Data Democracy, For Better or Worse

Vote Here. By Andrew DuPont
Vote Here. Photo courtesy of Andrew DuPont

Do you wish that there was more equality in our access to information?  I do.  In the past (i.e. a few decades ago) it used to be far more common for information to be more tightly-held by those with power.  However, major employers are pushing data downward into the hands of more people within their organization.

Here is an interesting article about data democratization, a buzzword that warrants some clarity.  Author Bernard Marr, in his July 2017 article in Forbes, describes data democratization through general themes.  An organization’s internal data is no longer “owned” by the Information Technology department, rather the data is put into the hands of diverse users.  Everyone has access to the data and there are no gatekeepers creating an access bottleneck.  People from varied ranks and diverse professional backgrounds can use the data to advance their goals.  There are down-sides, including redundant efforts by distributed users, concerns about data security, the fact that some data still exists in silos, and misunderstandings by those who don’t deal with the data every day.

It’s important to take this phenomenon seriously as a trend that is building steam, and which is probably here to stay.

In my opinion, the word “democracy” is problematic.  For example only those with digital literacy who are inside the organization can take full advantage.  Those with more power can use the new information more significantly to their advantage.  There also tends to be a winner-takes-all outcome, where the person with the best information and the most sophisticated ability to use it tends to come out ahead.

While you might think that these phenomena imply data is undemocratic, guess again.  Electoral democracy, although pure in spirit, tends only to involve between one-half and three-quarters of voters who cast a ballot.  Those who are powerful (i.e. business owners and property owners) have a strange ability to get more out of elected governments than others.  And those who are the best at politics will tend to win all of the power, leaving others in the dust.  Much like parliamentary democracy, data democracy works best for those who have the upper hand.  In both cases, the system is a pseudo-democracy of established interests choosing amongst themselves who they will share power with.  I think that’s called aristocracy.

Sorry Sir, I’m Just Not Feeling Motivated

Scream. Courtesy of Crosa.
Scream. Photo courtesy of Crosa.

What is the trade-off between a compassionate workplace culture and strong corporate performance?  Surprise, there isn’t one!  Corporate performance is subordinate to organizational culture and the emotional intelligence of senior leaders.

This article by Travis Bradberry of Emotional Intelligence 2.0 fame describes an interesting conundrum.  A large number of top corporate leaders have poor emotional intelligence.  The highest emotional intelligence is found amongst front-line managers and then each management level upward the leaders display increasingly diminished emotional intelligence.

Bradberry attributes this phenomenon to two factors.  First, corporate boards are selecting for leaders who deliver the numbers, such as profits, sales volumes, and stock price appreciation.  Second, the work environment of senior leaders impairs emotional intelligence and inhibits its growth.  Severe stress, lack of rest, regulatory enforcement, and a low-trust and blame-heavy environment can drag anyone into an emotional stone age (and keep them there).

What is fascinating is that corporate leaders with high emotional intelligence, although fewer in number, still perform better than others.  It may be that organizations will select the occasional gem of a leader, but otherwise we are mostly recruiting and promoting lower-functioning leaders into senior roles.  So how do mean bosses even get the job in the first place?

It is reminiscent of Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book Power: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.  Pfeffer provides endless examples of how an executive’s career prospects are often inversely proportional to their performance.  In brief, being a cold and calculating savage will motivate people to not mess with you.  It is possible to rig your career towards a poisoned and under-performing work environment where you still reign supreme.  When corporate leaders spend all day making power plays, there appears to be no beneficiary of this behavior other than the leader.  Look directly at these kinds of leaders.  How are they doing?  They seem to be doing well.  It’s just everyone around them who is falling apart.  It’s all of those people who just can’t play the game and can’t keep up; they aren’t able to deliver corporate performance.  Of course, the punchline is that downstream inability to perform is a hallmark of inferior top leadership.

There is another consideration; do major corporations have sufficient protections against leaders who have personality disorders?  The best-known personality disorder is psychopathy, which is well-documented in Robert Hare’s Without Conscience.  The other disorders are important, but psychopaths are special.  When you get to know the type, it sounds like the personality of someone who perfectly reflects the values of an emotionless profit-maximizing corporation.

Indeed this was well documented in The Corporation, a movie by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott, and Joel Bakan.  Their critique is that the behavior of major corporations (as institutions) ticks all of the boxes on the checklist of psychopath behaviors for people.  If we promote leaders who reflect corporate values, and the corporate values are that we should act like psychopaths, then who is going to end up in charge?

There is a lack of insight amongst psychopaths, corporations, and many corporate leaders, and this lack of insight is at the root of poor emotional intelligence.  Let’s face it, if you got cut off in traffic by some jerk on your way to the office, and then a colleague cuts in front of you at the coffee station, it’s easy to get snippy.  Do you keep control? Are you even aware that you’re just carrying-forward a residual emotion from an hour earlier?  I mean, if it’s possible to carry-forward quarterly accounting indicators, surely it’s possible to carry forward emotions.

How can corporations be unaware of the need for a compassionate working environment?  I think it’s because hierarchy diminishes the two-directional information flow up and down the chain of command.  If the board wants numbers, executives commit to deliver, and the rest of the hierarchy snaps into line, this reveals an opinion that the best opinions come from the top.  However, this might not be how the world really works.  It is an organization’s history, geography, and people that determine the culture.  And it is the culture that determines the customer experience, the spirit of innovation, a healthy attitude towards rules, compassion during crisis, and discretionary effort amongst staff.

One does not simply demand good numbers.  Rather, we harvest good numbers from a well-cultivated culture.

Breathing Life Into Your Work Team

I love bubbles. So much. by Sam Wolff.
I love bubbles. So much. Photo courtesy of Sam Wolff.

In 2011 Google released the results of Project Oxygen.  Project Oxygen was Google’s effort to identify what makes a good manager.  They put analysts onto large volumes of data from 10,000 sources to find what is at the center of the puzzle.  Their results are:

  1. Be a good coach
  2. Empower your team and don’t micromanage
  3. Show interest in employees’ successes and well-being
  4. Be productive and results-oriented
  5. Be a good communicator and listen to your team
  6. Help your employees with career development
  7. Have a clear vision and strategy for the team
  8. Have key technical skills, to help advise the team

In the New York Times article summarizing these findings, a few things jumped out to me.  Five of these items (numbers 1-3 plus 5-6) imply a compassionate, nurturing, and transformational leadership style.  It is a rebuke to the notion that managers need to assert control, maintain discipline, and establish themselves in the hierarchy.  However, managers are also not allowed to be weak or wishy-washy in terms of results and clear vision.  While new managers step away from alpha-dog dominance to lead people in a “different” way, the alternate style cannot be deliberately passive.  You still need to actively cultivate, intervene, and get the information out.

It’s some stellar research.  For most of my work, I manipulate numbers.  By contrast, this is an interpretation of large volumes of text and I know this is hard, specialized work.  The findings are also contrary to many vested interests.  When the client and the analysts themselves are great at technical analysis, and they declare that technical skills are not the most important thing… you know they’re not feathering their own nest.

However, I would like to highlight a couple of vulnerabilities about these findings, just to keep everyone on their toes.  First, these findings are specific to the time and context, and findings can shift from one dataset to the next.  It’s likely the list looks a little different if you don’t work at Google, and it may even change within Google over the years.  Remember, this is not a representative sample of all organizations throughout time.  It is good practice to give research findings the benefit of the doubt within context, and be skeptical or critical outside of that context.

For example, what if everyone at Google is really good at certain things and therefore those attributes don’t have a correlation with anything else?  Examples might include having a university degree, getting access to information, receiving a decent salary, and vitamin D.  You need a data sample where some people are bad at certain things to build out the lower-left corner of a scattergram.  Otherwise a perfectly plausible driver of success will drop from statistical significance.

In the discussion about this project’s findings, people tend to go on about how technical skills are “dead last.”  Not so fast.  Wasn’t this a list of dozens of attributes, and they dropped all the attributes below number eight?  As presented by the analysts, technical skills still make the list.  Also, consider how you can blend technical skills with career development, empowering your team, and being productive.

I think it’s still the case that sleep, diet, exercise, and a good mood are the major drivers of focus, emotional intelligence, and energy.  As individuals we need to take care of those home-front items in order to break into the next level of performance.  However, if you botch the home front, you might not even get the job in the first place, never mind being good at it.

This brings us to the fact that they chose a fitting name for this project.  What is the one thing you need above else to determine your success at work?  Oxygen, of course.  Lots and lots of oxygen.  Good luck motivating staff without it!

Service With a Smile

GS Cashier. By Derek A.
GS Cashier. Photo courtesy of Derek A.

What’s with all this bold talk from millennials?  Don’t they know to keep hush about their outlandish opinions?  In a recent article from Lisa Earle McLeod the author submits an open letter (closer to a manifesto) that explains why millennials have the opinions they have.

She has two key points.  First, employers are tolerating poor performers, and those poor performers drag everyone else down, including highly-motivated millennials.  It’s not so much that millennials are unreasonably ambitious and over-eager, it is that their enthusiasm is the correct attitude and lower-functioning colleagues should not be setting the pace.  Fair ball.

Secondly, we must give our work purpose.  Organizations that have “a purpose bigger than money” have better business results.  This purpose-driven organization is reminiscent of Simon Sinek’s Power of Why although McLeod’s critique is closer to a sense of Noble Purpose amongst the sales team, a major concern of hers.

This focus on enthusiastic front-line staff is consistent with other critiques.  Josh Bersin notes that many organizations are flipping their hierarchy to place priority on engaged employees first, who then attract and retain customers who, in turn, keep the profits alive.  If it works, go for it.

Missteps Make for Better Analysis

Oops. By Malcolm Slaney
Oops.  Courtesy of Malcolm Slaney.

A major voice in people analytics just advocated for the professionalization of my field.  An April 27, 2017 blog post by Max Blumberg and Mark Lawrence suggests that workforce analytics regulate itself under a professional association.  The authors have a good point.  The explosion of alleged experts in my field is making things really confusing for lay audiences.  We have no idea if someone claiming to have expertise is truly knowledgeable.  There is a gold-rush mentality in workforce analytics, and we can barely distinguish those on the cutting edge from the outright con-artists.  Bad experiences and false starts are causing skepticism.

I agree with this assessment of the current state of affairs.  I decline the vast majority of conferences, webinars, and software on offer.  Being strong at workforce analytics turns on having daily exposure to the data itself.  I have yet to hear a provider offer something more interesting than that thing we just figured out last week, by ourselves, with in-house staff using excel.

However, I have to disagree with the proposal that the field should be regulated.  You see, the main opportunity is to democratize the skill set and bolster the overall number of people who read the data and create simple calculations.  If you can get one-tenth of a human resources team to tool-up with a small amount of learning and experimentation with the data, that’s a huge boost in organizational capacity.  There is one specialist for every five or 10 people in the earliest steps of the learning curve.  Tinkerers and new entrants are half of the equation, and sometimes they are the most important half.

There is another problem.  We don’t yet know what excellence in workforce analytics looks like.  Sure, getting the attention of the c-suite, saving money, having clean data, and making your findings presentable are really obvious signs that you know this stuff.  But mysteries abound.  The information is disruptive to those with power, so how shall we deal with the office politics?  The data improves every day, so how do we maintain composure while discussing last-year’s erroneous data.  We’re supposed to align to strategy, but strategy and leadership change is constant.  And how are we to negotiate the boundaries between the professions when accounting has their own cost model, and marketing researchers are experts in employee surveys?

The mystery, confusion, emotional drama, flashes of growth and pride all bring the field to life.  Workforce analytics is a mosh pit.  Our outputs are a meal thrown together from what is leftover in the fridge.  Our first attempt at everything looks like a Pinterest fail.

Let’s keep it messy.  We’re more honest that way.  Besides, we work harder when we’re having fun.

All Tied Up at the Recruiting Rodeo

Los Alamos Rodeo, by Larry Lamsa.jpg
Los Alamos Rodeo.  Courtesy of Larry Lamsa.

Is your workplace having a hard time chasing down suitable talent?  It’s a hard game to play, chasing after that one strong candidate who is ready to stay in place. Employers have had challenges with hard-to-fill positions for some time.  Businesses in North America struggled to fill (and retain staff in) “hot skills” areas since the late nineties.

If someone has the hot skill they disrupt business because they can simply choose to work as a contractor, charging more.  When money is not the issue, skilled workers just decide for themselves the location and conditions of their work.  I once worked in an office that abandoned standard business attire because the Information Technology staff refused to wear ties.

There are skills shortages in parts of India, according to this recent article. In India’s law enforcement sector, there is the perception that government officials are not placing a high priority on filling job vacancies.  This implies a large-scale manager error.  The defence sector notes that people are leaving their sector to work in other parts of the economy where they are treated better. In healthcare, professionals are declining to work in rural areas where there is relatively little infrastructure.  In the education sector, professors are declining to work outside of major cities, so rural and small town job postings stay vacant.

What is noteworthy is that the situation in India persists in a land of 1.2 billion people.  When hiring managers seek out talent to fill vacancies they will often encounter a feast or famine of job applicants.  It’s a double bind.  In a society that struggles with the personal and political turmoil of unemployment and economic hardship, employers must also struggle to find a single qualified applicant.

In this rodeo, employers might think they are the cowboy.  But sometimes they are the calf.