Where’s Waldo in the Job Applicant Pool?

Where's Waldo. By David Trawin
Where’s Waldo. Photo courtesy of David Trawin.

How do you find that one special thing in the middle of all this big data?  It depends on what you’re looking for.  Machines can help you find things, but first you have to teach the machine to understand what you want.  With recruiting data, a few simple formulas evolve into something far more complex.

This article from CIO.com, by Sharon Florentine summarizes how Artificial Intelligence is revolutionizing recruiting and hiring.  Long story short, if you have really good data about who your high-performers are and what the process was like to recruit them, you can reverse-engineer the recruiting to predict which applicants will perform well after hire.

I hate to imply that it’s so-last-month, but the basic concept is straightforward.  Collect large amounts of data, fine-tune its quality, run a statistical analysis to determine causation, and make a forecast.  That’s what it looks like in a lab environment.  But the good stuff is in the war stories of how this kind of experimental analysis plays out.  The article names a few hot-points worthy of more discussion.

Where’s Waldo: Finding the Best-Fit Candidate in the Middle of Big Data

Citing Glen Cathey of Randstad, the new job search is similar to the “Where’s Waldo?” book series.  “…it’s not difficult to search anymore, what’s of greater importance now is a data problem.”  That is, you have good applicants, but you have to identify that one great fit.  Cathey describes three types of search that make this viable.

  • Semantic Search, which seeks to understand a searcher’s intent and the context in which the search is being made. (Remember, good fit is circumstantial and conceptual)
  • Conceptual Search, which creates a basic concept from just a few key words.
  • Implicit Search, which pushes information to you making assumptions about what you’re trying to accomplish “…much like how Google automatically pushes restaurant recommendations in your local area…” I have to admit, I’m always impressed when Google knows that I only want local

Dark Matter: The Missing Job Applicant You Don’t Know You’re Missing

In spite of his faults, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did pioneer an important concept called “unknown unknowns.”  That is, there are unknowns that you are somewhat aware are a risk factor, but there are deeper unknowns where you just have no idea information was lacking in the first place.

As it relates to recruiting, Cathey notes that “…you’re excluding people with those [machine-driven] searches.  Doing it this way means you’re actually looking only for the best of the easiest candidates to find.”  So, they use Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to find overlooked candidates.  A strong candidate might have done a mediocre job customizing their resume to your posting, but still have exceptional virtue.  They might use the wrong key words.   They might have special skills that your organization needs but it’s not on the job posting.  And your recruiting expectations might be biased towards a certain type of white male, or white males generally.  The modified formulas can open-up the under-used areas of the candidate pool.

So, while it’s great if the machine gets you to a great candidate quickly, you can also get the machine to do the tedious exercise of finding the diamonds-in-the-rough.

While it’s true that some of this work can be done with basic statistical tools and a good data set, that’s actually an ambitious starting-point to get to in the first case.  The advanced class is that you must create new data from scratch, revise the model on an iterative basis, and eventually run the model off live data such that the predictions change as the ground underneath the data shifts.

But that’s only if your attempt to do this kind of thing matches the business context.  The big challenge is when the work is incompatible with organizational strategy, or the initiative needs a compelling business case to shift resources, or you need to win-over new people who are in the middle of a leadership change.  At that point you will get sucked back into the complex world of humanity and empathy.  So much for robots making our lives easier!

Loving Math, Caring About Peers

Nerd. by David Nichols
Nerd. Photo courtesy of David Nichols

Some time has passed, so let’s calmly reflect on the anti-diversity manifesto that got a software engineer fired from Google in August of 2017.  James Damore, the author, has to be the unluckiest person on earth.  Not only did he lack the genetics and environmental upbringing to be compassionate about the emotions of others (he might be on the autism spectrum), but he also wrongly attributed his career difficulties to the ascent of workplace diversity initiatives.

He delivered his critique via the alt-right media one week prior to the deadly neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville.  That incident provoked corporate executives, top-ranking generals, and mainstream Republicans to denounce the rally and distance themselves from Donald Trump’s muddled sympathies in the aftermath.  Damore and his fans have left no opening for a nuanced discussion about the effects of diversity initiatives on those with developmental disorders, a potentially meaningful topic of debate.

In this article in the New York Times, author Claire Cain Miller proffers a critique of the role of emotional intelligence in the modern world of information technology.  It turns out that technology has a massive overlap with social and emotional context.

Emotional Intelligence in Workforce Analytics and Computer Programming

For deep evidence, the article cites 2015 research from David Demming that finds job growth and wage growth are highest among roles that use both math skill and social skills.  The idea is that workers “trade tasks” with one another, to allow specialization of talents and improved efficiency when work duties are shuttled back and forth.  Those who trade tasks more effectively through the use of social skills are more productive; hence more jobs and higher pay.

This double-barreled skill set is abundantly obvious to those in workforce analytics.  We spend half our day figuring out cool formulas and novel discoveries.  But the other half of our day is spent interpreting client need, negotiating resource priorities, wordsmithing data definitions, developing interpretations that are suitable to context, and showing compassion while we advance disruption.  However, my field is new.

When computer programming was new it was originally considered highly social work.  There was an abundance of women working in the field.  Through some office-culture twists and turns, things changed.  Boys and men who weren’t as clever at the social skills self-selected into programming.  It worked out for a lot of people.  But there’s a problem; at some point in someone’s career their next chance for a promotion is contingent on social skills.  Those who are lacking in this area see their careers stalled.

Examples abound of coding projects with male-dominated teams who lacked context, who missed an important detail about women’s perspectives.  Apple’s original health app tracked everything except menstrual cycles, the most-tracked health data point amongst women.  Google Plus obliged users to specify their gender and provide a photo, exposing women to harassment.

The Times article also cites research from 2010 by Stanford sociologist Shelley Correll showing that gender stereotypes about skills and performance are a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.  It’s not true that women are naturally bad at math, but it is abundantly true that women who are told they are bad at math will under-perform and rate themselves more harshly.  The struggle about this stereotype has played out in dramatic ways over the years.

How to Improve Workplace Culture to Ensure Equality for Women

In terms of what to do about this, Correll advises that we:  1) ensure there are no negative gendered beliefs operating in the organization, 2) ensure performance standards are unambiguous and communicated clearly so that sexism does not fill the vacuum, and 3) hold senior management accountable for gender disparities in hiring, retention, and promotion.  That third item is metrics-based accountability, which means that business performance, diversity, and workforce analytics are fundamentally entwined.

The times article notes that “one way to develop empathy at companies is by hiring diverse teams, because people bring different perspectives and life experiences.”  While we might perceive that equity and inclusion efforts come from an activist base, there is a corporate interest in fostering inclusion.  High-performance workplaces need an environment where tasks and diverse views are shuttled back and forth, with ease and good manners.

As for white white males who desperately struggle with emotional intelligence, their voice will have to wait another day.  And probably wait for another leader.

How to Become Strong By Understanding Disadvantage

2012 Marine Corps Trials Day 2.  Photo courtesy of DVIDSHUB.

We hear lots about excellence these days.  So what are the opportunities for persons with disabilities and disadvantages to drive excellence?  It may be that those who are in the throes of disadvantage might not have a fair shot at success.  But there are opportunities for everyone to aspire to excellence, through the cultivation of empathy for those who are disadvantaged.

This is a touching article about a doctor who was concerned about his own mother during her  disabling illness.  The illness was Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder that affects movement.  In the Times article, Dr. Sandeep Jauhar is rigged with a device that allows him to personally experience the sensation of his muscles turning to jelly, like those who have Parkinson’s, like his mother.

Why would he do such a thing?  Because he always wanted to understand his mother’s perspective during the illness.  Devices are also available that replicating the effects of emphysema, psychiatric illness, and nerve disease related to diabetes.

While I haven’t experienced it yet, I have also heard rave reviews about a similar effort called Dark Table.  Dark Table is a restaurant in Vancouver where food is served and eaten in a room which is completely dark.  The servers are blind or visually impaired, and the guests commit to keeping their gadgets off and eating their meals in the dark.  The dark dining experience increases the awareness of other senses such as hearing, touch, and taste.  It creates jobs for persons with disabilities.  And it also helps people empathize with the perspective of the visually impaired.

Emotional Intelligence in Workplace Conflict

On the human resources side of the fence, it’s possible to develop greater empathy for those we are in conflict with.  The nurturing of empathy is important for industrial relations, the professional development of managers, performance conversations, and the general growth of all staff.  How do you teach workplace empathy?  I have been involved in complex roleplay scenarios called Conflict Theatre.  The theatre scenes are designed so that each scenario is integrated into well-developed back stories and emotional perspectives of the actors.

The theatre is presented so as to invite audience members to step into the shoes of an individual actor and attempt to change the course of the conflict.  It’s one thing to sit back and observe from and armchair, and develop an opinion about how things should be done.  But the real expertise is to understand the full emotional context of each player in a conflict, an understanding which is far more vivid when experienced directly.

Empathizing with diverse perspectives turns out to be a key attribute of those who face conflict with dignity and grace.  It takes you beyond the negotiations that resembles bartering for trinkets, and even beyond the interest-based bargaining of those vying for a win-win solution.  You have to learn how to understand people as individuals based on their perspective and story, not their category or “type.”  This includes understanding their perspective when they struggle with ability, whether it’s professional ability or impairments.

Using Emotional Intelligence to Improve Workplace Culture

The thing I find fascinating about these initiatives is their scientific and cultural back-story.  The Parkinson’s device was built in response to well-documented complaints that patients perceive their nurses and doctors lack empathy for their hardships.  Blind dining is traced back to Switzerland by a man named Jorge Spielmann, whose concept was imitated in restaurants in London, Paris, and New York.  Conflict Theatre in Vancouver comes out David Diamond’s Theatre for Living, which itself comes out of Theatre for the Oppressed, created by Augusto Boal in Brazil in the 1970’s.  Theatre for the Oppressed, as you might guess from the name, arises from social critiques and movements to overcome repression, with an intellectual legacy dating well back into the 50’s.

To affect society on the larger scale we need to reach into the emerging science, the social experiments in many countries, and the lessons learned many decades into the past.  The knowledge and confidence of those with power and privilege can pale in comparison to the universe of individual experiences.  In order to take full advantage of the best information when advancing ourselves in this world, we need humility about how right we truly are, curiosity for knowledge that is new, and sensitivity to the lessons from other cultures and other moments in time.  Only then can each of us aspire to excellence.

It’s About Policing Numbers, Not Number of Police

The Police, by Luca Venturi
The Police.  Courtesy of Luca Venturi.

Can big data reduce crime?  Yes it can.  This is a great TED Talk by Anne Milgram about using analytics to improve the criminal justice system.  The talk from October 2013 describes how Milgram successfully attempted to “moneyball” policing and the work of judges in her role as attorney general of New Jersey.  Hers is a great story, and has many features in common with the Moneyball book and movie.

The speaker describes how she built a team, created raw data, analyzed it, and produced simple and meaningful tools.  Her most impressive outcome is a risk assessment tool that helps judges identify the likelihood a defendant will re-offend, not show up in court, or commit a violent act.  She and her team have successfully reduced crime.

Baseball players and police officers alike have a culture of bravado and confidence which may be critical when handling conflict, intimidation, and credibility.  Yet what police officers and baseball players often need is a safe space to question their assumptions, assess whether they could do better, and decide that they will do better.  These types of vulnerable moments don’t play out well when a player is at bat, or when an officer is handling complaints from the perpetrators.

In Milgram’s talk, where others see cool math tricks, I see a change in mindset and demeanor.  The speaker expresses curiosity about the information, enthusiasm for unexpected findings, modesty about baseline effectiveness, a lack of blame, and a can-do attitude about trying to do more and do better.

It’s a great metaphor for business.  In those workplaces where managers fiercely claw their way to the top, there may be a reduced willingness to talk about shortcomings in a manner that requires trust and collaboration.  Yet making exceptional decisions require that leaders choose an entirely different mood and posture while they explore an uncharted area, allow information to out-rank instinct, and aspire to a more subtle kind of greatness.  Put posture aside, and just do good work.  The way things are changing, those are the only kinds of people who will stay on top.

You Can “Say” Team, But Do You Feel It?

Soccer Practice. Courtesy of woodleywonderworks.
Soccer Practice. Photo courtesy of woodleywonderworks.

Does life get in the way of your workplace productivity?  Typically, it’s the opposite.  Your personal life determines how you show up.  When colleagues talk about life, and make their work meaningful to their lives, that’s when they become a team.

This is a great story from a colleague of mine from graduate school.  Alyssa Burkus describes the time she was working on a project for an organization (Actionable.co), and started seriously to consider an offer to work for them full-time.  During a team check-in about people’s weekend she announced to team members that she had achieved a milestone anniversary in surviving cancer.  There was an outpouring of sympathy and support.  She felt it.  She had found her tribe.

If you listen closely in your own workplace, you might hear other moments like these.  Some moments are better than others.  When people “have a specialist appointment” how much time do we give them?  When people have a death in the family, do they tell us, and do we have their back?  When two people talk about their kids having learning disabilities, how long are they allowed to talk?  At my current employer I had to delay my start date because there was a minor complication with a scheduled surgery.

The reason these scenarios are powerful is that many personal topics are simply more important than work.  As an employer you don’t so much own people, you just borrow some of their time.  When employees develop a sense of self-respect and a pride in their contributions, they willingly rise above what is expected from them in the job description.  I love going above and beyond for people whom I respect, and who have respect for me.  This feeling is stronger when employees forget about their salary, which is the dream of every well-informed compensation team.

The ability to have these conversations is part of a healthy workplace culture.  It turns up in employee surveys as a determinant of workplace engagement.  It drives turnover statistics and the amount of steam people put into discretionary effort.  Missteps in these areas are often at the root of conflict, harassment, and grievances.  When an employee expresses physical or emotional discomfort, the degree to which others care and take action is a major factor in accident claims, absenteeism, and long-term disability costs.  With equity and inclusion the emerging practice is to bypass categories and go deeper into individual perspectives.  With employee communications, people mostly read the personal stories.  And the best source of information for leadership development in the eyes of the employees who are following your lead.

I do a lot of math about workforce analytics and I can confirm for you that according to my calculator, emotions are the boss.

I think the reason vulnerability and compassion are so powerful is that it’s really hard to fake it.  You can tell when people mean it, and you can tell when people don’t.  As Alyssa puts it, “…this isn’t a call-to-action to start creating ‘meaningful moments’ initiatives, where the word from the top is leaders need to be more personal, or where HR tracks ‘connection point KPIs.’” It’s about authenticity.  Perhaps we need to develop metrics to guage that.

Foreign Investment Takes a Shine to the Rust Belt

cement factory. by Miroslave Vajdic.
Cement Factory. Photo courtesy of Miroslav Vajdic.

What if every critique you could make about the modern workforce was briefly disproven?  I happened upon one shining example in a recent article in the New York Times.

It’s opposite land in Moraine, Ohio.  A Chinese glassmaker named Fuyao put a half-billion dollars into an abandoned General Motors plant and created over 1,500 jobs producing windshields for the North American auto sector.  The investment narrowed the physical distance between the investor and clients, which presumably lightened the load on the environment.  The plant has been unionized by the United Auto Workers who would normally think of this as their turf.  Health and safety conditions fall squarely under US law.  There are more visible minorities in executive positions.

Some people have a problem with all of this.  White male executives lost jobs to make space for Chinese managers who were brought in, triggering at least one lawsuit.  The drive to unionize was successful but really difficult.  There is a debate about how hard the employees should work.  The investor is operating just one inch inside the law on health and safety, spurred into action by a hefty fine.  (Who knew that kind of thing worked?)  On Weibo, a popular microblogging site in China, someone called out the owner as a traitor for out-sourcing jobs to the US.

I can barely think of what to say.  It’s just one of those things you hope would happen, until you realize you are suddenly deprived of any legitimate reason to complain or criticize. Maybe we should decide we don’t have to chase reassuring opinions, and get comfortable with contradiction?