boardroom and don’t get credible respect.

It’s interesting – when I look at the type of people HR hires, we automatically know we’re not going to have the best friend relationships with Comp, Payroll, IT, etc…  Those guys are just different from us.  I mean, my God, they are analytical in a totally different way.  Embrace the difference – it’s what HR needs, and it’s not even enough.  I’d love to see us start to hire the nerds – math majors and people who can come up with complex statistical understandings of the HR world.  We are in our infancy for understanding HR, but it’s because we don’t structure our organizations in such a way to create deeper understanding.

Get used to the fact that the nerds have won.

2 comments

  1. As you know I count myself as a nerd. The fact that I spend most of my time coding models with employee data in R probably confirms that.

    The timing of this post was interesting as I had spent my day discussing talent data / performance measurement and competencies with a bunch of subject matter experts. The truth of the matter is when we look into the data we typically find that what we measure isn’t well correlated with business performance. How many firms build their competency models because they have shown them to be the most important independent variables? We don’t necessarily measure the right things.

    On the flip side we can model the costs of our approaches. We can explore how people game the system. We can see that a well perceived review process doesn’t contribute to engagement or other measures but a poorly perceived one is a huge negative influence. We can observe the unforeseen consequences of measuring the wrong, or incomplete set of outcomes.

    All measurement in any field has an error. In our talent processes this uncertainty is significant. The correct approach is probably to consider it in a hierarchical bayesian model. The problem in much of HR is that we treat our measures as having no uncertainty – we make decisions as if our measurement is perfect.

    Hence we have two challenges: we need to understand what to measure, and we need to find ways of reducing the measurement error. Your suggestion of using “social, real time, talent engines” is a good one, but the answer is probably more complex – i.e. a multi-dimensional hybrid approach.

  2. Wait it all looks so complex out there! What I got to understand here is Talent analytics and HR management is going places.Everyone will sit on Big data and will decide on their assumptions, challenging as very rightly said by Andrew. Object of reference and chance of error can bring down the complete system.So multi-dimensional hybrid approach will help ? not sure.But about 1 things yes.You can take the HR out of the company but not the company out of HR.:)

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