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Can Machines Determine Your Career Path?

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Process improvement has made it to all areas of business, including human resources. One article asks whether or not automation can help businesses predict who will become their best employee.

The piece appears in Bloomberg and is titled Machines Gauging Your Star Potential Automate HR Hiring. The writer explains:

They can drive cars, win Jeopardy and find your soon-to-be favorite song. Machines are also learning to decipher the most human qualities about you — and help businesses predict your potential to be their next star employee.

A handful of technology companies … are doing just that, developing video games and online questionnaires that measure personality attributes in a job applicant. Based on patterns of how a company’s best performers responded in these assessments, the software estimates a candidate’s suitability to be everything from a warehouse worker to an investment bank analyst.

Process Improvement and Career Paths

© Flickr user rich701

This revelation brings to mind the old expression about “feeling like a cog in the machine.” But personality tests are nothing new. In fact, this concept is now over a century old:

Personality testing as a term of employment has a very specific history. Fredrick Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, published in 1911, popularized the notion that employee skills are quantifiable. Taylor’s time-and-motion studies sought to determine, for example, “How many times a minute should [a secretary] be able to open and close a file drawer?” (Answer: “Exactly 25 times.”)

[In fact,] this first boom in personality testing reached its apogee with Henry C. Link’s Employment Psychology, in 1919, in which he proclaimed:

The ideal employment method is undoubtedly an immense machine which would receive applicants of all kinds at one end, automatically sort, interview, and record them, and finally turn them out at the other end nicely labeled with the job which they are to do.

If that were the case, every career would be one that took place inside a factory. Candidates would be the raw materials, work product the profitable output, and used up retirees as the leftover waste. Not a pretty picture.

Process Improvement and Factory Thinking

© Flickr user zoetnet

If Taylor and Link came up with this idea a hundred years ago, why hasn’t the world of human resources become as automated as other manufacturing business processes?

The answer is in two parts: first, yes, some aspects of human resources are heavily mechanized, but only in specialized cases. Consider low-level work in retail stores and fast food restaurants. Since these jobs have high turnover and have carefully prescribed responsibilities, companies have tons of data they can use to improve the success rate of hiring decisions. It’s no surprise, then, that these jobs are being replaced by machines, as is the case with everything from self-serve ordering kiosks to skeleton-crew sushi chains.

But more importantly, no, automation cannot identify creativity. We’ve covered this before on The Methodology Blog, specifically with regard to productivity and the limits of measurement. In summary, the most important value at work is human dignity. It’s certainly possible for people to complete routine tasks that are selected and graded by machines, but they won’t feel empowered to do anything significant or original.

There’s no need to worry. The companies that are interested in your capacity for innovation won’t be comparing you to a statistical model. And those that do are just telling you it’s time to look elsewhere.

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Robby Slaughter
Robby Slaughter is a workflow and productivity expert. He is a nationally known speaker on topics related to personal productivity, corporate efficiency and employee engagement. Robby is the founder of AccelaWork, a company which provides speakers and consultants to a wide variety of organizations, including Fortune 500 companies, regional non-profits, small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. Robby has written numerous articles for national magazines and has over one hundred published pieces. He is also the author of several books, including Failure: The Secret to Success. He has also been interviewed by international news outlets including the Wall Street Journal. Robby’s newest book is The Battle For Your Email Inbox.
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