Don’t Be Too Quick to Criticize Harvard

May 23, 2006

In a past article, an amazing number of people weighed-in to trash professional education in favor of practical experience. Some of the commentators supported their position by citing three industry leaders without degrees who lead successful companies; maintaining that recruiting is an art, as well as a serious profession; or, arguing that some ERE authors are unqualified because they have never recruited. I hope the majority of people do not take these comments too seriously. These arguments may sound attractive, but are all seriously wrong-headed – and some are even dangerous.

For example: The “I Know People Who Are Highly Successful Without a Degree” Argument

  • As pointed out by one reader, if education is unimportant, why do you suppose smart and successful folks like Gates, Dell, and others insist that their new employees are educated? Education does not make someone successful, but neither does self-imposed ignorance.
  • How much do you think the explosive growth of computers contributed to Gates’s and Dell’s company success? Would they have been as successful starting a business in, say, aluminum siding?
  • There are exceptions to every rule; that’s why they are called exceptions.

The “Recruiting Is An Art, As Well As a Serious Profession” Argument

  • This is a complete oxymoron. A serious profession keeps up with the latest research in the field. It does not depend on short workshops and personal experience. We can learn much from past mistakes and experience of experts.
  • Can anyone please explain why some of the most vocal people in this field insist on defending 50 years of error-prone hiring practices based on job descriptions and interviews? Even the greenest recruiter knows they are sorry tools.
  • I cannot wait to find a list of serious professions that totally dismiss the value of education.

The “You’re Wrong Because You Have Never Done It” Argument

  • Think about it. This argument places each person squarely in the world of “I’m the center of my own universe; therefore, if I never heard of it, it must be wrong.” Maybe we should all agree that because most of us never actually studied infectious diseases, doctors who recommend hand-washing must be wrong.
  • No two people have identical job histories. Mine includes being a hiring manager, trainer, and psychometrician. This may be different from someone else’s background, but we both share the same problem: separating good applicants from the poor ones. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like a wise person learns something by examining all points of view.

Now, About the Competency Thing

No one should be surprised when I say that describing human behavior is a Tower of Babel. Everyone has his or her own personal definition – even within a single organization. This leads to the wrong job requirements, hiring the wrong people, rejecting the right ones, value-less workshops, and confusing performance expectations. The symptoms of Babel can be seen in every job order where the recruiter and hiring manager think they have a clear understanding about job requirements, but change from one candidate to the next. The symptoms can be seen in cases where a candidate looks promising but fails after a few months on the job. They can be seen when a recruiter defaults to a strategy of comparing one candidate against another, instead of to job requirements. Lastly, symptoms can be seen in the persistence of the wrong-headed belief that interviews are not tests, even though they are used to screen applicants. I wrote several articles about competencies in 2002. The competencies are the same today.

Specifically, the word “competence” is derived from the Latin word “competere” meaning “suitable.” Merriam-Webster defines competence as “having requisite or adequate ability or qualities.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the ability to do something to a level that is acceptable.” The American Heritage Dictionary defines competence as “properly or sufficiently qualified; capable.” So, what definition is more useful? Defining competencies as a beginning or end-state? Here is an excerpt from what one company calls a “fully-researched, scaled, and validated behavioral and functional competency model.”

Achievement Orientation: Sets highly challenging, but attainable, goals for own organizational area; assesses group performance against goals and identifies areas for improvement; improves inefficient/ineffective work processes; uses positive motivational approaches tailored to diverse individuals and groups to help staff improve performance and maximize results achieved; and, encourages responsible risk-taking to achieve high-quality results.

What’s right with this model? It lets the subordinate know there are certain expectations for the job. It sounds good. What’s wrong with this model? It is confounded with multiple expectations. Objectives are exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to attribute to a specific job holder. It is subject to innumerable forces that either help or hinder accomplishment. And, it tells you little, if anything, about what skills to look for in an applicant. Furthermore, the terms “fully researched,” “scaled,” and “validated” will probably mislead clients into unrealistic expectations. It is the kind of competency model that will initially be celebrated, but will lose credibility within a few years because of its complexity. Now consider this model from another source.

Effectively organizes others: Evaluates processes and results, and makes appropriate adjustments to the plan; sets, communicates, and monitors priorities for activities; ensures that systems are in place to effectively monitor and evaluate progress.

What’s right with this model? It is much clearer. Since is it relatively pure, it can be used to evaluate an applicant’s planning and organizing skills easily, it can transfer from job to job, it is somewhat trainable, it can be easily adapted to a variety of jobs, and it is a precursor to a wide range of job-performance standards. What’s wrong with this model? Managers may think it is too simplistic and it may be harder to sell because it is not filled with buzzwords.

The Luddites

About 200 years ago, unskilled textile workers felt their jobs were threatened by automated machinery. Its supposed leader, Ned Ludd, organized groups of workers to break into factories and destroy machines that made stockings. Unprepared or frustrated folks are almost always threatened by new technology. So, it is not unusual to read so many strong reactions from people determined to defend the only way of recruiting they know. The job is difficult, and if done well, it is even more challenging. But that is the job. And any job worth doing is worth doing well. As I said earlier, education may not be the whole answer, but I am pretty sure that self-imposed ignorance is a lot worse.

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