A new positive tension in HR
The capability to deliver on results has often very little correlation with the ability to lead teams
There is a new form of outsourcing that HR is going through – the outsourcing of the human intuition. The trendy thing to do now is to talk about data-driven decision-making in aspects such as who you hire, who you promote or who your next leader would be. And the strange thing is that this transition in HR thinking is happening precisely at the point of time when HR is loudly proclaiming the futility of statistical tools for performance management and instead advising managers to look at people isolated from performance curves etc.
Firstly, these two are at cross purposes — does the usage of “big data” in hiring decisions etc. fundamentally fly in the face of not having performance distribution curves in determining your top performers? I believe it does, and for the simple reason that as you look at the underlying principles of what these two represent, it is essentially about the extent to which an organization is comfortable in relying on the capabilities of an individual to select a great candidate or identify a potential leader. When you suggest that data does a better job of that as compared to an experienced manager, it conflicts with the belief that the manager would be capable at judging performance of the individual wonderfully to obviate the need for statistical tools to normalize managerial bias.
Let’s go back a few years, a general belief arose that unless performance evaluation and management became a purely numerical exercise, the outcome was going to be questionable and full of individual, managerial biases. So most organizations joined the cult of “what gets measured gets managed” and focused on defining completely quantifiable metrics that made the managers task just about totalling up some percentages and giving the employee a rating. Firstly, such a world was not feasible as most organizations soon realized their inability to define MIS and tracking systems that would enable these processes. The second outcome of this was the abuse of the system, as employees and managers chased numbers as opposed to understanding how numbers were being delivered. Gradually, organizations started realizing the futility of this process and the shift started towards enabling managers to judge individuals, the way they worked, collaborated and achieved results as opposed to purely looking at outcomes and ranking them in order of how high their quantitative achievements were.
Around the same time, a parallel shift started happening. The job of defining who was fit to join an organization or be the next leader was a job that traditionally was done by human beings who relied on their experience of seeing and judging people. As organizations grew, there was progressively lesser trust on individuals to be able to do this job effectively and what started with evaluation tools that companies used to judge capability and character is gradually becoming a fad of using only analytical tools to identify the next rising star. The question that bothers me is the role of the manager in this entire process – do organizations believe that managers have the capability to identify, manage and grow the right talent? The answer seems confusing. And perhaps the reason for this also stems from the fact that the new generation of managers haven’t been schooled or trained in their abilities to really judge and grow their people and hence the reliance on tools or data.
But then that raises the question of how you justify the changes to the approaches towards performance management. Organizations need to address the core of the problem – the need to develop and grow better managers. The capability to deliver on results has often very little correlation with the ability to lead teams. It is true that mistakes would happen aplenty if hundreds of managers have the power to hire individuals or define the next league of leaders. At the same time, companies would miss out on excellent talent if they purely let a data model determine it for them. Models are based on a set of assumptions and not every good talent will fit into those assumptions. Models also raise the big question of conformity – organizations that use a set of strict boundary conditions preclude new thinking from joining the company. In my opinion the future of HR does not lie in using analytical tools to judge and grow people – the future lies in organizations learning from fields such as the armed forces in how managers are developed and from entertainment on how talent is identified. Neither uses strict data to achieve it – the human capability in both is paramount and this human capability is honed through experience, training and discipline.