The Way We Hire Is Totally Insane
“Which path do you intend to take, Nell?’ said the Constable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”
“Neither one. Both ways are simple-minded — they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”
― Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age: or, A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer
Modern hiring and talent management systems and practices are the result of something revolutionary disruptor of multiple industries, Elon Musk, refers to as “reasoning by analogy.” What this means is that as we’ve attempted to innovate, we’ve used existing models as the basis for assumptions as to what the new system should look like. We use essentially the same measurements that were popular in the industrial era, long before computers existed, when standardized behavior, ability to follow detailed instruction, and rote memorization were among the most valuable employment skills. These vague indicators to determine work qualifications are still used, in spite of no longer being relevant. Below are examples of these hiring indicators, along with what they may actually be signaling about the applicant:
· GPA — academic performance, ease of classes taken
· Degree/Certification Obtained –ability to complete tasks, support network a student had
· Years of Experience — time spent holding a job (actual work performed and quality of it is difficult to measure by years alone)
· Title of Positions Held — general field of experience with significant variance in level due to level discrepancy at different companies
· Interviewing Ability –ability to interview well, story telling, self promotion
· Cover Letters –ability to write well, story telling, self promotion
· Resume — individual’s perspective on what they’ve accomplished, attention to detail, formatting
· Nepotism — how well connected someone is, how lucky they were at birth
· University Attended — what their parents could afford, how good they are at applications, which high school they attended, social connections
· Courses Taken — areas of basic knowledge, areas of interest
· Test Scores — how good a test taker they are, how well they perform under pressure, how good of a memory they have
To provide an analogy of this type of scenario outside of hiring, let’s look at measuring sales. To assess volume of sales, we could consider indicators such as:
· # of people entering/leaving a store
· # of people trying on an item
· # of social media posts with pictures of the store or products
· # of bags used
· # of cars in the parking lot
· # of rolls of receipt paper used
While these indicators likely have a correlated (and potentially causal) relationship with sales volume, they are actually a step removed from directly measuring it. It seems ridiculous when you look at it that way, doesn’t it?
Part of the gap that exists between typical hiring tools and the skills needed for jobs is due to employers using educational metrics to assess workplace competency, when unfortunately there is a distinct separation between what we learn at school and what we need to know for work. As was eloquently pointed out by Educational researcher and innovator, Sugata Mitra, when our modern school system was designed two hundred years ago in Great Britain, it aimed to ensure that all people were able to read, write, and do basic arithmetic, in order to prepare them for their role as part of a global human computer. When you want everyone to be capable of doing the exact same thing, tests, GPA’s, and degree obtained are fairly reasonable tools to use in making a hiring decision. However, the rote memorization and ability to follow direction that served factory workers well became less valuable in the knowledge economy, and is valued even less in a world in which almost all information recorded in human history is available with a few swipes of your mobile phone.
While the world changed, our system of education remained the same. It still requires long lead-time to accredit coursework and curricula, meaning that after completing the arduous process of getting classes approved and certified, and amidst the comfort of tenure, educators have a vested interest in continuing to use outdated or obsolete teaching materials. The education/work disconnect is further exacerbated because where we used to be able to determine teaching curriculum based on long standing professions that remained fairly steady (beyond the technologies used to perform them), the speed of technological innovation today means that we are much less clear what the market will demand in a year, let alone several years from now.
Meanwhile, breakthroughs in alternate mechanisms for education including augmented reality, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence are bringing us closer to virtually unlimited customized learning experiences. And generational preferences for mobility and flexibility at work mean that rather than spending their career moving up in a linear fashion with a single company, most workers have multiple employers, and potentially a combination of entrepreneurial and/or freelance experience as well.
Like the use of irrelevant educational indicators for entry level hires, we use “years of experience,” (or as I prefer to call it, “time with your butt in a seat”) when making more senior level hires and promotions. This standard tells almost nothing about what an individual has accomplished in those years.
As more individuals opt into these expanded and decentralized educational and work opportunities, and degrees and years of experience cease to be the only viable mainstream credentials, companies will have an even greater volume of applicants through which to search, with an increasingly complex story from which to decipher skills and qualifications.
We need to stop reasoning by analogy. To adapt to the changing landscape of the modern workforce, we should use a physics concept Musk references called “First Principles,” namely, to start problem solving and system building from a place of fundamental truths, stripping away our biases or preconceived notions. Our learning and work systems should be developed based on actual modern individual and societal needs, rather than by incrementally improving on the previous systems’ efficiencies and structures.
Starting from first principles, the hiring and development processes should look more like this:
· Hiring and promotion decisions based on demonstrated experience doing aspects of the actual work well
· Showing, rather than telling, how one does something
· A shared, verifiable, and open platform to store portfolio of work
· A level playing field where requirements are transparent and individuals can self-organize their qualifications and skills demonstrations
· Feedback loops between hiring organizations, cities, job training firms, and educators
· Various interchangeable ways to show competency, rather than one single way
A skills/competency based system, like the open badging system developed by the MacArthur Foundation, is one of the best ways to capture actual competencies, and to replace the vague and antiquated indicators, which are a step removed from the competency, currently relied upon in hiring. And while development of an end to end system with all the elements above requires a fundamental rethinking of hiring (and frankly, HR) strategy, as well as a retraining of hiring and badge creation staff, you can begin to improve hiring and promotion decisions without creating a single badge, simply by spending the time to identify what assumptions you are making about someone who possesses the required indicators, and making those assumptions more transparent and explicit.
 Mitra, Sugata. TED.com. “Build a School in the Cloud.” Filmed Feb 2013. Accessed March 31, 2016.