Service of Gut vs. Fact

April 29th, 2013

Categories: Human Resources, Jobs, Technology

 Help wanted

In some fields, such as human resources, “New research calls into question other beliefs,” wrote Steve Lohr in “Big Data, Trying to Build Better Workers,” in The New York Times.

This research, called workforce science according to Lohr, “is what happens when Big Data meets H.R”

Lohr continued, “Employers often avoid hiring candidates with a history of job-hopping or those who have been unemployed for a while. The past is prologue, companies assume. There’s one problem, though: the data show that it isn’t so. An applicant’s work history is not a good predictor of future results.”

Email with magnifierThe next bit is scary: “Today, every e-mail, instant message, phone call, line of written code and mouse-click leaves a digital signal. These patterns can now be inexpensively collected and mined for insights into how people work and communicate, potentially opening doors to more efficiency and innovation within companies.” Rather than basing conclusions on hundreds as before, research can involve hundreds of thousands of employees.

Tim Geisert, the chief marketing officer of Kenexa, a recruiting, hiring and training company that IBM recently acquired, reported that “the most important characteristic for sales success is a kind of emotional courage, a persistence to keep going even after initially being told no.” This compares to the trait of outgoing personality that most people used to rely on.

I question the novelty of this “finding.” Persistence is the key to success in almost every specialty and task. Who needs a survey?

job applicantsEvery year, according to Lohr, “Kenexa surveys and assesses 40 million job applicants, workers and managers.” IBM bought Kenexa for $1.3 billion, he wrote, because of its data and strong qualified staff.

There are other companies in the Big Data business such as Google. This company no longer equates high SAT scores and college GPAs as it once did to determine a candidate’s success as a Google employee. Studies of its workers showed that “the most innovative are those who have a strong sense of mission about their work and who also feel that they have much personal autonomy.”

In yesterday’s Sunday Business section in The New York Times Matt Richtel wrote about the same subject in “I Was Discovered by an Algorithm.” He quoted Sean Gourley, co-founder and chief technology officer of a Big Data company, Quid: “When you remove humans from complex decision-making, you can optimize the hell out of the algorithm, but at what cost?”

big dataRichtel also writes about Vivienne Ming, the chief scientist at another such company, Gild. “Dr. Ming doesn’t suggest eliminating human judgment, but she does think that the computer should lead the way, acting as an automated vacuum and filter for talent.”

Do you see any place for instinct in big business hiring anymore or will gut-made decisions only be the realm of small businesses that don’t have access to or budgets for workforce science? Will it be easier or harder for people to get a job? How do you feel about having employees’ every action captured and analyzed?

Gut feeling

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6 Responses to “Service of Gut vs. Fact”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    Some “guts” are more developed than others, and are we ever seeing a sorry example of this in the Jets drafts over the years! Another cause for wonder is who hired the corrupt and/or just plain dumb corporate leaders whose gaffes and criminal exploits make for highly entertaining headlines, but little else of a positive nature. Background checks are of little value other than a prospective employee has not sat behind bars. Closed juvenile records could hide a promising axe murderer or rapist. It would appear that hiring for the most part is a crap shoot. As for computers……same crap shoot.

  2. Ginny Pulos Said:

    Where would we be without Steve Jobs’ intuition? His gut? All the tests that might have shown him to be visionary would also show that he didn’t “work or play well” with others, so he might not have been hired. In fact, he was fired … by his own company! Companies are people. What we know intuitively will never completely be quantified by a computer. It’s called “human” resources for a reason!

  3. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I don’t think that you meant to make me smile but you did when you wrote “who hired corrupt or plain dumb corporate leaders…” The answer would be big shot headhunters, folks far loftier than those in human resources….with the approval of boards of directors. Now if they only used Big Data…..hmmmm.

    I wonder if the tweets and emails and phone calls of top management are monitored as those of their empolyees?

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    GOOD POINT: Human resources. I wonder when that name will change as well?

    There was a great movie with Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracey involving her brainiac research department in a giant corporation. The entire department was going to be replaced by a computer. This may have been in the 1940s/1950s. In any case, the movie and the response by companies that note “Computer Error” made me laugh. We always seem to be in search of a way to skip a step and get the same result. What computer acts alone? Someone feeds it information, types a response, hits “send,” inputs equations so it is really a person, not a computer that makes an error.

    Lucrezia, in an email subsequent to her comment, noted that some are looking for another scapegoat to blame when they make a mistake. I never thought of that: “How could you have hired Mary X or Joe Y?” Answer: “Computer error.”

  5. Simon Legree Said:

    Thanks to President Lyndon B. Johnson, an employer can cause itself (assuming employers are neuter) all sorts of problems by messing up the hiring process. The more technology, the more data bases and carefully crafted well-aimed computer generated documents an employer can make available to defense counsel, the less likely discrimination lawsuits are to succeed, and the easier it becomes to avoid or fix hiring mistakes.

    As someone who hired a good many people, I made my worst mistakes when I was desperate for people, and the labor pool was constricted. Equally well, don’t be afraid to hire somebody good when you have nothing for them to do. They’ll find things to do and soon be useful. It didn’t matter whether applicants came through headhunters or off the street. Also, one way or another, get answers to questions you legally can’t ask before you hire. (There are ways of doing this — like your computer check service –. They cost but it is worth it.) Don’t find out afterwards.

    Be careful also, not to be over impressed by education and accomplishments. You are hiring a body, a brain and a personality, not a resume. Trust your gut, which means hire people you like. Don’t hire people you don’t like, no matter how qualified.

    But do, repeat do, check them out thoroughly before you hire them, or immediately afterwards while you can still fire them without having a reason.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I agree with your advice. The best assistant I ever had was smart and picked things up in a second. She’d not worked in either PR or the industry I covered and would not have appeared on Big Data’s radar.

    Someone hired an assistant at a magazine I worked at who had a great resume and little brain, few instincts or penchant for what we did.

    The rules don’t allow a person to find out easily whether a potential recruit has cheated to get where he/she currently is. There’s a lot of that around both in school, college and in the workplace.

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