Interestingly, it is a measure grown up in the gaming world that may help address one of a core set of human needs on the workplace, in this case the need to play. “Difficulty level” refers to the relative difficulty of completing a task or objective. Difficulty level can also easily be applied to a collective of tasks, functions and responsibilities that make up a job function as often described with a simple list of competencies based on previous experiences at this junction of a company’s organization. To ensure a person and the job match up correctly, seemingly unbiased standards like educational background, on-the-job experience, certification and training are valued, as well as references, recommendations and psychometric assessments. Often experience is expressed in number of years, as if this is a valid expression of the complexity levels encountered, maybe even the accumulative learning curve gone through. In the end, it becomes like comparing one person with another, and if they prove to have some sort of ‘equivalence’ then it is assumed the other person may be suitable in fulfilling this particular job function as well. But if one actually looks at how teams function, either closely knit or as an officialized department, the emergent value network of skill propagation may look a lot different. If one looks at how high-value technical resources in the modern world of ICT are recruited, it is often nothing more than keyword matching. There seems to be very little adherence to a task’s difficulty level, while this measure is especially important within the ongoing automation every industry is engaged with. Simple, structured, repetitive tasks continue to be automated, but it doesn’t stop at that level, automation is being automated as well, and with the gradual maturation of artificial intelligence this trend is not going to stop, especially as continuous technological improvement is a necessary ingredient of this collective self-organized race condition. Just like the internet has changed the global landscape of commerce within its twenty years of existence, parallel with the ongoing workflow automation this has led to a situation where a whole package of task can be performed elsewhere at some other location, and soon, if software machines can do it the location doesn’t matter at all anymore. The more work becomes like an information science, the more intangible it becomes and the easier it can benefit from ‘economies of scope’, such as on-demand elastic scalability. It is very easy to download a music record to your laptop, tablet, PDA, phone or MP3 player, and this reduced dependency on an underlying infrastructure, a carrier or medium like a CD, makes distribution as easy as typing in the right address.
We have a number of medium-long term trends here, which give shape to a general setting of how work is going to evolve. As technological progress continues to happen in the areas of Information Technology, nano-technology, bio-technology and robotics, the front office white-collar worker is going to experience within a short period of time what has happened with the blue-collar worker in the factory hall. Standardization and reuse have pushed technologies towards local maxima of interchangeability such as electrical power sources and wireless communications, and all this cooperates towards workplaces which are both technically and functionally more or less “plug and play”. What does this have to do with “difficulty level”? Well, if distributing music has become so easy you don’t need to go to a physical music store anymore, any work related to the latter is becoming redundant, unless it complies with certain exclusive qualities appreciated by music lovers, or music freaks, but the general music store is no more. Also with automated tasks, if built-in workflow in an ERP system has the approval hierarchy worked out correctly, as well as authentication and authorization, there is no need to send paper copies throughout the company anymore, and the mailroom gradually becomes less important. If the ERP system has automated auditing, archiving and retrieval of such information, storing it on electronic media which have a longer lifetime than normal paper, there is no real need any more for manual archiving and in most cases no knowledge is needed on the Dewey Decimal Classification system for libraries, unless for using a common language between different systems.
Likewise, all kinds of tasks have gradually become automated and easier, such as electronic tickets for air travel, online booking of a hotel, or starting a nightly batchrun for a financial report, while word processing tools allow for endlessly reusing copies of the same document, automated spelling checkers are built into it to help correct spelling errors, in as far as EDI and document processing haven’t replaced these activities yet with fully automated procedures. Not only has this reduced the associated workload for any paper-based company communication, it also has lowered the required skillset. These tasks have a maximum difficulty level, and automation has been able to encompass all this complexity and there is no replacement needed for any exclusive variations. These tasks have simple become part of the ‘digitized background’, and are not arbitrary, self-learning chatbots are already replacing helpdesks and are on the verge of having multi-lingual capabilities added which allow cross-translation between some forty widely-used languages without a significant impact on its performance, which is seemingly natural enough that end-users anthropomorphize the ‘being’ at the other side of the phone line.
If this is not enough, smart search engines can load up with specialized dictionaries and are able to perform legal searches retrieving relevant information with a 90+% accuracy. In this case it becomes socially irresponsible not to make use of such facilities, as the best scores obtained by human searches top off at 60%, and composing a valid case out of the right set of laws represents much of the art and wizardry that a legal representative has to offer, so it is obvious that any client wants this level of performance. The caveat is that legal searches is about 90% of what a law firm does, most lawyer work is simply gathering supporting information with the right level of understanding and there is not some other hidden and neglected task waiting in line to replace this activity. Again, the task has a maximum difficulty level and although of course additional functions will be added, the core task itself does not need much improvement anymore, at least not much more compared to the last 40 years which have added to gradually realizing this automated task, but not to worry, current systems are designed to self-monitor and try optimize their tasks. Automation has started automating itself. Digitization started to kick in around 1995, with noticeable growth in labor productivity. Estimates are that the fully automated economy will surpass the physical economy in size in about two decades. As W Brain Arthur would like to stress “the precise figures can be disputed, but that misses the point. What’s important is that the ‘second economy’ is not a small add-on to the physical economy.”
What does this all mean for the future company, and especially, what does this mean for a company now? Well, for one it means that people are both underutilized and overutilized at the same time. Overall most people have been treated as interchangeable machine parts, and people have been evaluated according to the required functionality of these parts in the context of the aggregated machinery as well as how the parts relate to each other, or in systems engineering terms; the portability and interoperability of someone’s activities are generally expressed in domain-specific cognitive skills, and the behavioral interpersonal skills. But if you’d take the average job description as used in recruiting or human resourcing, and erase the domain-specific adjectives, a fairly nonspecific picture arises, one that could apply to just about anyone if it were not for the difficulty level. That is because many jobs have actually been converging towards a fairly similar skill set, and besides the domain-specifics have become “asymptotic indistinguishable”, in the sense that the “just-noticeable difference” between one skillset and another have become so small in an absolute sense that it often does not matter that someone may be better qualified in a relative sense.
The competitive advantageous rarity of the actual job, as a unique collection of tasks, has saturated and any extra differentiating effort is showing diminishing returns, so this extra effort may be of better use somewhere else. And as more and more tasks become automated the mix of aptitude and attitude has tipped the scales towards the latter, which are generally plotted out with the ‘big five’ personality traits:
1. Openness to experience – inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious.
2. Conscientiousness – efficient/organized vs. easy-going/careless.
3. Extraversion – outgoing/energetic vs. solitary/reserved.
4. Agreeableness – friendly/compassionate vs. cold/unkind.
5. Neuroticism – sensitive/nervous vs. secure/confident.
Of course these characteristics are contextual and depending on the job you’d want people that have contradictory scores for any of these, either within themselves or within the team. For example, ensuring adherence to safety procedures in a nuclear power plant are best not left with a cautious bureaucrat but may be too dreary for someone inventive, so instead of having some symbolical function of security inspector it would be more efficient to spread the task over an entire team, as well as automated procedures. It is not needed anymore for a single person to fulfill such a role, as with increasing computing power also translates in a reduced need for delegation in a company’s organization, as employees can now be involved directly with most decision-making processes tasks. Either way, effectively these characteristics need to be seen in the context of the immediate team and the overall organization in the sense of ‘company culture’, shared values which are best described with two polarities: flexibility and discretion versus stability and control, and internal focus and integration versus external focus and differentiation, which were found to form four important types of culture:
1. Clan Culture – Internal focus and flexible – A friendly workplace where leaders act like father figures.
2. Adhocracy Culture – External focus and flexible – A dynamic workplace with leaders that stimulate innovation.
3. Market Culture – External and controlled – A competitive workplace with leaders like hard drivers
4. Hierarchy Culture – Internal and controlled – A structured and formalized workplace with leaders as coordinators.
So, if the interplay between an organization’s cultural context and someone character are fairly easy to determine in the way they describe potential role that someone can perform, then why is recruiting and human resource management so inadequate in getting the right people for the right job? Are we using the wrong “trust rituals”? Are we using education and degree qualification as a token of someone’s acumen while training often orients on filling the holes in someone’s natural ability? Does that mean many people are actually selected on basis of their defects which they’ve been trying to straighten out? Well, research done by renowned psychologist Csikszentmihalyi on optimal performance (flow) showed that in order to be a productive creative only a single common attribute was uncovered; a minimal intelligence quotient of 120, which places the person in the upper 10% of the Bell curve. Of course, for every individual case there were sensible causal correlations which could explain why someone became a prolific high-performer, and circumstantial factors can bump up a score tens of points, but none served as a common attribute. In fact, much of the recent research in so-called ‘positive psychology’ indicate recruitment and resourcing not only use a large set of unsuitable tools to measure ability, both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’, but we are also making the wrong assumptions on personal motivation and a person’s attitudinal make-up by assuming a static model for the personal traits while not only are these dynamic to some degree, polar opposites occur in the same person and are very much intertwined with the context and group dynamics. If we try to find a minimum set of characteristics that define the utilitarian merit of a human activity, we’d get to a three-way relationship of play, personal recognition and general purpose. Each of these characteristics can be positive or negative, and diminishing or increasing, and we can see that even recruitment is a sort of play, a mixture of role play and sometimes iterated prisoner’s dilemma, where often the formality of the selection process leads to a de-individuation and dehumanization of the (un-)willing participant, which in turn has been reason for many recruiters and hiring managers to skill themselves in mild forms of hypnosis such as neuro-linguistic programming, another working pseudo-science which has gained a level of importance far beyond its range of effectiveness but at least tries to address the lowest level of play, attunement.
But wasn’t Human Resource Management something that one was supposed to do? Well, this snippet of common sense originates in the 1930’s, with the Hawthorne Studies, an nine-year long study concerning the productivity of factory workers in relation to e.g. the amount of light bulbs, distance to the toilet, number of breaks, etcetera, which had uncovered that the workers actually reacted on the attention given by the researchers and not so much on these circumstantial changes. Surprisingly for these early psychologists it turned out that working class people were humans too, something which appears to have not been all so obvious at the time. Along with the newly established compulsory education laws which were, due to the large German population, based on the first modern educational system from Prussia which in turn was introduced so as to produce more obedient soldiers and serfs, this was quite a breakthrough. Methodologies aimed to deal with “workforce management solutions” find their origin in practices that deal with tasks that are on the edge of mental retardation. The “difficulty level” of housekeeping or being part of a cleaning crew, expressed as an IQ, is about 50, which is about as smart as a parrot, chimpanzee or dolphin. It is no wonder that informal selection and ‘old boys’ favoritism produce better results than the formal ‘meritocratic’ procedures. Why staffing firms have taken off to become such a dominating phenomenon in addressing our labor requirements may be because their service is not so much about added value, but about minimizing the costs of failure. There is a ‘one size fits all’ market of undifferentiated commoditized skills, and the niche of high-end executive search firms, and in between we are just fooling ourselves into making use of facilities which have an efficiency worse than random chance but the industry as a whole has surpassed any individual measure while many depend on its mediation for their livelihood. The fact that things work out is mostly despite of the methods used, as the article that is being exchanged is people, people adapt, and can and will amaze you if you give them the chance.
That is also something not so apparent with recruiting, you would assume you want to work with the best, but in many cases a maximum IQ score is applied, under the argument that those with overly-high IQs will become bored easily and exhibit high turnover in the job. Another prevailing idea is that high-performers aren’t good as team players, and once having fulfilled a leadership position they are treated with the latest anti-heroism, which has nothing to do with antiheroic character flaws, but avoiding that project success gravitates around a single individual. This is seen as a risk during the project execution phase, occurring at the chaotic level 1 of the Capability Maturity Model, but it such unevenness is actually very normal within team dynamics and such 80-20 power law distribution should be made to good use on the road towards optimization, not sidestepped. The assumption of an even workload distribution is the anomaly, not the norm, and it is a lot easier to make a planning fit human activity than to have human activity fit the outline of a work breakdown structure’s box. In fact, recent insights indicate a combination of small-world networks and swarm intelligence is a more appropriate model for task allocation and project management, similar to how military units have adopted this model in a behavior called swarming. Gartner’s idea of “work swarms” is based on this, but similar to how people group activities and act like a swarm, so do the tasks themselves, beit in the process of being actualized or shifting position to be the next one on the work queue.
If traffic behaves like this, why apply a method that is more appropriate for a freight train? The illusionary simplicity of boxing in activities has given way for more biomimetic ways of task allocation, as the same technological trends which are changing the shape of work are also providing the key to several solutions, the push forward in complexity keeps pace in the problems it creates and the solutions it offers, but one has to keep up with its evolution. But as swarms go, permanent roles will be an increasingly rare phenomenon, which raises certain dilemmas for the traditional way that companies are organized as well as how traditional recruitment, staffing and employment arrangement are done. Having a large part of the workforce on the bench is like a professional army at peacetime, which may act in a preventive way by the impression created along with serving as a vigilant and prepared group of skilled people, but with every further act of preservation is distancing from its original function and functioning. Whereas for employees, beit short-term, medium-term or long-term, you would want to have them nearby in a sort of consortium which combines the roles of labor union, staffing agency, expert cooperative, mentoring, center of continuous learning, and a network for seed funding for those that desire to be an entrepreneur for a while. Instead of making such a clear but artificial distinction between contractor and permanent employee, it is much easier to work with different kinds of interim arrangements where someone can rotate between a select number of companies, jobs roles, challenges and even now and then try realizing their own dreams. Such a relatively simple model is held back by the practices of recruitment firms, in particular their enumeration, where it simply doesn’t pay enough to provide the extra effort.
On the other hand, it also makes sense for more flexible ways of organization and using proven methods like “value networks” and “strategic alignment framework” any organization and activity can be mapped out as part of a network organization which can manifest in any sort of hierarchical format, just not in an optimized way, yet. Every kind of organization is actually already in the process of becoming a fully dynamic network-centric service-oriented virtual enterprise, and this greatly simplifies certain assumptions and allows for an immediate adoption of a different ‘demand’-model, regarding a company as a network organization in transition, one moving towards reduced ideality where increasingly more of the design principles of the “Service Oriented Virtual Enterprise” are realized. In that respect HR is a function, a role and a responsibility, but not necessarily a craft, a person or a whole department, at least not in the context of daily business for most organizations. Besides the HR specialist, HR is to be a pervasive aspect within company processes. Instead of an imprisoning structure with a rigid hierarchy a company actually becomes a facilitating confederation of whichever function it needs to reach its set of goals. How a person fits within such a landscape, with modern tools it should be simple to apply fact-based continuous event simulation on sampling the interaction between a person, the team, the department and the particular project and see how this plays out. People can do amazing things, but it is not black magic.
The fact that traditional recruitment is more or less running towards its end can be seen with the current shift to domain knowledge, where an attempt is made to find and provide experienced specialists, with experience in the particular industry and the type of work involved. In most cases this is nothing more than automated keyword matching, some peer pressure, and maintaining an aura of trustworthiness. Now that groupware has evolved towards cross-company collaborative suites and these technologies have started to evolve covering different stages of a product’s life cycle, both from marketing and conception towards engineering, production and maintenance, more facilities are developing that can deal with ideas and meaning, and in order to speed up e.g. the bid process for outsourced work, similar features will arise for on-boarding and in-sourcing, in the form of automated story-boarding, where an avatar act as an supporting assistant similar to how wizard-driven development guides a novice through a whole procedure, starting from scratch and finalizing with a decent end result. Ideally, if any of the subject matter is new for the ‘employee’ this can be used to introduce new questions, ideas, approaches, which would never come up at a regulated brainstorm session but can still provide valuable input for this job or any future activity, and the avatar being self-learning, to improve the dialectic way of ramping up someone for the tasks at hand. As many a teacher knows, you can recognize the smart students by the number of questions they ask. Although, as John Taylor Gatto seeks to reverse, those are usually the students that retained that little vulnerable kid in themselves, who haven’t let compulsory education dumb down the wonder yet.
How to move ahead to get back to a more personal and humanly rewarding way of contracting, employing, cooperating and partnering involves revisiting the basic foundations of HR in the area of recruitment and resourcing. We come from an odd background full of formalized trust rituals to ensure that someone fits into a mold the way we have learned that someone should fit in in order to get access to ‘the tribe’, but we should instead learn from the Japanese management culture which is very informal, consensus driven and the tendency to treat employees as if they were family. Borderline familialism is a system that works, like a meritocracy mixed with positive favoritism, because even when we make an attempt to appear objective we neglect many of our built-in in-group biases which make it easier for us to recognize certain traits with somebody akin, than that we can officialize the mental leap needed to intersubjective anthropomorphization in a political correct attempt to avoid any sort of discrimination. This is not an attempt to make a case for forced non-discrimination or total laissez-faire, but in the approach suggested any personal characteristic is a skill or function, even gender, age, of ones place of birth. All such characteristics can have positive or negative effects depending on the context; even bias conformity is a positive treat when it reduces the need for communication overhead. As the recent Supreme Court ruling on gay rights shows, just paying lip service to gay marriage is not sufficient. One has to dare to go all the way, equal right are what is says on the label.
If, in an extreme case, a company, or an entire country, prefers nepotism to such a widespread extend it becomes a sociological trend referred to as amoral familialism, like in post-Mussolini’s Italy or post-soviet Ukraine, they should be free to experience the long term results of such dimwitted behavior as a society turns to a state of auto-cannibalism. Now that the babyboom generation has started to retire, societies at large are faced with inadequate pension plans due to increasing lifespans which put extra strain on generations to come, and although society eventually needs to adopt basic income schemes, not only does the pensioner’s income make a dive of one third, the ‘workforce slot’ is filled up with someone at the beginning of their career earning close to the minimal wage which may be even less than the pension. For countries with an aging population this means that more income will quickly return by being spent on basic cost of living and hopefully some of the purchasing power remains for the extras that make a country rich. Most EU countries have picked up on this and try to make people work longer, both reducing the pension burden as well as the double drop in income, but despite the added value of deep and varied experience and the effect this has on their own productivity and those nearby in the team, in the recruitment world many firms already avoid mediating for people as old as thirty, let alone forty. In hindsight we cannot but wonder why we ever adopted such inadequate means, which not only do not add value, but even reduce it. The value of homogeneity and heterogeneity are primarily context-dependent and instead of having these baked in upfront, it should be part of the matching process itself, we need to acknowledge and understand our biases, the goggles through which we see and valuate someone else, which gives a late justification for all the trust qualifications and rites of passage that are being employed to establish or verify a collective identity.
On one side companies will continue to evolve towards more optimal and adaptive formats, more like virtual business parks and marketplaces, and on the other side a community is evolving dealing with job exchanges and more informal yet more informative ways of resourcing. Setting up the foundations for these remain as neighboring activities, but these are expected to happen anyway, one way or another. But there are businesses possible around small issues with large consequences, such as addressing the ‘first scan issue’. The current way of selecting resumes of candidates who replied on a job advertisement results in the highly likely case of filtering out the best candidates. Due to the internet the number of candidates replying has increased one or two orders of magnitude and now often results in a few hundred replies, or a job request is addressed by searching a database containing many profiles. What even the most helpful recruiter does is print out the resumes, pile them up, and then spend on average ten seconds to scan the resume looking for similar experiences, background, education, residence, age, highlighted accomplishments, hobbies, and the general style, tone, and look and feel of the resume, and based on this matching process the aim is to reduce the pile to a maximum of five or ten possible candidates. Considering a pile of 200 resumes, this whole procedure takes more than half an hour of concentrated attention and a good understanding of all the aspects mentioned above. As a simple example, work in a cross-border region can be done by any inhabitant of the participating nations, whereas the average recruiter, if they don’t recognize the place of residence will most likely default to the country of residence and filter out any viable candidate that may live within a fifteen minute driving distance of the workplace. But how about all the nuances of branch and function specific expertise, on-the-job self-education, or those people without a degree qualification who proved to excel in certain areas at their previous employer and who grew to a leading position because of hard work, demonstrated acumen, and natural ability and who are deemed unfit for mediation because with the workload and issues faced at the previous workplace they never got around to work for a degree as well? Why should they anyway? The degree is to indicate a minimum ability, a door opener but has little practical meaning beyond that. But it gets worse. Often this ‘first scan’ is done by an intern or assistant and what they do is try to get “a feel” of the candidate. Tests have shown that they spend four seconds looking at the name, date of birth, place of living, profession, employer and previous employer, and if they spend a longer time, eight seconds, they look at the same information twice…
In general recruitment firms can’t make a valid case in favor of seniority, which is shameful. If recruiting isn’t much more than keyword matching, there are better ways to do it, less harmful, and a combination of fact-engines and reasoning-engines can greatly help out here. What if there’s a smart engine that can continuously tries to collecting and interpreting as much facts as possible to interpret someone’s resume and online persona, to get to a sort of label-free evidence-based recruiting. Like IBM’s Dr Watson or Autonomy’s ‘Intelligent Data Operating Layer’ a mix of general factoids and occupational specifics can be obtained by reading and analyzing several online encyclopedias and professional dictionaries. Decades of research and development in artificial intelligence, such as natural language processing, have taught that it is as much as what one builds in, but also what one leaves out. Simple evolutionary mechanisms allow such a system to grow a certain level of understanding which increases in accuracy when being able to process feedback and adjust its understanding based on this. Computing science and computing power have now advanced to such a stage a simple adjustable map of how words are related (if they occur often in each other’s vicinity etc.) can piggyback along on the underlying understanding and produce more accurate answers than any individual can. At the moment it is nothing more than a more user-friendly version of a polytechnic pocket book, but along with ability to provide is as-a-Service and its ability to learn from all users, it can rapidly grow and improve with every use. By using facilities like these we can augment our own capabilities and help introduce a more human and worthy means of cooperating.
A worthwhile approach is to assume that any specific person has evolved as the best answer to their own situation, in the sense that a person is an invention of itself. Taking the lessons of systematic invention methodology as a basis, people’s knowledge, skills and abilities can be mapped out in a value network along with growth indicators, growth potential and attractors (like current interests and hobbies). Using self-learning techniques a ‘first scan’ system can read up on business organizations, job descriptions, requirements management, impression management, business- and HR-related ontologies and whatever knowledge general and specialized sources like Wikipedia have to offer. In the end the functionality that the task requires and the functionality that someone has to offer need to get together so that it maximizes merit, by increasing the values of play, purpose and recognition, which includes learning, growth, increasing of degrees of freedom, where it helps developing a more abstracted set of expertise beyond a narrow specialism. In the end, any company’s survival is defined by the interplay of culture and strategy, and these are the sum-total of all the people involved, and even though people can externalize some of their being into automated tasks and procedures like a phone answering machine can reproduce someone’s voice, it serves best to act as if the company’s life force resides in the people. There is more than intellectual property alone, and although “heart and soul” aren’t quantifiable it definitely serves to give them proper recognition, and looking at Japanese management style that goes beyond a five-minute pep talk and some collective cheerleading…