December 18, 2013

WAIT, OUR BOSSES ARE GOING TO KNOW WHAT WE REALLY DO? [AND DON'T]:

They're Watching You at Work : What happens when Big Data meets human resources? The emerging practice of "people analytics" is already transforming how employers hire, fire, and promote. (DON PECK, NOV 20 2013, Atlantic)

Consider Knack, a tiny start-up based in Silicon Valley. Knack makes app-based video games, among them Dungeon Scrawl, a quest game requiring the player to navigate a maze and solve puzzles, and Wasabi Waiter, which involves delivering the right sushi to the right customer at an increasingly crowded happy hour. These games aren't just for play: they've been designed by a team of neuroscientists, psychologists, and data scientists to suss out human potential. Play one of them for just 20 minutes, says Guy Halfteck, Knack's founder, and you'll generate several megabytes of data, exponentially more than what's collected by the SAT or a personality test. How long you hesitate before taking every action, the sequence of actions you take, how you solve problems--all of these factors and many more are logged as you play, and then are used to analyze your creativity, your persistence, your capacity to learn quickly from mistakes, your ability to prioritize, and even your social intelligence and personality. The end result, Halfteck says, is a high-resolution portrait of your psyche and intellect, and an assessment of your potential as a leader or an innovator.

When Hans Haringa heard about Knack, he was skeptical but intrigued. Haringa works for the petroleum giant Royal Dutch Shell--by revenue, the world's largest company last year. For seven years he's served as an executive in the company's GameChanger unit: a 12-person team that for nearly two decades has had an outsize impact on the company's direction and performance. The unit's job is to identify potentially disruptive business ideas. Haringa and his team solicit ideas promiscuously from inside and outside the company, and then play the role of venture capitalists, vetting each idea, meeting with its proponents, dispensing modest seed funding to a few promising candidates, and monitoring their progress. They have a good record of picking winners, Haringa told me, but identifying ideas with promise has proved to be extremely difficult and time-consuming. The process typically takes more than two years, and less than 10 percent of the ideas proposed to the unit actually make it into general research and development.

When he heard about Knack, Haringa thought he might have found a shortcut. What if Knack could help him assess the people proposing all these ideas, so that he and his team could focus only on those whose ideas genuinely deserved close attention? Haringa reached out, and eventually ran an experiment with the company's help.

Over the years, the GameChanger team had kept a database of all the ideas it had received, recording how far each had advanced. Haringa asked all the idea contributors he could track down (about 1,400 in total) to play Dungeon Scrawl and Wasabi Waiter, and told Knack how well three-quarters of those people had done as idea generators. (Did they get initial funding? A second round? Did their ideas make it all the way?) He did this so that Knack's staff could develop game-play profiles of the strong innovators relative to the weak ones. Finally, he had Knack analyze the game-play of the remaining quarter of the idea generators, and asked the company to guess whose ideas had turned out to be best.

When the results came back, Haringa recalled, his heart began to beat a little faster. Without ever seeing the ideas, without meeting or interviewing the people who'd proposed them, without knowing their title or background or academic pedigree, Knack's algorithm had identified the people whose ideas had panned out. The top 10 percent of the idea generators as predicted by Knack were in fact those who'd gone furthest in the process. Knack identified six broad factors as especially characteristic of those whose ideas would succeed at Shell: "mind wandering" (or the tendency to follow interesting, unexpected offshoots of the main task at hand, to see where they lead), social intelligence, "goal-orientation fluency," implicit learning, task-switching ability, and conscientiousness. Haringa told me that this profile dovetails with his impression of a successful innovator. "You need to be disciplined," he said, but "at all times you must have your mind open to see the other possibilities and opportunities."

What Knack is doing, Haringa told me, "is almost like a paradigm shift." It offers a way for his GameChanger unit to avoid wasting time on the 80 people out of 100--nearly all of whom look smart, well-trained, and plausible on paper--whose ideas just aren't likely to work out. If he and his colleagues were no longer mired in evaluating "the hopeless folks," as he put it to me, they could solicit ideas even more widely than they do today and devote much more careful attention to the 20 people out of 100 whose ideas have the most merit.

Haringa is now trying to persuade his colleagues in the GameChanger unit to use Knack's games as an assessment tool. But he's also thinking well beyond just his own little part of Shell. He has encouraged the company's HR executives to think about applying the games to the recruitment and evaluation of all professional workers. Shell goes to extremes to try to make itself the world's most innovative energy company, he told me, so shouldn't it apply that spirit to developing its own "human dimension"?
Posted by at December 18, 2013 7:29 PM
  
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