Are You Using Collective Intelligence for Talent Management?

Dec 11, 2007

Imagine you are on stage and in front of the cameras at the famous game show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The last question comes, and you know if you get it right you’ll leave the studio with a million dollars in your pocket. Yet, you have no idea what the answer is. You draw a complete blank. You know, of course, that you can rely on two types of support: help from the studio audience or from a friend who you believe knows the answer. What do you do?

In our world of experts and gurus, we have a tendency to rely on and believe in experts when, in fact, research has shown that in this case we should do the opposite. While experts are indeed right 65% of the time, the studio audience is right 91% of the time, so you should rely on the collective intelligence of the studio audience. How can collective intelligence be applied to talent management, recruiting, or even business?

First, let’s make sure we understand that collective intelligence is not science fiction, the latest fad, or a term that you will only read about here. In a 2007 research study, McKinsey asked corporations which of their Web 2.0 investments was the most popular. Collective intelligence came second with close to half of the companies using it or planning to use it. They defined collective intelligence as “any system that attempts to tap the expertise of a group rather than an individual to make a decision.”

Collective intelligence, in its essence, is at the root of Google’s success. Google was ranked the best website over other search engines based on a collective view of its usefulness (links). In other words, it uses collective intelligence to feed its motor in helping people who are looking for similar content. If the biggest Internet success has been based on this principle, it is certainly time well spent for us to see if we can leverage this for talent management.

It is a banality these days to say that success in business is about finding the right people. When you are in the seat of a hiring manager, it is less about finding the right people than it is about detecting the right person among those who are presented to you. To a large extent, choosing a new team member (either by promoting internally or hiring from the outside) is one of the most important, if not the most important, decision business leaders make. How can collective intelligence help here?

Some may argue that we already use collective intelligence while we are hiring or promoting individuals, for we collectively involve many of our peers in the hiring process. We already tap into the incredible resource collective intelligence represents by conducting multiple interviews, peer reviews, validated assessments, and reference checks.

But is that true? Are we really leveraging the power of collective intelligence today? In order to answer that question, it is important to understand which factors are essential for ensuring a quality outcome for collective intelligence.

As many as 15 factors have been identified as having some importance in supporting the integrity of collective intelligence, yet we believe three are crucial for the world of talent identification:

  1. Diversity. Not simply in terms of gender or ethnic background, but also when it comes to diversity of knowledge, experience, personality, cognitive style, etc.
  2. Authenticity. This is understood as the ability for each participant to be free to express his or her real thoughts, and not to be engaged in a hidden agenda or deceptive tactics.
  3. Discernment. Even if you assemble a diverse group that can be authentic, the results will be enhanced if you can improve discernment. In other words, enable participants to discern difference and relevance. This is often achieved by using a framework.

Now that we are armed with these three factors, let’s look at two case studies to see if we are really putting collective intelligence into action.

In the first case study, Sandra, a senior vice president of HR in a Fortune 2000 company, has just lost her vice president of talent acquisition to a competitor. Hard hit, she thinks about promoting Steve, who, for the last two years, has had great feedback. A director in the company, Steve was leading a couple of projects with high visibility and seemed to have delivered the goods quite nicely. Sandra asked other vice presidents about Steve and examined his performance review. Just a couple of days after announcing the departure of the old vice president of talent acquisition, Sandra announced Steve’s promotion. Six months later, Steve lost four of his six direct reports and Sandra began having second thoughts. What went wrong?

Steve is great at managing up, but he is an awful manager. As soon as his promotion was announced, the other directors looked for new jobs. The issue here was the lack of diversity in Sandra’s process. She never reviewed feedback from anyone with a title below vice president.

In the second case study, Mark is vice president of marketing and needs an execution-driven director to relaunch a product line. The deadline is set at 18 months and a department of 12 is waiting for a leader. After only two weeks, they already have a list of three final candidates. Mark wants to make sure he gets it right and asks for seven structured interviews to be conducted by other vice presidents, future direct reports, and peers. He wishes to obtain good assessments, four full reference checks on each finalist done more as a peer rating to increase accuracy, and all the background verifications from criminal to education.

After the first interview, Mark is bullish on Sarah, who has the Ivy League pedigree and has launched products multiple times, thus making her several short stays and steep learning curves at household brand names seen as positives. But only six months after Sarah was hired, Mark received conflicting reports. How can that be?

In this case, what went wrong was the situation Mark put himself into by pushing for Sarah and ultimately intimidating the other interviewers that reported to him to select her from the other candidates. They didn’t want to challenge Mark on something he was so enthusiastic about, which led to a lack of authenticity.

Moreover, when pushing to conduct four reference checks/peer ratings per finalist, Mark asked the administrative assistant in the recruiting department to speed it up, so she asked another assistant to help her. The result was that they contacted four peers for each candidate, but received very little substance in each of the reports, thus hindering one’s ability to effectively discern between candidates.

In conclusion, collective intelligence in its simplest form can be a very powerful tool, but it can quickly lead one down the wrong path if used improperly. Use diversity, authenticity, and discernment to optimize your chances of success. Those should be utilized in all your processes, and you should ask yourself if you respect those factors when receiving any type of recommendations.

That simple step can transform your talent management practice from “collective cover your ass” into collective intelligence!

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