Dig Deeper and Discover Employees Are Human

010-hard-work, by jdxyw [edits]
010-hard-work.  Photo courtesy of jdxyw.
In an earlier post I summarized Josh Bersin’s 2018 forecast of disruptive technologies in HR, which I followed-up with an overview of the leadership styles implied by the technology.  My experience with the technology and analytics is that many of the logical elements of human resources can now be figured out with increased ease.  Or rather, it’s easy if you figured them out last year.  But once we have figured out the numbers, it is the social and qualitative factors that become important.

When describing the analytics Bersin names four different types of data:

  • HRMS data
  • Relationship data
  • Wellbeing data
  • Sentiment data

The relationship data described above is a reference to Organizational Network Analytics (ONA), which uses social network theory to look at the way people interact.  ONA collects data from email traffic, meeting attendance, phone calls, and geographic proximity.  It takes a lot of work to get the data to sing, but we already know some of the implications from pre-existing research on social networks.

Information and opportunities flow through the social networks with partial disregard for rank, department, or a person’s commitment to the institution itself.  Sometimes powerful and important people have good connections… but sometimes they do not, and sometimes there are lesser-known influencers who are the key.

Your new status in a network will be influenced by your ability to consider contradictory opinions, your curiosity about new perspectives, and your connections to people in diverse cliques.  Keeping the channels open will be key to your success.  But the best opportunities are to coordinate the entire network for organizational gain, rather than to rig it to favour one individual (be it yourself or someone else).  Think of this as being like pay equity on steroids; once you measure and publicize how things have been organized, there will be an immediate impetus to re-orient everything towards fairness and performance.

Beyond social networks, sentiment data opens a major opportunity.  Your opportunities for analysis jump dramatically once you ask people their story, their context, their emotions, and how this experience relates to their home life and how they describe themselves as people.  Qualitative data has turned out to the missing puzzle piece that everyone was looking for.  It’s difficult to get to because analysts need the humility to talk to people who aren’t always great at math.  Some of the best insights about the subjective experience comes from journalists, novelists, philosophers, and people in the arts.  You really need to show up at those kinds of dinner parties because when it’s time to design your model or your AI to mimic human behaviour, you need to know what it means to be human in the first place.

Increasingly, people analytics is a velvet-roped line up to board a greyhound bus that takes you to destinations unknown.  When you get off that bus, you will find you are not being led to a four-star hotel or the hip new club.  Rather, you are unloaded at a diner where a long-lost cousin shares old photos, your best friend calls you on your bull, and you re-discover that one small thing that’s truly important to you.  The truth doesn’t feel good because it’s cool, the truth makes you feel right because it helps you become authentic.

The deeper you go into the data, the more you realize that people are vulnerable, complex, and hiding great potential.  They want to talk, and it’s your job to listen.

Technology Can Reverse the Pecking Order

Photographers expand horizons in 2010 Army Digital Photography Contest 110311. By U.S. Army
Photographers expand horizons in 2010 Army Digital Photography Contest 110311.  Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army.

It’s funny how a small change in technology can disrupt hierarchy.  As new technologies collect better information about employees, it puts management under increased scrutiny.  In my last post I summarized Josh Bersin’s 2018 forecast of disruptive technologies in HR.  While it is interesting to see that there are tools available that allow us to be more effective, there are dramatic implications to the way we work.

After much delay, it appears that the long-awaited labour shortage has finally arrived.  Bersin notes that this will make an appearance as a “war for talent” with recruiting becoming more competitive.  Chatbots are automating parts of the recruitment process, applicant-tracking systems are making things simpler, there is a wider range of tools for assessing candidates, and I would note that it’s possible to use technology to reduce bias (assuming the AI has been taught to not pass forward pre-existing bias).  Many of these technologies have been pioneered already, which means 2018 will be a year of diffusion.

I think there is a social element of this war for talent that warrants more discussion.  That is, when good employees are being fought over they are more likely to ask for pay increases, apply for promotions, and leave their current workplace for something better.  But it can get even more dramatic when employees are bold enough to sign union cards, tell-off their harasser, and speak openly about how to improve management.  These shifts oblige managers to change.  We can’t pretend that everything is normal.  Hiring managers must start treating employees like they are valued, respected, and deserving of growth.  That’s what it looks like amongst managers who are keeping pace.  By contrast, it may suddenly look odd that there are managers who lack this collaborative orientation.

In the discussion of continuous performance management, Bersin references goal-setting and coaching.  We can’t really slip these items into a discussion of performance management without acknowledging that ground-up performance conversations are not yet fully established.  If emerging research recommends that good managers take a coaching approach, what are the implications for managers using a prescriptive approach running off a forced-distribution scorecard?  Simply put, command-and-control managers need to change their style.

For decades, the research has been bubbling just beneath the surface.  The reality is that for employees, true motivation comes from within, and their ability to align personal motivations to their employer’s strategic environment is key.  Engaged employees achieve two-times or three-times the productivity of other employees, and leadership style is a major factor in achieving high engagement.  The new technology is designed to help managers with that leadership style, but there aren’t a lot of apps that will help advance an archaic style.

On the wellbeing side, there is a variety of new tools to monitor cognitive overload and nudge people to exercise, sleep better, and eat better.  We have so overburdened people with meaningless and counter-productive work obligations that we have to reduce workload to improve productivity.  Deloitte has a good model that describes how engagement, productivity, and wellbeing are integrated into a unified concept.  Wellbeing is not really about fruits-and-veggies advocacy any more; it is integrated into peoples’ ability to focus on their best work.

I’m fascinated by the way this trend up-ends the hierarchy.  As a result of the wellbeing imperative, the people who need to “work harder” are management and leadership who are obliged to clarify goals, cultivate a positive work culture, and encourage employees to seek growth opportunities.  Looking back, it seems like a manager-driven culture which obliges employees to follow orders and be happy with their lot in life is hopelessly archaic.

Thankfully, we don’t need to debate the best leadership style because transformational leadership simply out-performs the alternative.  Just wait a few years and the only teams left standing will be the ones that have stayed at the forward edge.  Lucky for us, this collaborative style makes work more fun.

In my next post we will explore how subjective and qualitative information are making technology and analytics whole.

HR Technology – Get Ready For the Big Shake!

Day 119 - Shake it all about. By JLK_254
Day 119 – Shake it all about. Photo courtesy of JLK_254.
Looking back, it feels like 2017 was a big crazy dog that we watched playing in the water.  That dog has now come out of the water, it’s coming right at you and… get ready for the shake.  There’s never a dull moment in the world of technological disruptions in human resources and workforce analytics.

It’s becoming clear that the disruptions of the near-future will rely increasingly on human resources departments.  Items such as workplace learning, change management, and leadership development are being increasingly flagged by leaders outside of HR as critical to success in their own fields.  Meanwhile, and the ground level looking upward, employees are getting blunt about their expectations for career growth, workforce diversity, and a sense of organizational purpose.  Organizations trying to get on top of these issues without saying “human resources” are running out of euphemisms.

With a new year ahead of us, Josh Bersin of Bersin by Deloitte has published his forecasts for 2018.  In this case Bersin’s forecast is a list of emerging trends in human resources technology, a narrower focus than in the past.  Nonetheless, as everyone grips for emerging technological disruption in a variety of fields, it makes sense for us to consider how technology will disrupt human resources itself.

In my two subsequent posts I will describe how these innovations imply a different workplace culture and  leadership style, and increase the importance of qualitative information and our interpretations of the employee context.  For now, just consider that all work can change, and the people helping workplaces adapt to change are also changing themselves.  HR is just getting a double dose.

At-a-glance, Bersin’s top ten trends are as follows:

  • A Massive Shift from “Automation” to “Productivity”
  • Acceleration of HRMS and HCM Cloud Solutions, But Not the Center of Everything
  • Continuous Performance Management is Here: And You Should Get With It
  • Feedback, Engagement, and Analytics Tools Reign
  • Reinvention of Corporate Learning is Here
  • The Recruiting Market is Thriving With Innovation
  • The Wellbeing Market is Exploding
  • People Analytics Matures and Grows
  • Intelligent Self-Service Tools
  • Innovation Within HR Itself

For the uninitiated, Human Capital Management (HCM) cloud solutions (#2) is the technology that delivers databases known as human resources management systems (HRMS) on a fee-for-service basis through off-site cloud-based servers.  It’s disruptive because previous systems involved the purchase of an application which was stored on in-house servers alongside the data itself, with everything being owned and modified by the buyer.  Switching to cloud solutions means that you must steward and cultivate data carefully to allow it to dovetail with the rented solution, like a millwright, but with data.  These solutinos allow employers to take full advantage of all configurations in the latest version of the software.  There is far more functionality.  But the increased functionality won’t work unless your data is good and you figure out how to use the new modules.  This change has large implications for human resources, information technology, and daily users of the database.

Prior to now, most People Analytics (#8) was a combination of advanced analytics interpreting data that comes off the core database, plus a bunch of emerging data coming out of engagement analytics (#4).  But now, those two items are just the major platforms.  There are systems that used to be fringe players in HR but are now increasingly critical… and they need their own enabling technology.  Some of the technology hinges on the HRMS, but some of it does not.  For example, workplace learning (#5) and wellbeing initiatives (#7) used to be something that you could operate off an Office suite using a research-based model that followed the best literature in pedagogy or public health.  The best content would be distributed face-to-face, with limited need for software to make the difference.  Now the technology can help out so much more, and tools are becoming available to empower the traditional delivery methods to be more effective, more targeted, and better connected to analytics.

To some extent, everything is being disrupted in a manner that obliges us to think less about the technology itself and more about general productivity (#1).  Those delivering generalist human resources services are also seeing innovations in their own area.  Recruiting (#6) and performance management (#3) are being improved by technology, and a variety of self-service tools (#9) are automating operational tasks such as case management, document management and employee communications.  First we must obsess about the technology to get it to work for us, then we can clear that obstacle and get into new challenges.  Breaking new ground every day will give people in HR a lot of mojo, but only if we keep moving forward.

Bersin brings it all together by noting that it’s not just the purchased solutions that are transforming human resources teams.  In-house HR departments are disrupting themselves (#10), regardless of help from vendors.  Then they ask for help and the vendors themselves are struggling to keep up with clients.  When dealing with complicated case-work and finicky databases, in-house staff sometimes have a home team advantage.

Waking Up is Not a Competition

Shadows. By Stuart Murray
Photo by author.

Do you have a strange pang of guilt about your wake-up time?  You shouldn’t.  People have varied natural wake-up times, and the “best” time to wake up appears to be extremely personal.

One of the more important workplace numbers – and one that is rarely discussed – is the normal hours of work and the degree to which hours are flexible.  Work hours are a big deal because people need to make a lot of trade-offs between family size, housing, commuting distance, and family care obligations.  In an office environment, while it’s good to have a general sense of when we want people around for meetings, it also makes sense to ensure peoples’ work and home lives to be compatible.

One item that complicates normal work hours is peoples’ sleep times.  While a lot of people have a typical sleep pattern of 11pm-7am, plenty of people tend to be early risers or night owls.  The variety of sleep times are linked to something called chronotype.  There are many news articles implying that waking early is virtuous, but there is little discussion of whether we can choose to change our sleep patterns.  My reading of the research shows mixed results amongst those attempting to change their wake time.

There are several genetic variables that affect chronotype.  The Wikipedia entry on the topic notes that “there are 22 genetic variants associated with chronotype.”  The sleep cycle is related to our levels of melatonin and our variations in body temperature.  Our age has a major impact on sleep patterns.  Children and those aged 40-60 are more likely to be early risers, while teens and young adults are more likely to be night owls.

In an HBR article from 2010, biology professor Christoph Randler was interviewed about an article he published on sleep cycles.  He cited one study that found that “…about half of school pupils were able to shift their daily sleep-wake schedules by one hour. But significant change can be a challenge. About 50% of a person’s chronotype is due to genetics.”

Looking into people’s personal experiences in attempting to wake up earlier, they will often emphasize discipline and routine in waking up properly.  Other articles identify wake-up technologies that oblige you get out of bed promptly.  The best overview that I could find comes from lifehacker.org, which has a great info-graphic on why and how to become an early riser.

Dr. Randler notes that evening people tend to be smarter, more creative, have a better sense of humor, and be more outgoing.  By contrast, morning people “hold the important cards” as they get better grades and the opportunities that arise from them.  Morning people anticipate problems and minimize them, and are more proactive.  “A number of studies have linked this trait, proactivity, with better job performance, greater career success, and higher wages.”

Team Productivity and Genetic Diversity

What is notable is that early risers have the traits that are most beneficial for their personal effectiveness and their personal career success.  This is troublesome.  You see, if early risers are more likely to get into positions of power and status they are also more likely to end up with a captive audience through which they can imply that others should be more like them.  This may be a factor in the early-rising hype.

I would assert that an employer must always look beyond individual performance and pay close attention to teamwork.  It is common for some behaviours to cause one person get ahead to the detriment of the team, and part of good management is to nip this in the bud and put the team first.  If there is a solid talent pool of night owls who bring smarts and creativity which is historically less recognized in grades or career advancement, their contribution might be strong and also under-appreciated.  We must consider what is best for the entire workplace, and cultivate the best contributions from all sleep types.

If the purpose of our diversity and employment-equity efforts is to get the best out of all people regardless of how they were born, perhaps we should be open-minded about sleep patterns.  The correct moral standard should be inclusiveness and team effectiveness.

Dr. Randler, who is from Germany, is quick to acknowledge that our bias towards early-rising is more circumstantial than fact-based:

“Positive attitudes toward morningness are deeply ingrained. In Germany, for example, Prussian and Calvinist beliefs about the value of rising early are still pervasive. Throughout the world, people who sleep late are too often assumed to be lazy. The result is that the vast majority of school and work schedules are tailored to morning types. Few people are even aware that morningness and eveningness have a powerful biological component.”

We can’t choose to be a morning type any more than we can choose to be tall, male, white, a baby boomer, or someone with executive-face.  And for that matter, we can’t choose to be Prussian.  Under what circumstances would we oblige everyone to fit a single standard of excellence that elevates one genetic type to be superior to the rest?  Didn’t we sort this out already?

Today’s Awkward is Tomorrow’s Cool

Prom 1983. By Andrew Kitzmiller
Prom 1983. Photo courtesy of Andrew Kitzmiller.

Basically, 2017 was the year in which all of the adults became anxious and depressed teenagers at a high-school dance, after we just got 51% on a big exam, and our crush sent mixed signals just before they moved away.  The moment of clarity from 2017 was that adults are just as susceptible to adolescent anxiety as the teenagers are.

And workforce analytics is right in there, disrupting the pecking order.

Analytics is a major threat to those who presume their authority and excellence should be based on wins from years gone by.  Therefore, all office politics are up for grabs.  Every job in every sector is under intense change, and at the very least we’ll each have to pick up some new tools and apply them to our current job just to break even.  But it’s far more likely that your job is the subject of a double-or-nothing bet.

Can people change?  Yes, but they have to work at it.  This is an interesting article about malleable personalities.  The idea of a malleable personality is that we can change who we are based on the circumstances, or in a chosen direction of who we want to be.  This idea is newer than most people think.

There has been a shift in psychiatry away from the decades-long theory that our brains are fixed after a certain age.  Instead, our brains are subject to neuroplasticity, in which we are always growing and adapting.  I was first exposed to the concept a decade ago by Dr. Norman Doidge in his 2007 book The Brain That Changes Itself.

Doidge was one of the earliest researchers in the psychiatry of neuroplasticity.  He had a really hard time convincing fixed-mindset people in his own field that people can change.  Major shifts in scientific thinking can take decades within the academic discipline.  Then the researchers need to convince the general public, which takes longer.

So, let’s see how quickly we can pick up a new concept and apply it to our lives, starting now.

The newer research about malleable personalities was about helping teenagers cope with anxiety and depression.  The researchers created a 30-minute video for teens to watch, explaining some new concepts:

“They heard from older youths saying they believe people can change, and from others saying how they’d used belief in our capacity for change (a “growth mindset”) to cope with problems like embarrassment or rejection. The teenagers learned strategies for applying these principles…” (Emphasis added)

The study showed noticeable improvements, relative to a control group, in depression and – lesser so – with anxiety over a nine-month period.  The study looked at both the self-reporting by the teens and the opinions of those teens’ parents.  The researchers were particularly enthusiastic that this brief video is scale-able, can be offered to all teens universally, and can set up kids for a more successful intervention later in their lives.

Adopting a Growth Mindset in a Changing Workplace and Changing World

Although the study is limited to teens in a clinical sample, the findings may be relevant to the general population’s adaptability to change.  Workplaces are in upheaval because of technology and globalization.  Every region is gripped by either unemployment or unaffordable housing.  Inequality and social media are making people increasingly anxious they haven’t made it.  Democracies are vulnerable to demagogues who offer temptations to turn back the clock.

In the workplace, what should we do?

Adopt a growth mindset, change our personalities as we see fit, and give ourselves permission to become two or more different types of people.  Scheme to have a backup plan or a side-hustle.  Put down the smartphone and start reading.  Regard societal upheaval as a topic of exceptional cocktail banter.

Then talk about your feelings, eat a sandwich, and have a nap.

You’ll need the rest.  Because tomorrow is another person.

Handle Office Politics Like Fitted Sheets

Women honoured at Herat hospital
Women honored at Herat Hospital, Afghanistan, IWD 2011.  ResoluteSupport Media.

Office politics and fitted sheets are basically the same thing.

Before you truly understand fitted sheets, they entangle you, waste your time, and you can’t fold and put them away properly.  Sure, there are people who have a proper folding method, but who has the time to learn this kind of skill?  Yet if your fitted sheets are a bundled mass at the back of the closet, you’ll never feel like you’re great at everything.  But if you ask those who have mastered fitted sheets, you will notice that they have no stress about this topic.  It’s all very simple and easy, just something that needs extra attention.

Office politics is the same thing.  It entangles your day-job with something you think shouldn’t be such a big deal.  There are “proper” ways of dealing with office politics, but are there a gazillion methods and it’s bewildering.

Are office politics even a real skill?  Or is it just some nuisance that sits at the back of your career history, making your best efforts seem unfinished.  The funny thing about office politics is that it’s always messy when you don’t do anything about it.  But there are people who just apply the correct efforts using a couple of simple rules, and they seem strangely calm.  How do they do that?

Here are your instructions for handling fitted sheets.

You need two sets of bedding so don’t have to wait all day for everything to dry.  Wash all bedding in one load, but place the single fitted sheet in the drier on its own.  It will dry quickly.  The rest of the bedding goes into the drier as another load, and will dry faster unentangled.

When folding a fitted sheet, just fold it in half like a towel, bringing two fitted ends together.  Match the corner of elastic bands together, and the sticky-out parts are nested inside one another.  Do this with all four corners in pairs.  Then fold it in half so you have three corners and a semi-circle hanging on the bottom.  Fold it again until most of it looks like a proper rectangle and the semi-circle is not visible.  It will look pretty good but not perfect.  Store it with the rest of the folded bedding, and leave it there until you need it.

Then stop complaining about fitted sheets.

Here are your instructions for handling office politics.  Perceive more than one set of overlords; the one you report to currently, plus their boss, plus the person you’re probably going to work for in three years.  Do all of your normal work as one effort, applying intelligence and exertion plus your own special thing.

Like putting a fitted single sheet in the drier, treat each office-politics-item as a single-purpose puzzle, and apply your best judgment with partial disregard for other concerns.  Who is going to backfill the senior vacancy?  We’ll have to rely on the selection process.  Why do those two people dislike each other?  If one of them trusts you, ask politely about their history.  Was that story I heard personal, and should I not pass it on?  When in doubt say nothing.  These items are confusing when bundled together and entangled with your normal efforts.  So keep it simple.

Now, bring it all together into a clear understanding of what the general dynamic is.  Store all of the agendas together in one place in your mind, simple and organized.

Leave it there until you need it.

And don’t complain about office politics.