Monday, April 1, 2013

Technology and its meaning for HR managers

The Age of Surprise is precipitated by the simultaneity of factors that edge our moments in life. Nuclear war, chemical threats, designer famines and physical terror seem likely enough. Yet, the trigger for these could be in the hands of innocent perpetrators. Each time we query a search engine, we are as a civilisation consuming more energy than we expend on a hand-held device. Time Tech said  in 2011 that “One Google search is equal to turning on a 60W light bulb for 17 seconds.” Would it be then appropriate to say that we pay a price for ignorance when we consume what we do?

In order to survive, even human resource managers use technology. They have large data management needs for storing personnel records. They also have personal needs to store reminders, tasks to do and private computations that serve their social and professional interests. However, when swamped with information that software analyses provide; human judgment is called for. In order to practice judgment, one needs to

1)       be prepared to contextualise one’s decisions, irrespective of traditions, and yet mindful of precedents;
2)       be courageous to test the unknown and yet unwilling to be na├»ve; and
3)       be forthright with candour and yet endear the ones who are impacted.

It turns out that language has a crucial role in the way our frames for decisions inform our judgment. Let us consider the word ‘technology’ for example. Wikipedia quotes “The word technology refers to the making, modification, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, and methods of organization, in order to solve a problem, improve a preexisting solution to a problem, achieve a goal, handle an applied input/output relation or perform a specific function.” And to think that Sony's Walkman and Apple's Mac or the Tata's Nano are the only marks of technology!

Further it states “The human species' use of technology began with the conversion of natural resources into simple tools. The prehistorical discovery of the ability to control fire increased the available sources of food and the invention of the wheel helped humans in travelling in and controlling their environment. Recent technological developments, including the printing press, the telephone, and the Internet, have lessened physical barriers to communication and allowed humans to interact freely on a global scale.

Hence, when a Human Resource Manager refers to the word ‘technology’ today, it is not surprising, that he / she may like to

1)       contextualise for economic impact, especially when the self is reduced to a denominator, where the numerator is revenue or profit,
2)       resign to rather than test the unknown oneself, for complexity has outpaced singular capacity to deal with variety
3)       bind others through technique, systems and craft than endear with one’s heart, as the toll on emotional energy is upped by the incessant demands of financial value-chains.

So does it help get some perspective of our species per se? It does. Few of us are willing to recognise that evidence points to the use of technology in human society as long back as 54,000 years ago! While the Mu civilisation did not reach as high a technology, supposedly, as other later civilizations, it is, nevertheless, said to have attained some advanced technology, particularly in the building of long-lasting megalithic buildings that were able to withstand earthquakes. However, it was the science of government that is said to have been Mu's greatest achievement. What can be said of our Human Resource Management systems in organisations today?

In the annals of time, some contemporary scholarly adjustments from a Euro-centric view of history to a more integrated one commence not earlier than 700 AD. (Arnold Pacey, Technology and World Civilization (MIT Press, 1991)).  While history itself will judge us on how HR managers use technology, I simply loved a case study posted on the city of Ur in Sumer.  The main idea in the case is that science and technology helped raise productivity, farm produce and the rise of civilization. Undoubtedly, we are in a different context. While current civilizations share some aspects in common with ancient ones, the level of specialization in our society has galloped without respite.

While People Process Capability measurements have popularized the word ‘ institutionalization’ – its inherent meaning is short of integration in organisations that assess themselves for maturity.  An institution could be considered as a long-lasting pattern of organization in a community. Complex institutions, such as government, religion, and the economy, are another characteristic of civilization.

In our times, when the short-term memories of people are heightened on an hourly basis, the moot question for me is this “What model of human being do we hold when we manage human resources?” That will surely influence technologies that enable or accompany HR managers. Let us for purposes of this reading, restrict ourselves to assessment technologies.  Says Alexander Panesh of Moscow’s Technical Univeristy “Assessment technology is a logical scheme of stage_by_stage and complex usage of all the existing approaches to HR assessment. Thus, in this form the best result can be reached. However, under these circumstances it is not always possible to follow an ideal scheme in practice.” Thus human judgment goes in tandem with choice of assessment technologies.

I would refer to a wise set of judgment criteria as laid out by Dr. Daniel Harrison as below

1.       Job Specificity : How controlled is the play of technology? Is it based on workplace performance theory, where success is heightened when the role holder enjoys performance? Besides, does the technology also predict performance success with related characteristics such as fit with supervisor, work environment preferences, task preferences, life-interests, beyond just personality aspects that indicate behaviour preferences? Context matters.
2.       Number of job related factors : Does the technology explain all known aspects of behaviour or just a handful of factors? Does the technology indicate criticality of factors to success on the job? Test the unknown too.
3.       Lie-detection : Does the technology contain measures of respondent consistency that screen out socially desirable responses? Does it indicate which factors are less reliable in the measurement? 
4.       Simplicity and Amenability : Does the tool ease up the process of assessment, than to make additional demands on the assessor? Can it involve the assessee only to the extent required and no more to produce reliable and accurate outcomes?
5.       Measurement Scale : Does the technology use scaling techniques that are at once amenable to comparison to a norm for the specified job as also for self-reflection and development? E.g. Is it merely a bipolar scale as opposed to an integration of paradox behaviours? Endear the assessee to success on the job.

Thus as we can see, just from the above scenario for technology in human resource assessments, the technology for discernment and judgment amongst HR practitioners need parallel development. The craft, art and use of science in HR practices may never be ideal, merely because we deal with phenomena of people who have volition beyond mere biological presence.

I am reminded more than ever that learning may come in the way of learning in our times. For evolution in human resource practices, we need to pay dynamic attention to the model of the human being at work. Maturity after all, is a marking against an ideal. If civilisation is developing, will it be because of human resources, or will it be in spite of them? Just as we need to be conscious in our use of energy on a google search, so should we be parsimonious in talent search. 

Technology is not just out there in disembodied virtual reality in the Age of Surprise, but within us as interactive human beings ourselves. Do we need to strike conversation on such? Comments and views welcome.


  1. A well researched and informative article - thanks a lot for sharing!

    1. Welcome Major Bhargava. You may have liked the rather combative opening to this piece? What a march the human race has made. Wanted to raise a mention of 'technology' beyond electronics and touch screens, so that we become better at the art and craft of service in our times.