Monday, January 13, 2014
Saturday, December 14, 2013
December 12, 2013
Does better data mean better employee performance and organizational outcomes? That’s the implication of the current emphasis on big data and the use of metrics in HR, but the answer isn’t an easy “yes.”
To see what I mean, consider your local schools. When teachers are evaluated and paid on the basis of students’ test scores, performance on tests typically improves. The moral: Data works. Long live data!
But research also shows that higher test scores don’t necessarily translate to greater student mastery of the material. In other words, teaching methods that are effective in improving test scores may not be the best for increasing students’ knowledge. The moral: Data doesn’t work. Down with data!
Teaching is a great example of the strengths and shortcomings of data-based performance assessments because, in a sense, teachers are both frontline workers (when actively teaching in the classroom) and executives (when they write lesson plans and develop teaching and classroom strategies). In their role as line workers, teachers can be expected to respond to whatever metrics are applied to them. But simple metrics such as test scores may not detect the difference between teaching strategies that increase students’ knowledge and those that don’t.
A lot of us have jobs like that—some of our work leads to easily measured outcomes (sales volume), while some is much harder to quantify (solving a complex technical issue while easing customer frustration). With the rise of eHRM—electronic human-resource management—it becomes easier than ever for organizations to automate the collection and analysis of employee data. But this also means that it becomes easier to rely on data that organizations can conveniently collect and analyze. Behaviors and aspects of performance that aren’t easily quantified and captured in eHRM can become neglected.
For example, an organization that measures only the number of cases a customer-service rep handles per day may overlook the value of an employee who is capable of winning over an agitated customer. Consider also the use of workload-scheduling software for maintenance employees or physicians. These systems can increase overall operational efficiency and employee performance (measured as number of service calls completed or patients seen), but what happens if the system doesn’t account for the complexity inherent in different jobs? High-performing experts can be penalized for taking on complex assignments.
When you over-objectify or oversimplify the measurement of performance, you risk missing the richness of what makes that job special—or complex—or what makes each person’s contribution unique. Yet, for many managers, this duality is not apparent. Managerial knowledge and skill in applying metrics has not kept up with organizations’ ability to create them. Managers often don’t have the time or knowledge to understand the limitations of the metrics they apply. Instead they rely on easily obtained “objective” data from the system and ignore the less quantifiable and more complex aspects of performance.
Employees will engage in the behaviors easily captured through the system and ignore those aspects of performance that aren’t considered. That’s why organizations need to continually assess whether the data they’re collecting is truly relevant to the broader organizational objectives.
My hunch is that HR is moving toward an era of better data. What do I mean by better data? Take, for example, Sabermetrics and its use in Major League Baseball. Before Sabermetrics came along, few people imagined that the conventional thinking about baseball could be upended by arcane statistics such as wins above replacement.
Before we can develop a metric similar to wins above replacement for employees, we have to define key organizational and employee performance outcomes and determine how they relate to employee behaviors. The challenge is that we still don’t know what these metrics will look like or whether they will fully reflect performance.
Along with better data, we need to develop a more nuanced view of human qualities and human potential. Can we not only accept, but embrace, that some behaviors may not be reducible to easily quantifiable metrics, and that no amount of data can fully capture all of your, or my, best performance qualities? In a world that is increasingly driven by quantitative analyses of employees and performance, we need to find ways to efficiently incorporate both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of performance.
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Tuesday, December 10, 2013
About the authors
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Do you tackle problems with colleagues, partners, and customers head-on? If so, chances are you’re from Western Europe or North America and, our research suggests, vulnerable to blind spots when working with people from other parts of the world. And if you’re from an East Asian culture, the subtle cues you rely on to signal your disagreement may be sailing right past Westerners.
In much of the West, it is considered maddeningly inefficient to talk around an issue, whereas East Asians tend to view direct confrontation as immature and unnecessary. That difference amounts to a frustrating cultural divide in how people solve problems at work.
Westerners prefer to get issues out in the open, stating the problem and how they’d like to see it resolved. People don’t expect their logically constructed arguments to be taken personally. Often, they describe problems as violations of rights and hold one another accountable for fixing them. In fact, they consider such behavior “professional.” But that same approach is an anathema throughout East Asia, where the overriding impulse is to work behind the scenes through third parties to resolve conflicts, all the while maintaining harmony and preserving relationships. When there is no third party to intervene, the professional approach to confrontation is to subtly draw attention to concerns through stories or metaphors, placing the onus on the other person or group to recognize the problem and decide how to respond. To convey disapproval, an East Asian might say, “That could be difficult,” without explaining why.
Why It’s Hard to Meet in the Middle
Although common sense tells us we should move past our own cultural preferences in a global business environment, it’s not easy to do. And many people don’t realize how pronounced the cultural differences are until they find themselves perplexed by a colleague’s behavior.
Recently, a Western manager spoke to us about the mysterious (to him) behavior of a high-potential East Asian he had been assigned to mentor during a three-month assignment at the company’s U.S. headquarters. He said, “Every time the East Asian manager disagrees with an American marketing manager he’s working with on a project, he comes to me to resolve the disagreement! Is he doing this because the marketing manager is a woman?” Gender probably has nothing to do with it, we explained. More likely, the East Asian manager worries that direct disagreement will damage their working relationship, so he’s involving a higher-level manager to preserve peace by adjudicating.
In avoiding direct confrontation, East Asians can appear to Westerners as unresponsive or even passive-aggressive. At the same time, Westerners who confront directly may come across to East Asians as aggressive and disruptive to traditional status hierarchies. And neither side recognizes its unintentional affront to the business relationship. The result of all this? Discord that could have been resolved escalates into a major conflict in which everyone stands to lose: Deals and long-term business relationships fall apart. Take, for instance, the now-defunct joint venture between French-owned Danone and Chinese owned Wahaha. Based on the results of an internal audit, majority owner Danone publicly accused the head of Wahaha—and his family— of siphoning off $100 million from the JV. That direct confrontation was followed by an epic corporate battle that ended, after years of public and legal fights, with the dissolution of the joint venture.
Here’s an example with a much better outcome: A Western entrepreneur had a contract to supply a German buyer with bicycles that he was having produced in China. When the bicycles were ready for shipment, he went to the plant to check on quality and discovered that they rattled. Rather than telling the plant manager that the rattling had to be fixed before shipment, he suggested that they take a couple of bikes off the line and go for a ride in the countryside. At the end of the ride, he mentioned that he thought his bike had rattled; then he left the plant and anxiously awaited news from the German buyer. Had he relied on his own cultural preferences, he would have told the plant manager up front that the rattling bikes had to be fixed before shipping. But because he was attuned to East-West variation in approaches to conflict, he knew that a direct confrontation could cause loss of face and retaliation might very well result in a shipment of rattling bikes. The plant manager apparently picked up on the entrepreneur’s culturally sensitive cues and assumed ownership of the problem, because the German buyer received a satisfactory shipment of bikes.
Adapting Your Style
The most effective global managers, like the entrepreneur in the bike story, develop the focus and control to shift from one style of confrontation to the other, depending on the situation. If you have little experience managing conflict beyond your cultural comfort zone, here are some suggestions for adjusting your style.
If you’re most familiar with the West:
- Look for subtext. If you suddenly realize you’re listening to a story or a metaphor, that’s a signal. Think: Why this story? Why this metaphor? If you’re stumped, you might say, “How interesting. Why do you think the person in the story did that? What was she expecting others to do?”
- Suggest a tentative solution. Express it as a question—“Could this be done?”—and not as a given. Listen for “that might be difficult” or a noncommittal “yes,” which may really mean “no” and certainly suggests that your approach isn’t optimal.
- Don’t be put off by third-party intervention. Understand that by not confronting you directly, your East Asian colleague is treating you with respect, even while disagreeing with your approach.
If you’re most familiar with the East:
- Brace yourself for direct behavior. When your Western counterpart directly challenges your assumptions, offers solutions, or asks you to take responsibility, it is unlikely to be an intentional attack on you. He is probably not questioning your status or authority, but rather questioning the situation. You’ll reduce the risk of losing face by arranging for a private meeting to discuss issues.
- Ask follow-up questions to test for understanding. What seems clear to you may be lost on those more familiar with Western communication styles—even when spoken in their language.
- Recognize that your counterpart will be surprised and possibly offended if you communicate your concerns through a third party rather than directly.
Of course, you don’t have to make all the concessions yourself. But you’ll need to make some if you want to resolve more cross-cultural conflicts than you create.
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
But recent research proves the virtue of letting employees do at least some work unobserved. In a series of studies, Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ethan S. Bernstein shows that decreasing the observation of employees can increase their productivity.
What's more, in a curious phenomenon dubbed the Transparency Paradox, he finds that watching your employees less closely at work might yield more transparency at your organization.
Bernstein uncovered the paradox while studying the manufacturing floor at a leading, technologically advanced global contract manufacturer's plant in Southern China, where tens of thousands of workers assembled mobile devices under close supervision. The plant for years had operated myriad identical assembly lines, spaced closely together to facilitate visibility. The idea was that watching the workers would help managers improve operations and replicate innovations on one line across others, thus increasing productivity and driving down production costs.
A research team found the opposite was true.
WHAT MANAGERS SAW WASN'T REALIn the summers of 2008 and 2009, when he was a doctoral candidate at HBS, Bernstein hired a team of five Chinese-born Harvard undergraduates to be "embeds" at the plant. They lived in factory dorms and worked alongside employees, who assumed that the embedded students were actual employees, too.
During the first summer, the embeds quickly discovered the crux of the transparency problem, which Bernstein recalls in his paper The Transparency Paradox: A Role for Privacy in Organizational Learning and Operational Control, which won the 2013 Best Published Paper Award from both the Academy of Management's Organization and Management Theory Division and Organizational Behavior Division. "First the embeds were quietly shown 'better ways' of accomplishing tasks by their peers-a 'ton of little tricks' that 'kept production going' or enabled 'faster, easier, and/or safer production,' " he writes. "Then they were told 'whenever the [customers/managers/leaders] come around, don't do that, because they'll get mad.' "
Rather, veterans advised embeds to perform tasks strictly by the book whenever a manager was in sight, in order to avoid calling attention to themselves. As such, the researchers noticed that production seemed to slow down whenever the employees knew they were being watched. The level of workplace transparency meant that just as managers could see their employees more easily, the reverse was true as well.
The official company practices happened to be less effective than the tribal tricks of the trade—tricks that the employees hid from the higher-ups, thus thwarting the goal of learning by observing. Bernstein says that there was no ill-intent or cheating behind such hiding behavior, but merely a rational calculation about human behavior: Operators were hiding their freshest, most innovative techniques from management so as not to "bear the cost of explaining better ways of doing things to others."
In the paper he recalls a worker telling an embed, "Even if we had the time to explain, and they had the time to listen, it wouldn't be as efficient as just solving the problem now and then discussing it later. Because there is so much variation, we need to fix first, explain later."
Said another worker: "Everyone is happy: Management sees what they want to see, and we meet our production quantity and quality targets."
"We assume that when we can see something, we understand it better," Bernstein says. "In this particular environment, and perhaps many others, what managers were seeing wasn't real. It was a show being put on for an audience. When the audience was gone, the real show went on, and that show was more productive."
Similar results bore out in a follow-up quantitative field study at the same site the following summer, this time tracking the production of 3G USB mobile data cards. The research team studied 32 production lines for five months. On one set of randomly chosen lines, the employees worked out in the open, as they always had. On another set of lines, however, each production line was concealed behind a curtain, out of management's view. The researchers found that simply hanging that curtain increased production by 10 to 15 percent—major information for a competitive industry that operates on razor-thin margins.
In terms of respecting boundaries, it's important that managers consider not only individual privacy but group privacy as well, Bernstein explains. The curtain boosted productivity for a few key reasons: It provided privacy to tweak (and improve) line operations as temporary issues arose; it prevented unproductive distractions and provided workers with increased focus; and it let the line experiment with new ideas prior to explaining them to management. Indeed, the workers did purposefully share ideas with their supervisors after testing and perfecting them.
"There was a pride in ownership leading to the desire to share," Bernstein says. "And so they did. But only after they had data to support their new approach."
Hence, the transparency paradox: broad visibility of employees at work may induce secretive behavior, thus reducing real transparency, whereas boundaries may actually increase it.
Bernstein hastens to add that not every company should erect walls or hang curtains. "I would never suggest that what works in one setting is necessarily going to work the same way in another," he says. "The message actually that's more important to me, which should be more important to managers, too, is that this race to full observability of everything can have unintended consequences."
TRYING NOT TO LOOK TOO WEIRDThe field study findings also offer an important message to employees—that productivity can depend largely on how well they manage their managers' attention.
"On the manufacturing floor, the workers were trying to manage the attention of the managers," Bernstein explains. "They knew that if they did something that looked weird, it would draw attention and, quite frankly, would disrupt their current work process. If they didn't look weird, then that wouldn't happen. And they knew that just for the sake of getting the production numbers, sometimes it would be good to attract attention and sometimes it wouldn't."
Bernstein elaborates on this concept in the paper "Seeing Too Much: Too Much in Sight or Too Little Insight?" The paper was chosen for inclusion in the Academy of Management's Best Paper Proceedings in September.
He explains that when a person starts paying attention to something or someone, it happens in one of two ways: executive control (that person deliberately chooses what to focus on) or attentional capture (the attention is captured by a stimulus in the person's sensory field of vision). Effective management requires a healthy balance of the two.
"Focus too much on executive control and fail to attend to the unexpected crisis in your peripheral view," Bernstein says. "Give attentional capture too much weight and you spend the entire day as a slave to your own curiosity and every little out-of-place thing around you."
At the factory, the workers were essentially "managing up" by protecting their managers, themselves, and their company from unproductive attentional capture. The findings indicate that it may behoove managers to acknowledge that when it comes to attentional capture, their employees may know best.
"Those managers who believe they can restrain themselves from becoming captured by something that looks weird—when that attention won't be productive—would likely prefer to see everything and then make a choice as to whether to attend and get involved," Bernstein says. "But maybe we aren't as good at battling curiosity or being overloaded by visual stimuli as we might think. The frontline people who perform a particular task 12 hours a day may be the best people to determine whether that task needs the attention of others.
"If you wanted to design a more productive organization," he continues, "you might actually think about actively putting the agency for attention in the hands of the people who are doing more of the frontline work."
After all, they may already be controlling your attention anyway.