Thursday, August 23, 2012

Don’t Build a Better Mouse Trap – Build a Better Mouse.

We are in week 11 of our new start up business. About 6 weeks ago I mentioned we did not yet have a name for the company. We still don’t. Our focus has been on product. But not building a product, not even designing one: we still need to discover one.

The process of discovery has lots of pundits explaining the best way to innovate. Some say it is a structured process of trial and error, some say it comes from brainstorming, others believe it comes from finding your passion and convincing the world to appreciate it as you do, and most believe it is a matter of finding a problem that needs solved better than anyone else solves it. I read once (I can no longer recall who said it) that the best way to come up with a great idea is to get a group of people you really like to work with, figure out what you really like to do, then build it. This thinking suggests that a business built around doing what you enjoy with the people you work well with is bound to be successful, regardless of the idea. Maybe.

In my experience of creating a handful of fairly successful products over the years, I find that the process is never the same. When I worked in large companies, new products tended arise from the crucible of need. Large companies have money, resources, and market power; what they don’t have is focus. Big companies rarely do anything unless the need is so great they are forced to do it. At smaller companies we tended to have product strategies that focused nicely around processes to continuously enhance (I almost said continuously improve – but evidence tends to suggest improvement is not always part of the game – even if it is always part of the aim). When I have been involved in startups we tended to act like idea-mills where everyone throws stuff at the wall to see what will stick. Passion often determines the winner.

For me one constant in the process of innovation – whether large, small or startup – is structured chaos. You have to break the mold of old thinking and allow ideas to be generated. But if you don’t wrap some structure around it you lose a lot of the momentum. Ideas flow like water: if there are no boundaries they tend to dissipate quickly. I approach product innovation almost like a hashing algorithm. The two extremes are (1) unfettered idea generation on one end and (2) focused problem analysis on the other. You keep working the process from both ends until you begin to gel on something in the middle. The best ideas solve a problem worth solving but see the problem in a whole new light. It is no longer about building a better mouse trap – but instead building a better mouse.

Going back to my earlier idea about great products coming from working with people you like and working on what it is you really like to do. I am thinking that if I got my best buddies together I am afraid we’d spend all our time hiking in the mountains. I’ll have to think about what product that might be. Maybe I could invent

Friday, August 17, 2012

What Trashy Data Means for HR

You want to know how the economy is doing, track trashy facts. Driving home from a meeting at the Institute for Entrepreneurship at Colorado State University I flipped on the radio to Marketplace from American Public Media and heard this story about tracking trash. This guy was explaining that when he was a graduate student he was studying anthropology. One thing he learned was that you can find out a lot about societies by studying their trash.  What he didn’t know at the time was that he would later in life discover a correlation between the volume of trash and the strength of the economy. When the economy is going strong we get rid of more stuff (there’s an obvious social commentary in there, but I will leave that to some other pundit). Turns out, right now, we are not dumping so much trash.

OK, so what is an HR Innovation blogger doing writing about trashy economic indicators. Well, here’s the thing. This is a big data story. All this information about trash: how much is shipped, what kind of trash it is, how many tons are discarded and who’s discarding it is all compiled and kept in multiple, unrelated, obscure data bases. Someone had to find, compile analyze and interpret all this data to find the patterns that represented useful information. The same sort of anthropological expedition is there for HR professionals as well.

Earlier this month I wrote a blog post titled “Big Data Should Be a Big Deal for HR.” All this trash talk got me thinking about big data some more. So much information is collected in so many different places. Companies collect terabytes of data about their employees; social and professional media adds even more, so do our schools, our volunteer organizations, our churches, our governments, our local PTA. They all have records about people. Some of this data means very little and is perfectly content to be obscure. Other information is a gold mine that provides useful information about who we are, what we do, what we like to do. In other words: Human Resource Information.

The problem (or challenge) that confronts us is how do you dig through all the trash (OK – I know I am overdoing the analogy) to find what is really meaningful. But it is going to happen. Technical tools are being developed and researchers are being busy to help discover ways to find these deposits of data and figure out how to mash them together to find new patterns and new uses of the information. HR professionals sit largely on the sidelines of this frontier. It’s a shame; it will be one of the biggest trends that change HR in the next decade. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Could Twitter Predict the Next Great Applicant?

In the days before Paul Ryan was chosen as Romney’s running mate the noise level around Paul Ryan was increasing on Twitter. In an article posted on the ReadWriteWeb entitled “How Twitter Predicted Romney’s VP Choice”  the author, Dave Copeland says “Even as some of the men Mitt Romney considered as a running mate waited for a call from the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, Twitter had already predicted that Paul Ryan would be tapped for the ticket.” How so? According to the article:

TweetReach, a unit of Internet analytics firm Union Metrics, released data over the weekend suggesting that Twitter was already onto the Romney campaign as early as last Wednesday. The firm tracked what it calls Ryan’s "reach," defined as total number of impressions, tweets about the candidate and the number of unique contributors.  After racking up numbers similar to other likely nominees for the preceding 30 days, Ryan's reach surged as mainstream media outlets and other politically influential Twitter users began to bandy his name about more fervently.”
That got me thinking – what is it about our social media participation that might help us manage and understand our human resources. Could Twitter help predict the next great job candidate? Could social media be used to identify impending employee morale problems? Can we assess a candidate’s social network to determine if they can really do their job? Would social media participation help us figure out the next great salesman? Some people think so.

At Innotrieve we are looking into just these questions. They want to know if our electronic footprint can be used to help predict employee performance, goodness-of-fit, employee engagement, or any other number of critical elements that help make sure both employees and employers are getting the most out of the human resource potential. I was recently asked to help them with their quest. We believe we will be able to see patterns in the social media footprint that can help employees and employers match up better. Both people and companies have personalities and traits that define them. Understanding these traits and mapping them together might help make better matches. So Tweet away – it just might help you and your employer work better together!

Exciting times.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Can HR Be Innovation Revolutionaries?

Human Resources is not traditionally thought of as a hot bed of innovation. Most HR people are steady, thoughtful and deliberate. Good thing too – who would want HR to be a “risk taking” group. But in my opinion this is exactly where the next decade of innovation has to come from. The way people (employees if you must) interact with the company they work for is rapidly changing. Traditional concepts around career growth, employee engagement, recruiting, screening and retention are all changing rapidly. The relationship that kids in high school today will have with the companies they work for in the future will be radically different than what we see today; and most forward thinking companies associated with human resources in any form are beginning to see this change. Whether you are in recruiting, onboarding, background checking, employment verification, drug testing, employee development or payroll you are going to be impacted. We see it every day in many forms but don’t always slow down to think about the impact. For instance I saw an article the other day about how “Gen Y” is having their midlife crises early, they don’t want to stick to just one thing. A few other signs of the change: independent contractors are the fastest growing job category, job hunting on social networks sites is exploding, Gen Y loyalty to the company they work for is at an all time low. The term employee is anachronistic. People (resources) will have relationships with employers (resource consumers). And this relationship will be much less permanent. It is a relationship of convenience. This change in relationship is being fueled by the rapid growth of data and open communities (like social networks or company “Alumni Communities”) that make free agency so much easier. What happens to HR when the workers of the future won’t have to worry about a steady job but instead “bid for work” when they feel like working? What will this mean for recruiting, staffing, background checking, credential verification and employee development? It will mean that the process will shift from being company centric to being worker (or resource centric). People will manage their brands and market themselves as “ready to perform”. For instance, free agents will probably be “pre certified” to do certain kinds of work. They will bid on a job and show that they are already screened, confirmed, and ready for work. This is not so far-fetched really. Take the evolution of doctors (and now nurses) who staff hospitals. Not too many years ago the majority of the staff were employees, now it is exactly the opposite. I see no reason why this type of shift won’t happen in all industries. It is going to be an exciting decade to watch the innovation and invention that comes out of the HR community in the years to come. Will HR lead the way - or continue their squabbles about employment law!

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Big Data Should Be a Big Deal for HR

After the movie Moneyball came out there were lots of blog posts about how Moneyball had lessons for HR. Essentially this was a Big Data argument. The essence of what the money ball process was all about was taking vast amounts of information about your people and your potential recruits and applying data analytics to see that information from new angles. The new angles allowed them to see productivity and efficiency differently than conventional wisdom had always said it should be viewed.

Take out the subject “Moneyball” and this sounds a lot like an HR problem we all face: How can we make our staff more productive and more efficient by being better at recruitment and deployment (and do that better than the competition)?

That is what Big Data is all about. There is more information out there than we have ever had before. Over one billion photos are posted on Facebook every month. There are over 200 million “tweets” per DAY posted on Twitter and there are 140 million professionals with profiles on Linked In. Couple that with all the data companies compile about people and production and you have one huge pile of data (Big Data to be sure). Pulling that information together and looking at it from different angles allows you to see things that could never be seen before. How does participation in social media predict employee performance, how do patterns of participation in internal and external groups help understand employee engagement, how do hobbies provide guidance for employee learning styles? This is information that was not readily available to us in the past but can be gleamed from multiple sources these days. Enough of the noise about social media and invasions of privacy (that is a real problem but it clouds the real opportunity this data provides). HR needs to think about big data as a tool for tracking, managing and adjusting how we recruit, on-board, develop and deploy our resources. 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Death of the Employee

My son graduated from college last year. As with so many young people just out of school, there were not a lot of job opportunities that awaited him. Rather than move back home (whew, we avoided that bullet), he and a group of friends piled into his car and took off to Boston to find their fortunes (or at least hang out for awhile someplace other than back at home). My son is extremely energetic and is a bull dog when he sets his sights on something, so I knew he would find some sort of job to tide him over. I figured he would call me to say he’d found a job in retail or maybe selling burgers. He was, after all, a history major – so I figured his immediate prospects were limited. But here is where the story took a different turn. My son never left his new apartment. What he did was pursue his dream online – but not just search for a job online – he actually found a job WORKING online. And not just one job, but about 4 or 5 jobs. He found he was able to be a writer/researcher/blogger for hire. He became an online freelancer picking up jobs in an open market for talent. He would work for 3 weeks editing a manuscript, work part time writing for an online publication,  develop marketing collateral for firms seeking quick, affordable help, and then do the cycle all over again. He was a resource for hire. No job title really - just a bundle of varied talents that could be deployed as needed. A sort of on-line utility player. 

This experience got me thinking about the world of employment in the future and how my industry – human resource technology – will have to change radically to be able to serve the new careers of the future. My son’s experience is the epitome of that saying I have read several times in airports around the US: “10 years from now, the fastest growing jobs will be ones that aren’t even invented today.” Professional blogger, online editor, content developer, Social Media analyst, these are jobs that did not exist 10 years ago and now are very much a part of our working world. What comes next? In my opinion we will see more and more people holding multiple jobs all at the same time. The word “employee” will one day be a quaint old term from the past. There will be a large workforce of professionals who offer their services for hire.