I Could Have Been A Ditch Digger

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 ((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.

Talent Particles in Action

Until tonight, I’ve never seen a lightning storm from above the clouds.  I’m not sure what percentage of lightning strikes actually are visible below the clouds, but this storm over Texas that I’m watching has a few lightning bolts per second all localized in a small area over the course of the last 5 minutes that we’ve been flying by it.  It’s pretty amazing to see this many lightning bolts for such a continuous period of time, and thinking about the total amount of electricity being generated is mind boggling.

Nobody really knows how lightning is formed, but the current theory is that as water molecules evaporate and float upwards into the sky, these miniscule water particles sometimes “rub up” against each other and trade electrons, thus forming electrical charges.  As this happens millions upon millions of times, and these water particles all make their way up into the clouds, eventually some event happens where the energy is released and a lightning bold is formed.

It’s pretty crazy to think that a couple of water molecules rubbing up against each other on their way up to forming a cloud is what triggers the release of a several million volt lightning strike, but it’s possible that is the root cause.  It does not take much, but the same thing is true with talent management.  HR spends a lot of time these days managing talent, producing knowledge, skills and competencies, and ensuring growth in our employees. 

Every employee gets a set of goals every year, so there are thousands of these.  We measure all sorts of leadership, behavioral and technical competencies on our employees.  There may be separate performance guidelines like MBO’s.  Incentive compensation may have their own set of requirements that employees are measured against.  I’m hoping your environment is not this complex, but suffice to say that we track a lot of seemingly insignificant attributes against a lot of employees.

At the same time, employees are interacting with each other, hopefully connecting in our enterprise social networks, and collaborating and learning through content they are generating.  All of this just creates thousands more small particulate interactions that we don’t even see or measure.  We have no idea which one of those advances is going to be the one that triggers the next major innovation or the next big sale.  What we do know is that we work on individual transactions that on a singular level, we can’t quite trace to these huge events.

At an aggregate level, we know that these particles create clouds and rain, so we can measure the cause and effect.  However, every once in a while, a lightning bolt hits, and when it does, we should not only celebrate the organization and it’s achievements, but we should also know that somehow, the root cause was the effort we put into managing our talent.

The Future of Learning

Those of you who read this blog often know that I’m a cyclist and generally a fitness kind of guy.  I’m actually fairly obsessive, and on a recent day entering my daily food and caloric intake into my smart phone, I thought how wonderful it would be if I could record my daily learning experiences in the same way.  Currently my phone is a Motorola Droid, a Google Android based phone because I’m on Verizon and won’t give up their network (which I consider to be better in the cities I commonly travel to).  I use an application called myfatsecret.com, and the calorie counter application allows me to easily search restaurant menus, foods, and even scan packaging barcodes using the camera interface, all of which will automatically enter in calorie counts along with all sorts of other data.

The problem with current state learning technologies is that you have specific learning objectives, participate in learning experiences whatever they may be, and record them.  This is indeed a good way to track formal learning experiences, but in reality, learning happens outside of these set experiences.  I definitely think that one must record the coursework, mentorship experiences, seminars and conferences that people participate in.  But it all seemed somewhat limited and limiting.

As I entered my daily food into my phone, I thought how the same could be done for learning, although the applications in talent probably go far beyond learning.  Learning happens at random times, in random conversations.  It could be during a “watercooler” conversation, or reading a blog, or having an idea while entering food into your phone.  But all too often, these events remain unrecorded and ultimately forgotten.  In order to capture these, learning really has to be captured at the point of entry, at the time that learning occurs.

Personally, I can’t enter into my food diary at the end of a day, let along days later.  Perhaps it’s rude, but I tend to enter into my food diary at the end of each meal.  The same really has to happen for learning.  If my manager wants to know what I’m doing, there is probably just as much data as a food diary.  Everything I read, and even the things that I think about and develop on my own are subject to being recorded.  Similar to a food diary, categorization, metrics, and progress tracking all can happen real time.

I don’t know if everyone is as consumed by their smart phones as I am, but given what I see at airports and restaurants, there are enough of us that do use our phones for everything that using point of entry learning applications is plausible.  As time goes on, and organizations roll out smart phones to their populations, I’d hope that learning and talent vendors continue to look into the next generation of learning apps.

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.

What does Irony Taste Like?

My wife and I were recently at dinner with her sister’s family. One of the boys is about 14 years old, and as we were waiting for our table, he was looking through the bottles of wines displayed nearby. (No, he’s not drinking yet, we don’t live in France) He observed one bottle keenly, and turned to my wife asking, “I wonder what Irony tastes like.” My wife replies, “probably somewhat bitter-sweet,” at which point our nephew breaks out in laughter.

As I look through all of my nieces and nephews, most of them are far too young to have conversations like this. They are all bright young people, but I wonder if they will all have the same ability to connect random thoughts and ideas, and create different types of meaning that were not there before or not intentional by the originator. It’s not that I have some strange familial desire to see my family smarter than everyone else out there, but in my experience, the ability to connect the dots between seemingly disparate pieces of a puzzle is somewhat rare.

It also occurs to me that the ability for the mind to think this way is not necessarily trainable. Taking myself as an example, I am known in my family to be the world’s worst student. ((Ok, ok, being Chinese, the standard of expectation is fairly high.)) I absolutely hated studying, and basically managed to slip by the first 12 years of schooling without looking at a text book. Somehow I managed to end up with a 4.0 and took so many AP classes that my high school ran out of classes for me, but I seriously never studied. Instead, I remember various science and math classes where I would get pulled aside by the instructor. The conversation was always the same: “This is not how we taught you to solve this, but somehow it’s correct and the work checks out.” In my mind, I would never know how I was supposed to do something because I didn’t study, but I could find ways to connect the dots and figure things out.

For me, college was most interesting learning experience. I went to a small, liberal arts college (that probably would not admit me now) where the provision of trade skills is not at all important, but the provision of thinking skills and analytical problem solving is. I do believe that creating an approach for thinking through a problem is indeed trainable, but still, the ability to connect seemingly random pieces of information is not. The people out there who have both of these abilities running in tandem are probably your strongest innovators and thought leaders. These are the people who rise to the top of the individual contributor ranks in your organization, and given other skills might become top management candidates. These are the people that when you’re looking to fill critical roles should be at the top of your list. Regardless of the experience they have, these candidates have an uncanny ability to work through problems and come up with incredible new ideas.

The irony in this to me, is that that primary ability to discover unseen connections and pull together ideas that might have been heard in a completely unrelated topics months ago is both a key attribute you want for your talent, but is also almost completely impossible to detect and record without significant observation and experience. I believe it’s a key talent attribute, and I can tell you when someone has it, but can’t tell you how to measure or record it.


Training Innovation

I’ve been thinking a lot about whether you can teach people how to be innovators.  As North America and EMEA slowly loses production and manufacturing work to countries like India and China, what is left behind is the design and innovation work that is the starting point before production can shift to those other countries.  Problem is that countries like India and China are turning out highly qualified engineers at a faster rate than the U.S. turns out graduates in any area.  However, what countries like the U.S. have as an advantage is that we’ve been at the forefront of innovation for much longer.  Somehow, I believe that innovation can to some degree be taught.

I start with a comparison between competencies required for consulting and innovation.  As a consultant, I consider the amount of actual intelligence and knowledge a good consultant has to have to be about 20% of the equation – not much.  The other 80% is all about the consultant’s approach to looking at and working through a problem.  You’ll notice that all consultants have the same basic approach – current state analysis, future state analysis, business case.  But how the details of those basic steps is applied can be very creative.  The next degree of success for a consultant is how they are able to apply the 20% of knowledge and intelligence and 80% of approach to a flexible offering that works for their client.  In essence, the successful mix is mostly about approach, but the higher volume you have for each part of that mix, the better off you’ll be.

In contrast, I believe the exact opposite for innovation.  The mix is approximately 20% approach and 80% intelligence and knowledge.  You see, for someone who is innovating, it’s about how their brains are wired.  When they see something that is wrong, the fact that it is wrong has to “bother” them.  They have to have a deep desire to fix what is wrong.  On top of that, they have to be able to see multiple (often many) objects at a time and understand the connection points between them.  Innovators can see many things, put them together in different ways to solve complex problems.  Unfortunately, I don’t think you can teach 80% of this equation – the smarts and how the brain is wired side.  The last 20% is approach, and I think you can teach this part.  You can put people in a place where they have a higher chance of success by teaching them a structured way to look at problems and analyze possibilities.  However, if the innate ability is lower, then you can only make someone a proficient innovator, not a great one.

I think that there are lots of learning organizations out there who are training people for knowledge, and of course we have talent mobility programs out there that are moving people around to give them the right experiences.  But I don’t think we’re thinking enough about making people into innovators, yet this is where the future of countries in N.A. and EMEA lie.  I’m not against some competition, but I am against getting utterly squashed by India and China.  Let’s start teaching innovation principles within our learning programs.