Human Resources Management Meets Big Data in Devising Systems to Identify Star Employees

"2009 Leonid Meteor", Image by Ed Sweeney

“2009 Leonid Meteor”, Image by Ed Sweeney

Have you ever seen a clearly talented colleague at your workplace who was not fully recognized for his or her potential?

Today there is a raft of sophisticated data-driven software products being marketed to Human Resources departments (HR) to assist companies in finding possible star employees. However, some of these systems are not living up to their own, well, potential. Employers are still struggling to identify people on their staffs who have might be likely to excel in their future career paths.

This modern workplace quandary was the subject of a very interesting and informative feature in the June 17, 2015 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled Are Companies Any Good at Picking Stars?, by Rachel Feintzeig.  I will sum up some of the main points, annotate, and ask some additional questions.

Businesses today have a wealth of data about their employees’ performances and productivity. Nonetheless, identifying who among them have the greatest potential to assume leadership roles in the future is still “more art than science”.  Assessments by humans as well as software algorithms are both still lacking in some respects.

As a result, companies including Nokia, American Express and SAP are turning to new means to measure employee potential. These include new forms of metrics and classifications, as well as games to identify leadership characteristics.

No firm has yet constructed a truly breakthrough HR system to accomplish this. Furthermore, a survey entitled Potential: Who’s Doing What to Identify Their Best? to conducted by Talent Strategy Group LLC indicates, among its other findings, that much of the approximately $70B to $75B US spent on corporate training has been “misspent”.

Tom Rauzi, Dell’s Director of Global Talent, will soon be launching a research project to assess employee data including “education, trajectories and performance” in an effort to identify candidates who might be best qualified to move up in the company.

Generally, when managers have workers with high potential, they have a tendency to choose people “who are like them”.  In another survey, this one by US-based management and advisory company CEB Inc., 25% of 9,500 manager surveyed reported that they “reply on gut instinct” when choosing potential future leaders. This might suggest why some businesses are so challenged in locating “fresh thinkers and diverse hires”.

Christopher Collins, “an associate professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations and director of its Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies“, reports that workers who sensed their work is being tracked and evaluated for advancement, often stay with their companies longer and work harder.

Conversely, those workers who are not tracked for future leadership may become resentful. As a result of this, SAP North America ended its high potential categorization.

Carie Davis, who until March 2015 was Coca-Cola’s Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, sensed that the company’s high potential program was made up mostly of “Type A employees” with common backgrounds. During some meetings, she found that the discussion ended up being more about “jostling for power” than the intended purpose of innovation.

At a management consulting company called Development Dimensions International Inc., a vice president named Matt Paese reported that companies are now using executive level assessment tools to test thousands of employees throughout their companies. His firm is set to soon start offering a “cheaper, lighter version” of their existing executive-level products for this purpose.

Some HR software vendors are devising their own new tools to illuminate potential. Their algorithms draw from a series of metrics including, among others, an employee’s 401(k) contributions, promotions and network connections within their firms.

For example, a system called UltiPro High Performance Predictor from Ultimate Software Group Inc., measures workers on the probability of their performing well, as distinguished from their potential, into future months. Currently, they are extending their research on “predictors of potential”.

Another suppressant of potential leadership in the workplace, rude and disrespectful behavior by management, was covered in a very insightful opinion piece in the June 25, 2015 edition of The New York Times entitled No Time to Be Nice at Work, by Christine Porath. I highly recommend reading this for its many piercing analytical insights as well as an adjunct to this terrific WSJ article by Ms. Feintzeig. I found that these articles overlapped on some points and can be seen as two sides of the same coin in their effects upon today’s workplaces.

My own questions are as follows:

  • In addition to all of the testing, training, metrics collection and analysis that goes on by HR departments, what if any role does the opinion of an employee’s peers have in spotting potential? While there are many businesses that engage in peer evaluations, I wonder whether on a more informal basis, are co-workers also asked to identify which of their colleagues could be future stars?
  • What are the results of follow-up validation studies in those who were promoted along a path to leadership? While the WSJ article explores the faults in these systems, what about the successes? If John and Mary have been vetted for a leadership track, do they more often than not meet such expectations? Are they more or less inclined to change jobs or departments along the way?
  • As companies, consultants and academics continue to experiment with and fine tune their algorithms, what is the relationship between and among data establishing a correlation as opposed to actual causation in identifying leaders? (This issue has also previously been visited in these five Subway Fold posts.)

Finally, for a hilarious take on a completely unqualified and unmotivated fictional employee failing his way up the corporate ladder, I very highly recommend checking out Season 2 of Silicon Valley on HBO. Here is an interview on Tumblr with the actor Josh Brenner, discussing his role as this character named “Big Head”.

Can the Human Brain One Day be Fully Digitized and Uploaded?

"Human Brain Illustrated with Millions of Small Nerves", Image by Ars Electronica

“Human Brain Illustrated with Millions of Small Nerves”, Image by Ars Electronica

Can the human brain somehow be digitized? Can someone’s mind  be bitmapped and uploaded to a computer? Even if this ever becomes possible, is it something anyone would actually want to have done?

A Senior Scientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Janelia Farm Research Campus named Kenneth Hayworth is currently working on this possibility. He is also the President and Co-Founder of the Brain Preservation Foundation. His work in this field is the subject of a most interesting profile in the May 2015 edition of Smithsonian Magazine entitled The Quest to Upload Your Mind Into the Digital Space by Jerry Adler.

I will sum up, annotate and ask a few questions about this piece. I  also recommend clicking through and reading it for more of the details.

Hayworth’s plan is to digitize and upload his “memory, skills and personality” to a computer. In turn, this system can be programmed to “emulate” the operations of his brain. As well, this system could perhaps enable him live on indefinitely in this electronic form.

This kind of adds a whole new meaning to keeping someone in mind.

If Hayworth does achieve this goal of producing human-level or above intelligence embedded in silicon, it will be considered to be one of the  technological manifestations of The Singularity, an anticipated point in the next few decades where machine intelligence equals and then surpasses human intelligence. The prediction of this event was the subject of a fascinating book by the renowned inventor and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil entitled The Singularity is Near (Penguin Books, 2006). I suggest reading this if you are ever looking for a truly original and challenging science and technology book.

Carboncopies.org is another organization working towards a similar goal of producing a “substrate independent mind” (SIM). Dr. Randall Koene is the founder.

In their best case scenarios, Hayworth and Koene believe this will cost billions and take about 50 years to accomplish. Hayworth’s plans are to devise a chemical or cryonic means to preserve the full human being at death and then scan its structure into a database in order to then achieve the mind’s emulation. However, this remains based upon an as yet unproven hypothesis that all of the “subtleties of the human mind and memory” are held within the brains “anatomical structure”.

Furthermore, these projects will require significant leaps in technological development. One of these, among others, is the building of the connectome, a long-term initiative to fully map the billions of neurons and, in turn, their trillions of connecting synapses in the human brain. As also previously discussed in the December 27, 2014 Subway Fold Post entitled Three New Perspectives on Whether Artificial Intelligence Threatens or Benefits the World :

For an absolutely fascinating deep and wide analysis of current and future projects to map out all of the billions of connections among the neurons in the human brain, I suggest reading Connectome: How the Brain’s Wiring Makes Us Who We Are (Houghton Mifflin, 2012), by Sebastian Seung.  See also a most interesting column about the work of Dr. Seung and others by James Gorman in the November 10, 2014 edition of The New York Times entitled Learning How Little We Know About the Brain. (For the sake of all humanity, let’s hope these scientists don’t decide to use Homer J. Simpson, at fn.3 above, as a test subject for their work.)

Furthermore, a program announced by the US government in 2013  to build a comprehensive map of human brain activity. It is intended to operate on the scale of the Human Genome Project. (For detailed coverage of this see Obama Seeking to Boost Coverage of Human Brain, by John Markoff, in the February 17, 2013 edition of The New York Times.)

Among “mainstream researchers”, opinion is split as to whether Hayworth’s objective is even possible. Moreover, will such machine brains experience comparable human emotions, needs and desires? Will they be truly sentient?

My own questions are as follows:

  • Is this story really about machine capabilities or the ages old human dream of becoming immortal?
  • What protocols and laws, if any, should be drafted and enacted to make certain that this area of development does not lead to any unintended or dangerous consequences? Are Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics a logical place to begin studying these issues?
  • In addition to neuroscience and artificial intelligence, what other scientific fields and commercial marketplaces might these projects influence and benefit?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities might exist now and in the future to facilitate and support these initiatives?
  • What would be the long-term economic and social consequences if this form of singularity is ever achieved?
  • Will the prospect of this achievement be so unsettling that it might result in some form of scientific and/or public backlash?

Finally, the notion of transferring an individual’s consciousness from one person to another has long been a popular plot device in science fiction. My own recommendation for one of the best sci-fi novels I have ever read to ever use this is Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan (Del Ray, 2003). It presents a truly, well, mind-bending plot and crackling prose about a future world where brains can be downloaded and implanted multiple times from a form of central server. (September 12, 2016 Update: Altered Carbon is being adapted for a new TV series. The details were reported in a post on Deadline.com today in an article entitled ‘Altered Carbon’: Marlene Forte & Trieu Tran Join Cast of Netflix Series, by Denise Petski. I am definitely looking forward to seeing how the production, writing and acting crew do with this very rich source material.)