Person versus Person or Person versus Job?

Zen Master: Define the sound of simultaneous laughing and crying.

Zen Student: People trying to understand and measure human performance. Some Basic Truisms Everyone has a different definition of human performance ó and nothing is quite a frustrating as building your job around a set of floating definitions. This is often the case with jobs and job skills. Let me try to focus the issue by “floating” a few caveats:

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  1. Organizations create jobs because they have problems that need solved (i.e., sales needs salespeople, marketing needs marketing people, accounting needs accountants, and so forth). Organizations do not create jobs because people need work (unless they are either relatives who can’t hold a job or potential voters).
  2. People are too different and complex to rank skills on a personal talent ladder that compares one person’s abilities to a reference point (unless you focus on an obvious set of talents like athletics, playing a musical instrument, singing, and so forth).
  3. Although there may be a great deal of similarity between jobs, no two jobs are exactly alike (i.e., managers differ, conditions differ, cultures differ, and so forth).
  4. No one (potentially) knows the organization as well as the people who work there. If internal people don’t know what’s going on, it is not likely that anyone else will, either.

Organization or Individual? Every so often people ask me about “talents,” or developing a “uniform competency test,” or how to create some kind of system that will somehow rank-order people against a set of uniform standards ó sort of a “national registry of skills.” I guess this seems like a reasonable idea, but the whole focus is wrong. I’ll explain why. Let’s start with the definition of organization. organization ó working together to contribute to the whole, systematic cooperation to conduct business, an organization of parts necessary to performance. Synonyms: alignment, coordination, structure, fitting, ordering Antonyms: individual, one, disarrangement, amateur, chaotic The definition of “organization” is not “individuality.” It is cooperation and the coordination of different skill sets. Like it or not, jobs exist because organizations need them, NOT the other way around. Within an organized framework, people either have or do not have skills to perform certain jobs. This may seem like a simple concept, but it is very important because it defines how we look at hiring and promotion. Imagine the role of each organ in our bodies. What would happen if your liver decided to take the day off, or your kidney decided it wanted to become a brain? Now, how is that different from people with no sales skills wanting to be salespeople or technicians with no coaching ability wanting to be managers? It is a very noble idea to “give someone a chance,” but a hiring system based on taking chances inevitably leads to higher terminations based on poor performance, high turnover, job dissatisfaction, and low productivity. I am a strong advocate of personal opportunity, but chance-based hiring and placement is like buying a copier based on a 50/50 chance it will break down. Therefore, the job of HR is to 1) clearly define what skills the job needs, and 2) accurately determine whether an applicant can bring those skills to the table. The Vegetable Continuum Now that we have defined why it is important to separate the idea of organization from individual, we can shift our attention to measuring applicant skills. People are marvelously complex. But somehow, we tend to forget it is sheer fantasy to develop a system that rank-orders their skills somewhere between “the equivalent of a Brussels sprout” and “Master of the Known Universe.” For one thing, personal skills (I’ll use this term to refer the entire domain of knowledge, skills, abilities, and talents) only means something when compared with a reference. In an organizational setting, the reference is job skills. Now there are only about 15 or so job families (jobs with different titles, but similar requirements) in any organization. But when you factor in all the differences in local culture, management style, company mission, and technical knowledge, a job-specific list can quickly become so incredibly large it would be unmanageable. So job titles and job types would be out of the question. Not only that, but organizations seem to desire people who can grow in their jobs, such that today’s job may be significantly different from tomorrow’s job. How do we account for changes in our standards? Moreover, organizations have a tendency to change strategic and tactical direction. One year they may promote accountants to leadership positions and the next year it might be marketers. For example, I once worked for a large automaker who wanted me to test people for a chief designer’s position. This person would control what their cars looked like in five years. There were several excellent candidates who would have made outstanding designers, but management decided to fill the job with an operations expert. Who could have guessed? What about assessing each person’s skills? Well, if you wanted to assess all the personal skills in the world, you would have to first define all the job requirements and standards (we already learned they are humongous), then you would have to devise an accurate way to measure each person against all those standards. Whew! Of course, we could measure people using some generic quality like intelligence, but we already know smart people who do not have good sense and dull people who prosper in spite of themselves. This means there are personal coping mechanisms that have a significant impact on performance. Even though intelligence has about a 60% shared variance with performance, that still leaves 40% of the variance unaccounted for. Bottom line: successful people are usually smart, but smart people are not always successful. What about gaining experience? Unless the person ranks low on the vegetable scale (say somewhere between a rutabaga and a radish) almost all of us get better with experience. How do we account for the nasty habit people have for changing just when we have them figured out? Maybe we could put people in jobs and see if they succeed or fail? We could keep doing this until they failed; then, we could either fire them, demote them, or let them continue their ineffectiveness. Dr. Laurence Peter even wrote a book about this in the late 1960s. He called it “the Peter Principle.” (In my opinion, he should have called it, “Dr Peter Makes a Fortune by Pointing Out the Obvious,” but I’m just jealous because I don’t have a bestseller.) Finally, we have the accuracy problem. Measuring human skills is not as clear cut as weighing yourself on a bathroom scale. There is almost always a heavy dose of error and inaccuracy. Sorry, no answer here, either. Conclusion So, like it or not, there are a bazillion reasons why there will never be a “National Registry of Skills” that will be worth a hoot. Nor will there ever be a single measure of skills that a person can carry through life. There will always be, however, observations of past performance, job analysis to define competencies, and valid and reliable ways to measure people against future job standards. Anything else is just an exercise in silliness. Zen Student: What is it called when a busload of pop-HR practitioners falls off a cliff?

Zen Master: The beginning of enlightenment.