On the dashboard of every HR professional there should be at least three dials. The largest one should indicate the results achieved by HR for the people of the organisation. Then there should be a measure of the creativity and path-breaking programmes used for getting those outcomes. The third dial should show how far fast-progressing information technology has been harnessed by HR so that the innovations are realized in the service of the results. What is it that impedes the average HR department form substantially improving its dashboard readings?
We can safely assume readers of this column are (or, at least, should be) committed to raising Aggregate Long-term People Happiness (ALPH). But how? Grandiose goals always carry the sobering fear that there is no practical way to attain them. In the case of the first dial, when the aggregate is made up of both Socrates’ and pigs, the possibility of figuring out what will maximise utility for each individual and then actually delivering it seems to be well beyond HR (Human Reckoning).
Perhaps there is no other glamour-domain than innovation that HR not only talks about but stakes a claim to own within the corporate landscape. While we cannot own Big Data so exclusively, we are not behind any other function in describing it as the next big opportunity. The small inconvenient fact, which keeps the second and third dials low, is that HR is rarely seen as particularly innovative by employees and the little it uses Big Data is imitative of other functions rather than original. HR, of course, is not the only late adopter in the behavioural sciences. "The capacity to collect and analyze massive amounts of data has transformed such fields as biology and physics. But the emergence of a data-driven 'computational social science' has been much slower." Social scientists have begun to catch up fast. HR practitioners need to do the same.
This column seeks to nudge the needles on each of our three dashboard dials. To maximize the ALPH bang for the resource buck we need to tailor our opportunity and benefit delivery to each person’s personality and preferences. For the first time, data analytic tools have made it possible to permit substantive, individualized need choices with a virtually unlimited flexibility palette. We have to realize, though, that we shall no longer remain in the realm of the anodyne technologies that we have been used to but are on the verge of acquiring lethally abusable capabilities. Hence the checks governing them must be an integral part of their deployment. We shall examine the use of big data to determine individual inclinations, the infinitely flexible choices employees can exercise and the safeguards that must accompany this radical programme.
Taming the Genie to Tell Me What I Need
Data analytics and individually targeted communication caught public attention when it was used to influence the outcome of critical elections. That doesn’t mean, however, that responsible wizards can’t put the genie back in the bottle and channel it to work its magic only for the benefit of people. Several of the technologies most beneficial to mankind emerged from the desire to gain an edge in situations of competition and conflict. Data analytics directed towards understanding and satisfying people could prove no less useful.
How could we enlist the big data Goliath in the service of ALPH and better people performance? Very simply put, we need to extract individual personality and preference markers from the waves of data swirling around us and use those to construct work and benefit choices that will prove to be the most satisfying in each case. All of us leave digital footprints when we access the internet depending on the searches we make, the websites we visit, the profiles we create, the comments we share and the 'likes' we click on. Every one of our cyber steps is grist to the big data mill and can be used to create a passable personality profile. 'Passable' is something of an understatement since "a user’s personality can be accurately predicted through the publicly available information on their Facebook profile." And that’s before we account for the bias and faking that go into the self-report personality inventory that is usually used for personality assessment. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz puts in the title of his bestseller: Everybody Lies. Tracking internet use and analysing the language used on the cloud permits us to circumvent the myriad deceptions we use to veil our true selves. Best of all, the big data method will go on improving in accuracy – limited only by the robustness of the personality models themselves. The additional information available (with agreement and safeguards) from e-communications and other traces created by employees within the corporation can enable us to be far more accurate in understanding their needs than simply accessing their non-work social media presence would.
What’ll Make Me Happiest: Unlimited Choices
There is no doubt, then, that we can build extremely effortless, insignificantly intrusive (see next section) and adequately accurate personality profiles for employees. Where does that take us? Why could it revolutionise the way we manage people for their own and their organisations’ greatest benefit? To unravel the possibilities, I find it useful to use the 5G framework for transactions between employees and the organisation. The first two Gs are what the employee Gives to the company and, in return, what s/he Gets from it. The other three Gs could be force-fitted into these two but I find it more useful to examine Growth, Guidance and Gifting separately. Space here will only permit me to give illustrative ways in which our big data-driven personality judgements can make important differences in the 5G. Your ingenuity can find many more solutions, better suited to your situations.
The most basic things an employee Gives to the organisation are availability and time. During the period of presence, the skill and commitment s/he brings to bear determines the person’s value to the company. We can expect both capabilities and engagement to improve if there is a better fit between temperament and task (as also the other ALPH accreting measures touched on in this section). But let’s just start with touch time at work. After the Covid crisis, both physical presence and time have become variable in a way no one could have imagined or permitted earlier. As we limp back to normalcy the buzzword is 'hybrid' – which is another way of saying, "We don’t know what to do, so we’ll just muddle along". We know there are personality types that flower in the isolation of their homes and are able to cocoon themselves from domestic disturbances. On the other hand, there are those who feed on and reciprocate the energy released by physical proximity. People also have varying Circadian rhythms (also traceable through their net activity) and preferences between shorter (or longer) workdays and shorter (or longer) workweeks. There is no question that on this (as well as all the other measures of flexibility we shall consider) the final agreement or veto depends on the employee. However, most employees, even if they have some inkling of their personality type, are unaware of the work pattern that would generate most productivity and ALPH for that type, and could make far more informed decisions with such inputs.
Everyone accepts that what people Get from the company extends far beyond monetary compensation. Not all of these are fungible or variable but quite a few are. For instance, differences in short-term versus long-term preferences could be allowed to manifest themselves in benefit and welfare choices within a Cost To Company (CTC) bucket. With the advent of Gig-supporting systems, we can also accommodate those who genuinely prefer part-time or part-year working and are willing to let the CTC drop accordingly. While not tradable against CTC, the team assignment, work allocation and longer-term career direction of individuals can all yield a larger proportion of hits and happiness if they are guided by personality insights.
Growth and the Learning that precedes it is a major part of both Give and Get. The manner of communication and, hence, the type of pedagogy and training varies in effectiveness depending on the personality of the recipient. The choice along each career fork (functional fit, specialization versus being a generalist, highly interactional or inward-looking role, just to name a few) can also be greatly benefited by a knowledge of the personality profile of the employee facing the choice.
Despite being a longtime votary of Situational Leadership as a means of providing the appropriate level of supervisory Guidance, I must admit to being less than satisfied about using maturity as the sole independent variable for making leadership style choices. How much richer our choice palette would be if, in addition to using the competence gap, we could guide supervisory style choices using all the colours of the person’s personality?
Gifting is removed from the transactional nature of the Give-Get equation. It comes in many varieties, ranging from the citizenship behaviour of the employee to the servant leadership of the supervisor. However, simply because something is a gift doesn’t absolve the giver from trying to divine what the recipient desires. That, of course, is easier said than done, as evidenced by the tearful openings of Christmas day presents and the endless circulation of tea-sets given as wedding gifts. Simply being beyond the call of obligation doesn’t make a gift valuable. Insight into employee make-up can enhance the warm glow elicited by a selfless gift into ALPH.
Untouched by Human Hands – Unseen by Human Eyes
Data privacy for employees has been a concern for this column long before the equine offspring of Medusa invaded our cyberspace. While those checks are adequate for organisations with conventional HR systems, we are now seeking to extract enriched information and, like all enrichment devices (whether investment banks or uranium centrifuges), this one too needs special safeguards. Fortunately, these are simple both in concept and implementation. The test is only to ensure they are not delayed or circumvented.
The first and most basic guard is the unpressured choice given to each employee to say 'no' to the personality information-yielding data analytic engines. This choice should be permanently available and accompanied, for people who exercise it after joining the data collection process initially, to have their information and identities wiped out and forgotten by the system, on demand. Being removed from the personality profiling processes, of course, wouldn’t deprive the individual of exercising the 5G super-cafeteria mentioned in the previous section. However, the personality-based prompts would be missing and the employee would be left to make the choices based on personal judgement, whim or what the person at the next work-station is doing. Votaries may point out that such a refusal would be akin to choosing medical treatment without undergoing any diagnostic tests. But that is the individual’s decision. To the extent the negative decision is informed by worry that the data gathering and analytics may be used by the organisation to snoop, the following two checks should be reassuring.
Both the data gathering for personality projections as well as the 5G choice prompts would be automated. While the algorithms inside the black box would be intensively tested and periodically reviewed for continuing validity, the actual profile and suggestions would be visible to the individual alone. Once people are assured of the security of the information gathering and analysis and the helpful pointers it yields, they may well be inclined to permit access to their non-work social media (e.g. Facebook) as well, in return for getting get a still better fit to their needs and aptitudes.
Lastly, there will need to be an impermeable barrier separating the personality perceiving and 5G option prompting system from the performance and potential evaluation systems and from anyone associated with the latter. HR would, of course, be able to access information on an aggregate basis and it would prove a rich treasure trove for improving policies, recruitment choices and monitoring change management initiatives.
There are several very good reasons why this is an opportune moment for making this investment in our way of managing people. For the first time, technology has reached a level of sophistication where we can make non-intrusive personality projections, use them to guide an unprecedented and increasing array of 5G choices while fully protecting the privacy of the individual. First movers should enjoy an engagement, retention and cost-efficiency advantage over slower-adopting competitors.
Apart from technical feasibility, we have an openness to considering many options of 5G (heretofore cast in stone) as 'choosable'. For instance, CEOs and line leaders have adjusted with great success to the new ways of working that Covid forced upon us and are quite willing to experiment further. How long this flexibility about work arrangements as radical as the ones that have already been effectively used will continue, is anyone’s guess. But memories can be short. The time to use big data for bigger performance and biggest delight is now.
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves
Or lose our ventures.