Jocks vs. Nerds

“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.

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.

HR Technology Conference Reactions: Talent Management Panel

The talent management panel at The HR Technology Conference was all about diversity.  Not diversity in terms of workforce, but the diversity in terms of approaches in deploying talent processes and technologies that different companies take in pursuit of their goals. With Jason Averbook hosting, we had Walmart (2+ million employees), Motorola Solutions (called themselves an 84 year old startup), Merck (single global system in 84 countries) and ETS Lindgren (900 employees). At one end of the table, we had 2.2 million employees and the other end we had 900. We had SAP globally, and we had Rypple/

Here are some highlights (not direct quotes in most cases):

Theme #1:  Ongoing feedback. When even Walmart says they need to deploy ongoing feedback for a workforce that is 2.2 million strong, this is something to watch.  Generally when we think of retail, we’re thinking about a population with a full set of competencies from some very senior talent to some fairly low paid employees.  Saying that real time feedback is important for the entire population is a big deal, where many of us would traditionally just focus on the top tier of talent.  ETS Lindgren said much the same and have experienced a huge jump in positive feedback.  They have shown that social can really assist in the engagement equation, but realize that the constructive feedback still happens either in private messaging or in the manager conversations.

Theme #2:  Focus on what matters. Having just said that you spread the wealth in Theme #1, there did seem to be a consistent theme around making sure that the roles that really drive revenues in your organization are the ones you focus on disproportionately.  There was a discussion about “peanut butter spread” and it seemed there was mass agreement where you provide some global focus, but your time is really spent managing the interactions with the employees that will impact your bottom line most directly.  I also want to do a theme 2.5 here.  Merck had an important call-out I think.  They are starting with a revamp of their job structure.  For any deployment be it TM, HCM or Social, if your foundation sucks, you are not going anywhere.  You can roll things out, and you might get adoption, but you won’t have great measurement.  Merck had this to say, “If someone allowed the choice of getting the basics right or deploying collaboration tools, I’d say to look at the foundation.” More on measurement later.

Theme #3:  Things still need to get easier. Walmart had a nice example with talent reviews.  They used to walk into a room of executives with volumes of huge binders.  Instead of that, they give everyone an iPad with the employee data preloaded.  This makes the discussion more dynamic and flexible.  At the same time, you can have significantly more data at your disposal compared to the volumes of binders.  This is an example where it’s working, but there are still areas where data minim does not work.  Motorola asked the question, “If I want a restaurant recommendation, I ask my friends on Facebook and get immediate answers.  If I need a best practice, there should be an app for that too.”

Theme #4:  Flexibility. This one goes hand in hand with ongoing feedback.  One of the companies stated that they will go without formal reviews and formal ratings.  WHAT?!?!?!  Not having reviews and ratings is an experiment that some have tried in smaller organizations, but I’ll be excited to see how it works in a socially based larger organization.  This theme is also about the social thread that would not stop coming up in this panel.  Most everyone seemed to have a social strategy that included not only conversations, but also some ideas of recognition.

Theme #5:  Data and analytics. We talked a bit about Merck in Theme #2.  I also liked the blended TM/Social/Analytics theme that ETS Lindgren brought up:  We want to know who is having conversations and about what at any given time.  If we can figure out what our talent is talking about, how to connect others, and measure the impact of quality interactions on our bottom lines, then we can also figure out how to invest in growing those specific conversations.  (tie in to Theme #1).

Theme #6:  Sponsorship. Motorola had this to say, “Our CEO has 2 jobs.  Managing the bottom line, and managing talent.”  ETS Lindgren had this to say, “Our Rypple tool came from the CEO.  We wanted to do something different.”  Either way you cut it, they had great sponsorship to ignite and create change.  It doesn’t always have to be the CEO, but if you don’t have top level sponsorship at all, you’re sunk.


Fooling Ourselves

I’ve been watching with fascination over the last couple years as countires have rebelled against their governments (Arab Spring in 2011), and American citizens have condemned corruption, and congratulated the populous for rising up and forcing change.  It’s fascinating to me because we are so unaware of what has been going on around us for so long.  After all, we (as a country) have been supporters of Egypt for decades.  The United States has supplied and trained their military, given them aid in various forms, and we have very publicly acknowledged them as strategic allies in the region.  Apparently, The United States has never actually cared that a particular leader was corrupt.  I mean really, do a Google search for the now famous photo of Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein.  Uhh, yeah, Saddam was an ally too.  Oh, the guy we took out of Panama, Noriega, him too.  Actually, we were the ones who put him in power ((I think, but I’m on a plane and can’t actually do the quick research to verify this)).  I mean, come on, we’re all blind to the other side of the coin that we hold in our own hands?

I’m often surprised at the level of myth that is present in large corporate organizations as well.  “Oh, no, we can’t possibly expect to have most of our employee transactions go through the portal.”  Really, in 2011, you can expect it, and you can even demand it.  “Oh, no, we can’t outsource payroll, the displacement of control would be devastating to us.”  Guys, you still control the rules in the gross to net.  You really want to run printers and update your own taxes in the payroll system forever?  “Our CEO has demanded that we implement talent management in the next 3 months.”  Seriously, this is just the flip side, and you didn’t tell him or her that it’s a bad idea to slam a strategic system in?

I love myth.  Myth tells us about ourselves, our beliefs, and our culture.  In every myth, there is a grain of truth, a particle of reason that is steeped in the reality of our companies.  But often times, myths get blown out of proportion.  Deeply held beliefs that are there for so long that they only are a reality in the minds of the 10 and 20 year company veterans.  Unfortunately, those 20 year employees are usually not that current with the as is culture.

We as HR have indeed started to change.  Talent Management was honestly one of the biggest catalysts we have had, in conjunction with an ever improving ability to manipulate data through systems.  But I often think that the biggest obstacle of change are ourselves.  Talent was supposed to be a revolution, but 5 years or so later, all we have is a bunch of automated processes and new theories.  We need to be the HR leaders that force the issue, realize the former state was crap (even if we put it there and supported it), and the future state is where the game will be played.

Back to Basics

It seems to me that there has been a renewed focus on core HR.  Now I need to tell the truth, I really thought core HR was dead.  I mean, it will always be around, but with the whole industry moving on to cooler things like analytics and talent management, who cares about core HR anyway?  Seriously, core HR is core HR, how many ways can you present an employee transfer or termination process?  How many different vendors can effectively pitch OSHA functionality and expect to win?  Within reason, all the core HR vendors are pretty much on an equal playing field, for one reason or another that I won’t bother going into.

So the industry if focused on talent and analytics.  The problem is that nothing seems to work if you messed up core HR.  People deployed a nice, automated performance process 3 years ago, and they got themselves away from paper.  But at the same time, the industry told them that they didn’t get where they needed to go, and a number of reasons went into this.  First, deploying a talent process just wasn’t enough, and the vendors are madly working on the next level of functionality that will actually help us manage talent as opposed to automating a process.  Secondly however, talent management did not work the first time because we implemented it assuming our core HR systems were already healthy, and they were not.

First, Job.  There seems to be a renewed effort around job these days.  I think we’ve realized that even with all the focus on competencies as a foundational building block of talent, job is still the foundational building block of HR.  Without job, nothing else seems to work.  The problem was that we’ve been neglecting job for eons.  Ok, so that’s a stretch, but it’s certainly not uncommon for many of our organizations to have 5 times as many jobs as we need.  They are not standardized, they are redundant, and they have mismatched naming conventions.  They appear differently from country to country and business unit to business unit.  At the end of the day, a corporate organization can’t make any sense our of our jobs.  So we’ve gone back over the last few years and tried to start tightening up our job tables, which will in turn enable tighter competencies, performance, recruiting, succession, etc…  Not to mention that your analytics are worthless if you can’t use Job as one of your core dimensions in your datamarts.

Second, Organization.  We don’t often think about how we think about org.  Is it a financial hierarchy? Operational? HR? People manager?  When we first implemented organization in core HR years ago, we may have tied it tightly to the payroll engine, and cost centers were the priority at the sacrifice of supervisor chains.  Or we decided that an operaitonal structure made better sense and we sacrificed how HR generalists needed to interact with employees in the structure.  Whatever the tradeoff we made, we didn’t realize that a couple years later, this thing called talent management was going to assume that core HR could provide a clean structure to talent.  I’ve been to organizations where the performance, compensation, succession, and hiring managers were all different.  Who the hell was going to think of that 5 years ago?  huh?  The point is, that we’ve needed to go back to core HR and make some sense of our initial implementations.  And oh yeah, if you’re org is not clean enough to be a dimension in your datamarts – worthless again.

So the moral of the story is this:  if you’re late the the game and just getting to talent now, learn from those before you – fix core HR.  If you are not late to the game, but have not fixed core HR, go do it now.

Linking Communication Collaboration and Talent

There was a time when if you wanted to collaborate, the only way to do it was either walking over to someone and having a conversation, or perhaps you could call someone’s “secretary” and leave a message.  Then we got voice mail.  Then we got email.  We’ve been trapped in an email world for over a decade now, but it seems that the next shift is finally happening, and it is happening quickly.

In the early years of email, Lotus Notes occupied a leading space in collaboration.  Not only did Notes provide the ability to send messages and collaborate, but Lotus Domino, the engine behind Notes, allowed for the creation of some pretty sophisticated database, forms and workflows.  With all of this, it comes as no surprise that many organizations are still on Notes since they have so much legacy database sitting there that the conversion would be enormous.

However, even with that, most organizations have been using Microsoft Outlook for at least a few years now.  Collaboration has been the domain of email for so long now, and primarily that of MS Outlook and SharePoint that we have significant amounts of knowledge sitting in these systems.  Within emails that have huge amounts of passive and untapped knowledge and SharePoint databases that are usually  not indexed for future state technologies.

Organizations are quite underway for implementing Web 2.0 communication tools and for much of it, HR has been at the forefront (or at least involved) in these implantations.  Through these communications, we can mine data to get new insights into competencies and talent.

I mentioned Lotus Notes before because we’re going to have the same problems moving off of MS Outlook and SharePoint as we did moving away from Notes.  The next stage is already upon us with Web 2.0 collaboration tools such as text, IM, wiki, and blogs.  Not only are these categorized for indexing, but users can self tag knowledge, creating whole new taxonomies that more easier for mass consumption and not limited by corporate understandings.  But we have a decade of historical knowledge and collaboration data that is possibly lost, without any hope to be tied into our talent data.  Because these communications were never intended to be converted into useful metrics on our talent, we’re looking at a complete loss of any usability for it.

I’ll admit that I’m not sure anyone else is on the same page as I am, that all these Web 2.0 communications are ripe for use in talent measurements, let alone converting all of our past emails and legacy collaboration databases.  However, it’s important to recognize at the very least that all of these methods, both legacy and future state, hold significant amounts of high quality information about our talent.

Why Can’t We Implement Succession?

I can’t quite remember when it was, but on a recent Bill Kutik Radio Show, Bill mentioned, “One of the things that drives me crazy, is every survey that comes out, everyone says that Succession Planning is their top priority, and then the following year, the same survey states that nobody implemented it.”  Bill’s absolutely right, and I’ve started wondering exactly what is so hard about Succession Planning that with all the best intentions, we just can’t seem to get moving on that front of talent management.

I have a theory that there are a couple of pillars that make us unable to implement it.  First of all, there are core capabilities that need to be created before we can get Succession in place.  While we can often think of Succession as a stand alone process from the rest of talent management, Succession certainly needs a few ingredients to work.  Fist of all, we want to be able to create plans based on actual measurements rather than the reviewer’s subjective opinions which we know would result in a high probability of bias and be subject more to potential successors networking capabilities than job capabilities (although this may not be a terrible thing).  What we need are a few years worth of performance and competency data.  This means that to have a quantitative means of measuring probable successors, we’d like to see trends and trajectory.  This can go not only for internal candidates since external candidates often have measurable indicators that may be public.  The core problem however, is that not only do we need the basics of talent management intact, but we also would like to have a few years worth of data.

Second, there is a distinct manager capability that is far beyond that of other talent processes.  In performance management, our managers are asked to measure direct employees on a specified set of performance parameters.  When we talk about succession plans, we are often asking our executives to look at possible successors that they don’t directly work with today.  They look at the capabilities of each candidate, level those candidates across the multiple business units, look at total experience, expertise and capability, and then look at potential.  Succession or our executives is far more complex than performance is for our managers.  We have an expectation that we can put in software and a process, but once we come down to the actual planning process for implementation, we realize that this is far more complex and the expectations are far higher than anything we have done before.

Usually what we think will happen is that HR will run all sorts of reports that show possible successors for each role, and be able to analyze those candidates so that meaningful conversations can be had with the appropriate successors.  We think this because we don’t really believe that a bunch of executives is going to sift through complex, detailed data on each possible successor.  However, this also means that the business process for Succession Planning is more complex than just the analysis.  In performance, we have a pretty reliable expectation that managers can figure it out.  In Succession, we have every reason to believe that HR business partners and leaders are going to have a series of meetings with executives to reach a final understanding of what the succession landscape looks like – and most of this happens outside of software.

When we really get down to it, Succession probably really is our greatest want and need.  When we get down to it, Succession really is more complex than we expect it to be.  However, we need to get succession right.  If we think Succession is bad, wait until we get to topics like workforce mobility and areas that are so cross functional and multi-threaded that we have multiple HR organizations interacting with multiple business organizations.

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.

HR Web 2.0 Supply Chain

In most businesses, if the supply chain stops, everything stops.  Ford can’t make cars if they don’t have wheels, hospitals get pretty jammed up if all the CT machines are down, and most organizations wither away if the sales pipeline goes away.  You can view almost any portion of any business from a supply chain point of view.  In HR, we usually think of workforce planning and recruiting as the supply chain, and since we manage the “human resource” that makes perfect sense.  However, we also manage HR from the perspective of talent and competencies, and aside from headcount, the development of competencies through a systematic and technological approach is also a supply chain we should be thinking of.

Shifting gears, we use Web 2.0 to connect our employees, write and read blogs and wikis, and hopefully encourage internal knowledge sharing at the end of the day.  To do this, we assume that people are actually producing content that can be consumed by the masses.  This is the only way that Web 2.0 actually works as a talent building tool – people have to connect first, and then they have to share.  Unfortunately, outside of technology companies, many Web 2.0 initiatives fail not because people don’t connect, but people don’t share.

So back to the point.  If the resultant product is an increase in total talent within the organization as measured by competency and knowledge growth, which is created through an increase in volume of interactions in the Web 2.0 platform, it is reasonable to think of blog posts, wikis, or just questions people generate into the environment, as the supply chain.  The problem is that you don’t just “order up” blog posts and keep doing that into the indefinite future.  This supply chain has to be self sustaining.

If you are a technology company filled with computer engineers, this is easy.  You probably already have a culture of people who have some form of expectation that business is transacted in this way.  If you have a very young population, you are also lucky since Gen Y and most of Gen X thinks about their lives in a Web 2.0 way.  But if you’re a more traditional company, you probably have significant change management hurdles to go through.

Web 2.0 is not a set of training and communications material you send out, it’s really a whole new way of thinking about how work gets done and how you collaborate.  What might start as a simple goal for employees to make blog posts or a competition for the post that generates the most hits or comments is not actually a productive enterprise unless it actually creates a collaboration loop that addresses a problem.  Otherwise people are just writing for the sake of writing.  When it comes to change management, I take a phrase from the Herman Miller (sp?) Strategic Selling course called the “personal win.”  Employees will only participate if they are either receiving great value or if they are perceived as a person to go to when great value is needed.

The question is not how you get people to post, but how do you get people to be aware of the available value, or how you make people perceive themselves as leaders.  If you can’t do this, then you wind up with a pretty dismal looking supply chain.  No Web 2.0 activity means no sharing which means no talent growth through the Web 2.0 tool. 

(Follow-on question is if you guys even think that this type of collaboration is part of talent management the way that I do?)

Next Gen Workforce Planning

We’ve been doing a pretty good job with Talent Management in my opinion.  We have pretty much deployed our systems or are in the midst of doing so.  We have reengineered our core talent processes from talent acquisition to performance to succession to learning and compensation.  We have started to grow our talent thinking past these core processes to workforce planning and internal mobility, partly spurred by the news that our demographics are changing so significantly with soon-to-be retirees and a generation of workers coming at us that needs transitions at a much more rapid pace than ever before.

What we have not necessarily figured out is not about acquiring, developing and upgrading employees.  It’s about preparing the workforce and taking a very broad view of the workforce as an organism rather than as a large set of employees.  As we went though the last series of layoffs and reorganization in 2009, we realized that our layoffs created gaps that still remain unfilled as we continue into better economic times in 2010.

We know (ok – we probably don’t, but it’s a goal maybe) exactly how much of every competency we need to have in the organization.  In order to be able to make a particular organizational sales goal, we can probably measure the total amount of sales competency and the aggregate achievement level in each of those sales competencies – using this, we should be able to predict annual sales achievement in a variety of economic conditions.  It’s basically a type of multiplier – more sales competency * average economic times yields better sales results than a lower level of competency within the organization.

So we have done a pretty good job acquiring and developing talent – at least we’re focused on it if we are not doing it in a formulaically structured way as I have illustrated.  We’re also focused on workforce planning.  We know that we have a retirement cliff coming.  5 years ago we said it was going to be in 5 to 15 years.  Well, we’re there now, and if we didn’t already prepare – we are in the middle of it.  We were training our people so they could fill the leadership and senior contributor positions that were going to be vacated.  Along side the cliff of retirees, we didn’t necessarily see the layoffs of 2009 coming.  We ended up with an environment where we were letting go of some pretty good people, offering early retirements, and cutting competencies from the organization as a whole.  We did all of this without really measuring what the aggregate competency gap was going to be.

I’m a total believer that we should be doing individual talent management.  We should absolutely be positioning individuals to achieve success through their career and succession plans.  We should have performance processes that actually motivate people to achieve goals.  Along side this, if we are not tying these individual programs to a broader organizational talent objective, we have missed the boat.  Talent happens at 2 levels.  We need to keep people as individuals, but our workforce plans need to be actionable at the individual level – not theoretical plans that help us prepare our organizations and fill senior seats, but aggregate competency levels.


Corporate Strategy & Talent Management

A long (very long) time ago, I used to captain a cycling team.  I had a crew of about 6 people that raced every week, and we all had our objectives and our roles.  As part of our weekly training for races, we would drill the sprinter on sprinting exercises, have the guys who would chase down breakaways doing crazy intervals, the climbers climbing, etc.  At races every week, our goal was to win primes (sprints that occur in the middle of races) or place in the final sprint.  We almost always had a specific formula.   I would send one of my guys out to the front of the 50+ rider group and ride as fast as possible from about 1.2 miles out from the finish.  I would collect the group behind me (usually 1 very fast guy plus a sprinter) and I would read the pack for the inevitable final break.  It’s not really a breakaway more than just a last acceleration.  If you chose the wrong acceleration, and go too early or late, you end up 15 spots behind choosing the right acceleration.  So I got to pick the “jump” and my 2 guys would just follow me as I followed a couple guys from other teams.  My job was never to win, it was to watch as the race developed around me and make sure my guys got launched at the right place and time, and have every possible chance to succeed.  Even while managing my guys individually throughout the week, and managing each individual race, the result of the individual race was never the point.  The real point was that if we wanted to say sponsored, we needed to place enough times in the year to attract enough money to keep us racing the next year.  (thank God I was never the sponsorship guy)

I sometimes wonder when we are designing talent processes, if we are paying enough attention to corporate strategy.  Each individual activity from process mapping to talent service delivery to technology selection should be hinged upon the overall corporate strategy.  I’ll give a simple example:  Let’s say that you are in a high growth mode.  You’re expanding into new markets or products, and the C-level execs expect you to have enough talent to get this done quickly before other competitors beat you to the punch.  Compensation has outlined a pay philosophy to lead market rates which allows you to acquire and hopefully retain highly talented individuals more easily.  HR has also developed a philosophy to pay for contribution rather than performance.

As a result of all this, the Talent organization should have developed a performance process that rewarded people not on the attainment of job descriptions or even role based goals.  Instead, performance should have been measured against competency growth and other attributes that contribute to organizational growth, not organizational maintenance.  Merit and incentive payments should have been disclosed with considerable transparency to disclose how individual actions create corporate value and result in growth in the targeted sectors.  Internal mobility programs should not just be filling jobs and moving people around, but specifically looking at how to move high quality talent to areas of the business that can use them most aggressively.

I know we do a lot of things that are process or employee specific.  I also know that each of these actions has a clear positive impact at the employee and organizational level.  But I question if we are sufficiently linked to our corporate strategies and if we know exactly how those linkages play out from an action to benefit perspective.  let me know if you have any answers.

What’s Next?

Just a few short years ago, it really seemed like the vendor space was leading the market with all sorts of great new functionality and new ways to think about the world.  After all, what would we have done if SoftScape had not coined the term “Talent Management”?  (I’m pretty sure it was them, but I’m not 100% sure, so if I’m wrong, don’t crucify me please)  Talent Management gave HR a completely new lease on life, helped us get the attention of executives, and got many of us the proverbial “seat at the table”.”  TM provided us a way manage our Human Resources, whereas before we were just another resource.

The SaaS vendor space provided us with dashboards while the rest of the organization was implementing them, but HR didn’t have the budgets or the technical capability.  We got analytics for cheap from vendors when our organizations didn’t seem to see the value of a $MM implementation for HR.

But lately, it feels like we’ve taken hold of all the new technologies and the opportunities it brought us and we are not trying to push our vendors faster and further rather than being tugged along.  While vendors consolidate and focus on platform integration, we’ve all moved on to thinking about long term talent management that goes beyond the processes of today and looks at the planning for 2 and 3 years from now.  We’re wanting to understand workforce planning and implement technologies to help us with it.  We want to understand internal mobility and get a handle on how increasing mobility engages, develops and retains our employee base.

But it’s not really all the vendor’s fault.  Sure, the vendors (some of them anyway) tell us they have some functionality, or that it’s on the way, but we in HR are certainly now pushing rather than pulling.  The problem for the vendors is that most of the new work is pure analytics and decision support.  To do workforce planning, we need to be able to project out where our businesses are growing and what skill-sets we will need a few years down the road.  Often, HR does not yet have this level of visibility in the organization.  Sometimes, the business as a while does not have the ability to know what the future brings in highly project and contract based businesses.  Others of us have more stable sales and business cycles that can be predictable.

I think we’ve gone forward with our thinking, but both the HR and Vendor capabilities are lagging, and we have come to count on the vendor space to provide us a solution for our problems.  Unlike with Talent Management where many of us didn’t even know we needed it, now we know we have an itch to scratch – and we are eagerly awaiting a stick to scratch it with.  I’m sure it will be great…  (just hurry up already)

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, 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.

Taleo versus SuccessFactors

At the end of 2009, Bersin did a great analysis of the two organizations that I can’t really beat.  It’s a nice objective and score by score view of the vendors that is based in good factual data, and I’m going to take a different approach, but you should read Bersin’s post first.  From my point of view, the discussion of the two vendors is quite simple, and the decision around to who has the advantage is also quite clear.

Let’s start with their roots.  It’s quite clear that Taleo is based on recruiting roots while SuccessFactors has the Talent Management side.  Both have ventured into each other’s strong suite, with Taleo having an incredible launch into performance a couple of years ago.  However, as time has gone on and the market has assessed the product, it may actually have been too much innovation for the average HR department to adopt and absorb.  I still think it’s one of the coolest products out there, but the change may have been too radical or restrictive.  Traditional performance vendors that were more flexible in allowing people to stick with processes that were somewhat similar to their current states might have been more comfortable during the selection process.  While we all say we want drastic change, when functional HR people really get down to business, I’m not sure it’s true.

SuccessFactors on the other hand has been reaching into recruiting.  Their first couple of sales came in 2009 and the product is in its infancy.  What Taleo has spent a decade developing, SuccessFactors has been at for a few short months and the product shows its weaknesses.  At the same time, Taleo’s recruiting product shows the immense configurability and options that the market wants, but does not get with the Taleo Performance module – sort of a contradiction.  SFSF’s Talent side gives the depth and maturity that simply isn’t there on the SFSF recruiting end.

Next, looking at their market presence, you decide who has the advantage.  While Bersin points out that SuccessFactors is in every RFP for Talent Management, Taleo is also in every RFP for Talent Acquisition.  This is not scientific at all, but I’m going to say that SuccessFactors has the advantage here.  My argument is that recruiting is not so much more complex than performance, compensation, succession, mobility, etc, and that Taleo has much more to build.  I’m also going to say that traditional recruiting is much more of a commodity, and that the Talent Management side is often seen as more of a business transaction.  Recruiting does not come out of commoditization until you get to mobility strategy, and that is generally a TM function than TA (granted cross functionality).  Its generally going to be easier for SFSF to build TA than for Taleo to improve the TM functions.

Lastly, looking at leading the market segments they specialize in, I’m going to say that Taleo has a pretty healthy lead in the TA market, and while SFSF is omnipresent, they don’t have quite the dominance simply due to the larger number of players.  Still, I think overall I’m looking at SFSF to be positioned better in the remainder of 2010 as the economy picks up steam and budgets continue to return.

HR Leadership Selection

I’ve been talking lately about how individual contributors are not always the best leadersHere, Jeff Hunter talks about why sometimes the individual contributor can become a great executive, and some of the problems they must overcome to get there.

A Vice President of HR may be expected to have a great eye for talent, the capability to negotiate complex contracts, the analytical ability to assemble complex compensation structures and the knack for coaching CEOs to greatness. Everyone takes for granted that as one climbs the ladder that they have demonstrated proficiencies in an ever greater number of areas. HR writes job descriptions, selects talent, manages performance and compensates people based on this deeply held assumption.

Imagine an HR leader who has just one competency: coaching. Whenever a search firm is looking for talent, they always land on this person, because they have been a long-time leaders at a very successful company. And yet, as the firm digs into the individual’s back story, they hear a long string of complaints: doesn’t understand compensation, bad manager, doesn’t understand technology, etc. We know where this story ends: the search firm passes the individual over and heads to the vertically integrated example of “executiveness.”

HR’s obsession should be creative productivity: increasing the creative commercialization opportunity of their talent investments.  ((Hunter, Jeff, October 17, 2009.  “John Lennon’s, The Future Of HR and Talent Camp.”  Retrieved from on December 28, 2009.))

I think Jeff is absolutely right.  We often think that we have to groom people and give them lots of experiences to be ready for leadership positions.  We’re adding to the idea of competencies and saying that additional strategic talent attributes are how many divisions someone has worked in, and if a person has and 2+ international assignments.

One of my first consulting gigs was with an organization where the EVP of HR didn’t really have an active hand in HR.  He had his group of 3 VP’s of HR who managed the day to day business.  Instead, this EVP was the executive coach to the CEO who wanted to turn this midsized company (7k employees) into a large company, and wanted to be the type of CEO who could grow and scale with it.  I’ve also seen EVP’s of HR where the core competency has nothing to do with compensation or talent, but is all about their ability to sit at the integration table during acquisition planning.

However, when we go out and look for senior HR executives, we stand by the old tried and true methods of someone who gets total compensation and talent.  Succession plans still go out and make people well rounded and provide lots of broad experience.  We don’t look at what the needs of the business really are, and decide if there are very focused areas of competency that need to be enhanced for the specific role in the organization.

The problem I think is simple.  Our senior HR positions are not written at a job description level in a way that reflects the reality of what the C-suite wants and expects from the person.  There is a job role that the incumbent will never execute upon because those jobs are really farmed out to the next level of HR management.  Instead, the C-suite wants an active participant.  Not somebody who can sit around and talk about HR, but someone who can talk about the business.  This does not always come from broad HR experience in multiple HR functions, in multiple corporate divisions, from several international assignments.  If you need an acquisition specialist, then you need someone who has gone through the acquisitions.  If you need a coach, then perhaps you need to go outside and find someone who has been through a high growth cycle with another organization.  Whatever it is, your senior roles need to reflect reality, not the standard job description that is in a random salary survey.