Infographics Suck

I was riding my bike around Marin (north of San Francisco) this fall, it was a bit cloudy, grey and not as bright as usual.  Just the week before, I had purchased a new pair of lenses for my sunglasses, just for this occasion, and I was absolutely stunned at the difference it made to my ride.  I felt like I was seeing the road and the vistas for the first time.  Indeed, it was simply the first time I was seeing the views with a Yellow #20 lens.  The reality is that I’d done this exact ride dozens of times before.  I commented my amazement to my riding buddies, how different everything was, brighter, more cheerful, and happy.  But alas, it was just the Yellow #20 versus my usual middle grey.

The current world seems to be in love with the infographic.  Hell, I’m in love with the infographic.  They are pretty, colorful, easy to understand, present only the key pieces of information that you need.  In 45 seconds, every one of us can be conversant in a topic with a very defined point of view.  Well, actually, this is exactly the problem.  You see, while the infographic is a very valuable tool, we should all realize that it’s there as a precision marketing tool.  It is there just to provide a point of view, not a complete conversation.  Here are a couple of things you can do to combat “infographic conventional wisdom.”

  • Take infographics with a grain of salt – statistics are useful, but remember that there is a whole book called “how to lie with statistics.”
  • Question everything – we don’t always look at the source, nor do we ponder the alternative points of view when looking at these things.
  • Evaluate the publisher – if the infographic comes from a vendor, just remember it’s a marketing tool.
  • Rely on research – infographics will continue to be a good source for quick summaries, but research with full commentaries still outvalue the quick infographic by far.

So why am I writing this in an HR blog?  As buyers of HR technology and services, if we are not already flooded with infographics, we will be quite soon.  We love these things for good reason – they are so easy to use, and marketers know it.  Hell, I’ve been known to produce an infographic when I’m presenting a business case to a steering committee.  The problem is it’s too easy to take them without full context and conversation.  90% of the time they are a single point of view only, and an alternative vendor may have statistics proving why their own software is better in exactly the opposite direction.

This great infographic from











Dysfunctional Self Service

So I’ve been away for a year and I’ve let this website go a little bit.  (I just started back up in September) I mean, if you click on any number of links, you’ll find error pages, pages that don’t load, or just pages that don’t display correctly.  Basically, letting go for a year while and applying little to no system maintenance has killed the site.  The content mostly works, but there are actually posts that will also no longer appear due to some coding that is old and out of date.  I used to be incredibly diligent when I updated the site – there is an enormous amount of custom code in this thing just because I liked playing around.  But updating the core engine (WordPress) usually meant updating the various plugins I had and then checking a couple of areas where I had customized some code and CSS.  Now, updates are rather haphazard, and I barely do any QA when I apply updates.

Imagine if this happened in HR systems.  Indeed you all know that it does.  Pretty much every client I have ever talked to has a complete mess when it comes to HR content on their intranets.  Everything and anything goes from stale-dated content, to multiple versions, to bad links.  How many of us have changed a business process and forgotten to update the documentation for it online and remove the old documentation?

For the most part, we are all really diligent about applying upgrades and patches, but horrible when it comes to the non-technology stuff.  I’d say we’re getting more aware that our supporting content sucks, but we also are doing very little about it.  Even when we implement cool technology, that does not mitigate the fact that we still need people managing and versioning our stuff in the background.

Let’s also not forget about all of our document management systems and knowledge base applications.  Far be it for me to guess, so I won’t – way more than half of my clients have employe intranet sites that have multiple versions of the same documents out there, documents that apply to policies that no longer exist, documents from vendors that are long gone, etc.  This isn’t just a systems issue – it’s pervasive in HR anywhere a process exists.

What happens is that people end up being satisfied with the process within the technology, but very dissatisfied with the process overall.  It really does not matter how much they loved <insert vendor name here> because their overall impression was that it was frustrating.  No matter how easy the technology actually was, they end up hating <insert vendor name here> because of all the stuff we didn’t do around it.  We have to be better not only about the technology, but making sure all the wraparounds and loose ends are tied up.


Nucleating agents for change

Interesting thing about water.  You can pretty significantly influence the temperature at which water freezes  simply by introducing an agent to it.  But there are other times when water actually should freeze, when it is pure and below the freezing temperature, but that water can be held in a liquid state at just below the normal freezing temperature until a nucleating agent is introduced.   We’ve seen in it a variety of environments whether it’s in movies or what not.  I remember a recent mythbusters show (for those of you who watch discovery channel in the U.S.) where they were able to keep a liquid in the liquid state, but once the first ice crystal was introduced, a rapid chain reaction occurred and the rest of the liquid formed into ice in seconds.

HR is much the same.  Any time you are introducing change to the organization, there are times where change happens naturally, and other times when change has to be strongly influenced.  Unfortunately for us, we need those nucleating agents more often than not.  The problem is that we don’t always realize until it’s too late that we needed an agent, or we didn’t know which agent to choose.

I completely realize that we are all sick and tired of the concept of change management, but all too often as I visit my clients, change is treated in the same fashion that it was 10 years ago.  We push out training programs, and we attempt to do the same type of communications.  Let’s be the first to admit to ourselves: HR has no flair for marketing.  We’re in HR partly because we are not salespeople – often times we don’t even understand salespeople.  But sell we must, and when we realize that we don’t have those abilities/competencies, it’s time to find the nucleating agents that will sell for us, and spread the word – forming ice crystals in seconds instead of… well, never.

The best nucleating agents are those who are not only already on our side, but those who are obviously influential.  There are those who have broad networks, and others who simply have the right connections to other important people.  One would think that in Human Resources, we would know who these people are – but we don’t.  In the organizations that do understand that they are not the most effective marketing arm for new rollouts, HR solicits the help of VP’s to communicate the message and brand.  In effect, we have managed to enhance our training and communications materials with and additional layer: change management by edict.  This is not to say that VP level communications are not necessary – in fact their level of sponsorship is very necessary.  But when rolling out new manager portal tools (for example), the people who are going to sell are not the VP’s, but other managers who buy into the product, decide that it is more effective than the prior state, and will selflessly market it for you.  These, indeed, are the true nucleating agents in the organization.

As sick and tired as you all are of hearing people talk about change management, it is still under-budgeted and improperly deployed.  As sick as you are of it, I’m equally sick of most of us not getting it right.  I totally understand that when we are in the throes of implementation, we’re all heads down and grinding away at table configuration and testing, but that is no forgiveness and excuse for messing up the end user rollout.  Better to get the audience right and miss a bit on the config.  So here’s me, asking yet again, find your nucleating agent.  Deploy them well.  Get buy-in and adoption in the seconds it takes to crystalize liquid when the right conditions are met.

Immediacy without Details

I’ll have to be honest – I’m having a really hard time with some of the new technology.  I’m supposed to be a technologist and be up on all the latest stuff.  But I find myself at odds with some of the theory and philosophy.  There seems to be an emerging sense of immediacy and generality emerging in communications that I don’t like, and this blog is one that seems to be in the middle of it.  You see, over the last few years (for multiple reasons including my own commitment to writing), systematicHR has suffered from a gradually declining readership, from a rather amazing peak of 20k unique hits per day to around 5k now, the audience has gone off to things like twitter for news.

I don’t blame twitter one bit.  I use twitter because it’s the fastest and most efficient way to cull through a hundred ideas to pick up what I might be interested in.  You decide you like and trust certain people and you read their tweets and go on to read the links they have decided to put out there.  I’m not one of the people who will go out and tweet though since the most successful people are literally putting out hundreds of tweets a day.  I don’t have the time or interest in transitioning systematicHR from the blogoshphere to twitter.

However, there is a deeply engrained philosophical problem here too.  While my readership drops, twitter really can’t function without blogs like mine.  Without me and many other bloggers, the guys on twitter just don’t have much to write about.  A one sentence blurb might be an interesting thought, but does not convey any depth that the reader is eventually looking for.  This idea of immediacy without details is good and bad.

We love managers who will actually look at their dashboards occasionally.  We want them to be able to pick up the overall direction of process and HR statistics.  We want them to be able to quickly diagnose and understand what they should be thinking about.  To be honest, the dashboard is spectacular, but we can’t forget that our managers are not HR experts.  In the deployed HR service delviery model, we also have HR business partners that are out in the field with our managers, theoretically coaching them and presenting the context that the data sits in.  Without this context, managers understand generalities of direction, but not the full meaning that the dashboard is presenting to them, and certainly the should not be expected to know how to act.

We always seem to deploy HR technologies with simplicity in mind, and this is absolutely the right approach.  Just like twitter, we want high engagement and high activity.  But we must also remember that as with twitter, there is also another side with context, detail and more depth.  HR technologies are not the source of all information, but more of a reference point.  We provide data, and sometimes we provide process, but we don’t provide explanations that come from our service delivery partners.  No matter what we do, we are not the full solution, and any technologies we deploy must be augmented if we expect our customers to have a complete understanding of HR.

Gaming: A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste

I’ve been writing a lot about gaming and being an advocate for the learning activities that it promotes.  In many cases and for many games, there is active online collaboration, leadership, decision-making, team building, and project management going on.  The participants don’t necessarily know it’s happening, but it is.  However, while the players may be developing essential skills, I have to wonder if the manner in which those skills are being built is optimal.

At the end of the day, are future state interactions still going to be personal and face to face?  Face to face could still mean over a video conference, or just phone conversations, but I’d guess that it’s going to be a while before there is a major transition to only text and voice for major decisions.  When I’m in a meeting with a bunch of HR executives, I try to make sure I’m there face to face and real time.  The work that is done to that point (looking at TCO studies, building a business case, doing interviews…) can all be done remotely, but decisions are not facilitated with as much ease or power when the presenter is not present.

What concerns me is that with gaming, the most dedicated to the game have really removed themselves from real life transactions.  I have images of teenagers who have not seen the light of day for weeks as they are holed up in their bedrooms yelling into their microphones for someone to “cover their back” or whatever.  They have great relationships and command when they are in game, but put them in a cafe or pizza parlor with a bunch of peers, and they are socially inept.  Lacking the ability to communicate in real life is not a valid tradeoff for the skills that they acquire in game.

It used to be that the only way to get the team, collaboration, and leadership skills was to join a club or sport.  Kids play soccer and learn real time how to collaborate with real people who are right in front of them.  You join the debate club and have a debate partner that you have to argue a case with in your next tournament.  The same skills are developed, but with real people transactions.  Certainly, these same kids are not isolated from text, data and voice.  I guarantee you that they have the ability to text their friends faster than I can write an email with a real keyboard.

I’m the king of tradeoffs, it’s what I do to help my clients understand what to evaluate and what direction will be best for their particular organization.  In terms of gaming, there are valuable skills that are to be had from gaming, but I’m wondering if those skills only take a person so far.  At some point, games are not enough.  Real life has to happen.

The Marketing of Snowflakes

If you ever look at a snowflake dangling from the window at your local Macy’s or Bloomingdales, realize that this snowflake is only a piece of marketing, there to draw your eye, but not an accurate representation of reality.  You see, most marketing snowflakes have either five or eight sides to them.  Nobody seems to know how or why this happened, but I suppose some marketer out there thinks that it is more aesthetically pleasing to have a five or eight sided snowflake.

The reality of the snowflake is that they almost always have six sides.  Sometimes they may have three or twelve, but those are relatively less common to the six sided variety.  The reason for the multiples of three is simple, snow is made up of water, or H2O molecules, and chemically have so many bonds to offer to other H2O molecules.  The end result is that water molecules can create snowflake structures with three, six or twelve sides.

The beauty of the snowflake is a wonderful thing.  Certainly it does draw our eye and our attention.  Certainly the thought of beautiful fresh white snow brings to mind a white Christmas, skiing through fresh power, kids and snow angels, or whatever else you have in mind.  But at the core, it is still just a marketing figment of our imagination, inaccurately portrayed.

Manager and executive dashboards are quite the same.  Often, we have planned and conceived for months or years about how to best capture the attention of our executives and bring them thoughtful HR data.  We’ve given them tools and pretty graphs, and indeed, these dashboards carry the flare and flash that can draw anyone’s attention with a state of coolness and color.  But at the end of the day, the dashboard is just the dashboard.  VP’s of HR and other executives often don’t really look at the dashboards we’ve worked so hard on.  They might glance at a particularly high turnover rate, but rather than digging through the detail themselves, they might instead pick up the phone and call they nearest HR director with an inquiry about what’s going on.  At the end of the day, they still rely on the same old mechanisms for information.  They want us to create reports, and have meetings.

The cause of all of this is particularly simple.  Executives have no use for data.  The best representation of an HR analytic, whether it be a trended graph, or some sort of drill-through crafty piece of eye candy, is still just data.  What executives want is information, and our dashboards still don’t interpret data for them.  That’s why they still need the rest of us, our reports, and the face time in meetings.

I don’t think I’m being critical of dashboards – in fact I rather love them.  But we have to understand the gap if they are to get better.  Dashboards can give execs a glance at the health of their organization, but they don’t provide understanding and diagnosis.  We need to be able to provide information, not data.