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Data Mining Moves To Human Resources 262

theodp writes "Just when you thought annual reviews couldn't get worse, BusinessWeek reports that HR departments at companies like Microsoft and IBM are starting to use mathematical analysis to determine the value of each employee. At an undisclosed Internet company, analysis of (non-verbal) communications was used to produce a circle to represent each employee — those determined to generate or pass along valuable info were portrayed as large and dark-colored circles ('thought leaders' and 'networked curators'), while those with small and pale circles were written off as not adding a hell of a lot. 'You have to bring the same rigor you bring to operations and finance to the analysis of people,' explains Microsoft's Rupert Bader. Hey, who could argue with what Quants did for finance?"
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Data Mining Moves To Human Resources

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  • IBM (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Samschnooks ( 1415697 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @09:30AM (#27199409)
    Doesn't surprise me. IBM is the company that measures programmer productivity with KLOCs - thousands of lines of code.

    That's why their stuff is so bloated and slow.

  • by meist3r ( 1061628 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @09:40AM (#27199437)
    In which you measure the derived value of employees and sell those as part of your stock portfolio. Then a ratings agency gives you a denominated value for your most productive employees and you re-sell those.

    I believe quantifying employee "importance" by the number of email conversations they had and who read what they wrote is pretty silly. Soon they'll fire all their network admins because they all are represented by small-ish pale circles that usually reside in some dark basement bureau.

    Can business get any more dehumanizing? I don't think so. I at least wouldn't want to work at a company like that. From TFA:

    "You have to bring the same rigor you bring to operations and finance to the analysis of people," says Rupert Bader, director of workforce planning at Microsoft

    Can you say fucking stupid, kids? Humans are not machines (at least not yet), they have bad days and bad weeks and some have bad decades (imagine your child dies). Evaluating them through "rigorous" methodological measures is pure idiocy.

  • Approximation (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Nerdfest ( 867930 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @09:47AM (#27199475)
    It may be interesting as an approximation, but people really should know who their good workers are without these tools.
  • by pkbarbiedoll ( 851110 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @09:52AM (#27199505)
    and live in perpetual fear of being outsourced. Seems like a lose-lose proposition to me.
  • What's the news? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:02AM (#27199575)

    those determined to generate or pass along valuable info were portrayed as large and dark-colored circles ('thought leaders' and 'networked curators'), while those with small and pale circles were written off as not adding a hell of a lot.

    So loudmouths that brag (non-verbally... ok) every time they managed to piss without getting too much on their pants get promoted while people who quietly do their work get the shaft. Anything else new?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:03AM (#27199581)

    I love how they say that only a certain percentage of employees can be meeting, exceeding, or failing to meet expectations.

    I have a relative working for a large appliance manufacturer that pulls this crap. Even if every employee did a perfect job (hypothetically speaking), there has to be a least a certain amount of them that are labelled as underperformers.

    "Oh. Well, yes, Jimmy, we agree you did a perfect job but since you didn't wear matching socks on August 14th, we'll have to put you in the underperformers category."

    Let me tell you about why QA exists in the first place. You one point in time in every large company, there was no QA department. Then, a bunch of sales managers, temps, underperforming execs, obsolete trainers, and lazy HR personnel were all about to get canned for their uselessness. Then, they go to the company president and say, "Hey. You know...we really need to do some 'improving' here at XYZ Corporation. My associates and I have come up with a plan to monitor and track employee productivity and customer satisfaction based on this rigid set of next-to-meaningless criteria. There's always room for improvement, you know. And guess what? The best part is that since we have a plan to apply quantitative figures to qualitative matters, you'll be able to screw most people out of raises and bonuses as often as you'd like! All you have to do is let us keep our jobs."

    And, of course, the higer-ups fall for it hook, line, and sinker. Idiots.

  • by Jurily ( 900488 ) <jurily@g m a i l . com> on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:08AM (#27199609)

    Can business get any more dehumanizing? I don't think so. I at least wouldn't want to work at a company like that.

    Amen brother. Coincidentally, aren't these the same companies who never seem to come up with something original?

  • by GF678 ( 1453005 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:08AM (#27199611)

    How can you form any kind of social bonding in a company when your worth is distilled down to the results of some fucking mathematical formula? I'm not naive to think there's any concept of loyalty or trust in the modern business, but man, things just keep getting worse.

    Forget even referring to us by name anymore, just give us numbers if you're gonna stop treating us as human fucking beings.

  • Gaming the system (Score:3, Insightful)

    by HangingChad ( 677530 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:10AM (#27199627) Homepage

    Does it bother anyone this is the same type of gadget analysis that got us into the current economic situation? Your most valuable employees aren't always the most communicative.

    We have one developer who shuns any type of contact, doesn't have a phone on his desk, rarely sends an email longer than two sentences. Yet he's the most heads-down, dogged and prolific programmer I've ever worked with. I suppose the gadget developers would argue that would be accounted by how often his code fragments turn up in other projects but how do you really account for the source of a code fragment? Especially one that is later modified for other uses?

    I can see a lot of bad conclusions coming from this kind of analysis. Where the most outgoing employees are valued over those actually meeting deadlines. So you end up with a company full of a lot of talkers and lay off all the actual doers. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much how we got in the economic mess we're in.

  • by Clover_Kicker ( 20761 ) <> on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:12AM (#27199639)

    It's as likely to encourage people to cc everyone and their cousin, or other silly tactics to game the metrics.

  • Sheer idiocy. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Ralph Spoilsport ( 673134 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:18AM (#27199681) Journal
    It presumes that people don't change. It presumes that the set of "desirable" traits are always going to be desirable. It puts quantity over quality, but it is quality that often matters more.

    Let's say you have a company that makes widgets. One of the people in the widget design office is a bit of a dork. He's a musician, a quiet and not very sociable bass player. And this is his day job. He works hard enough to keep his job but not much more. One day, he comes up with an idea that is dead brilliant, and then goes on tour. The idea saves the company millions of dollars. And let's see - he always comes in late, frequently hungover, kind of smells, and tries to leave early. He doesn't do that much when he's a round, and he's often not around because of his band.

    But, in one afternoon, he has been of more use to the company than all other employees in Widget Design combined, ever.

    By the metrics described, he would have been laid off upon return from tour.

    Typical fuckwittery by HR bozos.

    The best companies don't have HR, except in terms of processing new hires, dealing with benefits, and assisting people on the way out. The rest is left to the departments and managers. It makes for a flatter and faster organisation - ideas M$ has no clue about.


  • Re:Approximation (Score:3, Insightful)

    by WolfWithoutAClause ( 162946 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:19AM (#27199687) Homepage

    A managers good workers are the one that get them promoted, not the ones that do good work... and that's ultimately a problem for the organisation.

  • by tomhudson ( 43916 ) <barbara.hudson@b ... u d s o n . c om> on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:20AM (#27199697) Journal

    I thought this was common practice. Sorry, I never worked H.R.

    That's why most people who go into HR - to avoid work.

    They're "networking", they're "in meetings", they're "interviewing candidates" - and anyone who's read Dilbert knows that's just job-speak for schmoozing, dozing off, and more schmoozing.

  • Yes it is... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tjstork ( 137384 ) <todd DOT bandrowsky AT gmail DOT com> on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:21AM (#27199705) Homepage Journal

    There's a huge and erroneous misconception that centralization makes a corporation more efficient. I think centralization is a cancer. How often do mergers actually work? How often do governments actually execute well. The biggest failing of the free enterprise system as of late, is that, after hearing all of this about how government is inherently wasteful and inefficient and choked with slackers, that corporations set themselves to be operated just like governments. Just look at the result!

    The fact of the matter is, that the thing that matters most in any corporation is time to market. It doesn't matter if you are centralized and more "efficient" if it takes you two years longer to ship a late product out the door, because while your smaller competitors were signing stuff and building things, your own design was going through committees and signoffs to make sure that you weren't doing what someone else already did.

    Like, the stupidest thing GM ever did was to try and share so much data across so many divisions. What they should have done is just run each different division as a separate company, responsible for one thing - the bottom line. If they don't produce, then close them down. But instead, they have a huge corporate system that makes it very difficult for them to bring a new car design to market. And, by the time they get there, what started out as an award winning design is so late that they get slammed for making a mediocre product by the trade magazines first and the consumers second. All that's left of that company is Bob Lutz heroically pushing through car designs, but once he's gone (he's retiring), that company is screwed.

    I think the larger story is, really, that management education in the United States is a colossal failure. There is no reason that a large and previously successful company needs to decline and fail when other civilizations created empires and institutions that lasted for hundreds and thousands of years. But as it is, in America, as soon as a founder leaves a company, the MBAs get in and these "professional managers" slowly sink the ship. It doesn't have to be this way, but it will be this way until we get some serious curriculum changes at our management schools.


  • by meist3r ( 1061628 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:22AM (#27199711)
    Oh so Steve Jobs right now is probably the most valuable asset of Apple Inc. right? I mean if he returned in a few months time (which I doubt) they'd go "Ohh Steve ... yeah ... sorry but you know your circle is rather pale and small now, we don't really know how to fit you into our business anymore."? No he would return to a high valued position and take the helm again. This whole system is already irrational trying to fit it into mathematical categories to me just sounds ridiculous.

    How many people have lost jobs because their boss was having a bad day, or a bad week?

    Yeah, but how many have KEPT their job despite having a bad day, or a bad week? Because their boss was an insightful human being that knew he shouldn't judge his employees on basis of statistical performance.

  • Counter example (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Vornzog ( 409419 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:25AM (#27199727)

    My wife just took a new position, because her last boss was an idiot. He was a passive aggressive micro-manager, puffed up with his own self-importance, *at least* 15 years out of date technically, and long since regulated to the most irrelevant corner of the company.

    By the metrics discussed here, though, he'd have looked like the hero! *All* had to run though him - customers, suppliers, management, co-workers - if you talked to someone without including him in the conversation, he'd flip. He threatened to fire my wife (and a few more people since) for doing their job without his constant oversight. Unfortunately, while everyone knows about the situation, my wife was the first to report it to HR, so they can only now start to think about taking action against they guy.

    Counting the number of communications makes the people who send one word, no value added emails and attend a lot of meetings they don't need to be at look good.

    Also, it completely misses your crack team - the 3-4 people who you can hand a problem to, and know that they'll have it solved by next Tuesday, no questions asked. When those people shut their office door, you leave them alone, because you know they are working miracles, and you'll only get int their way.

    Web analogy - Google and page rank. Rule number one is that you never trust the page to tell you how important it really is. Pages with all the right keywords and a bunch of links are one of two things - the best of the best about a topic, or an SEO linkfarm. So you take those things into account, but you do so with a *huge* grain of salt. To augment it, you go looking for other supporting metrics - what do other people think?

    The HR department has just automated a human approach to the problem - they took one piece of evidence that the human brain can wrap its head around, and made the computer count that. You want to do informatics and data mining right, you need to learn what the computer is good at, and start looking for deeper patterns that are hidden by masses of data too large for the human mind to encompass.

  • by meist3r ( 1061628 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:25AM (#27199729)

    Amen brother. Coincidentally, aren't these the same companies who never seem to come up with something original?

    Maybe because they always fire the wrong people. That guy that hangs out at the water cooler all day and spends half his work hours developing some strange project of his will probably revolutionize the entire industry one day simply because he had all that creative time going. On top of that even though his skills for his job aren't stellar he keeps the morale up and the others going harder because he's such a nice guy and keeps the overall mood in the office on a positive level. Meanwhile, you're complaining that your worker drones, that do exactly as they are told and don't even have ambition to strive for anything else, aren't the innovators that you want them to be. Weird.

  • by XSpud ( 801834 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:28AM (#27199739) Homepage
    From TFA:

    Certain employees produce chunks of data - whether words or software code - that later pop up in other messages. The people copied most often, Cataphora concludes, are thought leaders.

    In my experience the code that is discussed in emails is just as likely to be because it is bad as it is because it is good and I'm sure the examples at [] often "pop up in other messages".

    Good managers already know the value of their staff by talking to them, talking to their colleagues and assessing their work. If a manager has to resort to analytics like this at least a corporation knows where their management problems lie.

  • Number crunching, a staple for decades in the quantifiable domains of engineering and finance, has spread in recent years into marketing and sales.

    Engineering only works because you still have people vetting the numbers. However, even there, there are problems that you just need a human opinion, because the engineers can't figure it out. One example - engineers called in to calculate how much you can cut a pile of earth back without shoring it up. None of them got within 50% of the actual number derived by subsequent tests. The solution is simple - call someone in whose work is excavating, and they'll give you a more accurate answer just by eyeballing.

    Bottom line: If your boss doesn't know how much your're contributing to the company, then your boss is deadwood and should be fired. No need for statistical analysis to replace common sense (which is what created the toxic CDOs and SIVs, etc)... but the deadwood boss will like this, because now it's not their job to know what you do any more - they can point to a chart.

    Short any company using this method.

  • Hey, who could argue with what Quants did for finance []?

    The above rhetorical question implies, the submitter/editor disagree with mathematical methods. For Slashdot, that's quite a shocker... From the linked posting:

    Nocera explores the age-old debate between those who assert that the best decisions are based on quantification and numbers, and those who base their decisions on more subjective degrees of belief about the uncertain future.

    A particular math theory may or may not be flawed, but do we really prefer "subjective beliefs" (a.k.a. "hunches") around here?

  • by ewg ( 158266 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:35AM (#27199777)

    On the face of it, these methods' reliance on machine-readable communications introduces an incentive to spam colleagues with messages in order to inflate one's score. It also penalizes any form of off-line communication.

    Calling a meeting to discuss an issue that could have been resolved in the hallway is rewarded, while taking a minute to share information with a coworker in their office is not.

  • Re:Counter example (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Daniel Dvorkin ( 106857 ) * on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:45AM (#27199849) Homepage Journal

    I strongly suspect that this system is designed to identify people like your wife's ex-boss as valuable employees, while denigrating people like your wife, who (I assume) does real, useful work. The middle-management drones want to justify their existence to the upper-management drones, and software that assigns a number to "networking" and "synergies" and "six-sigma leveraging of core stakeholder values" is exactly the right tool for this. The upper-management drones are inclined to believe this sort of thing already, of course, and the sorts of reports the software generates add to their self-satisfaction.

  • by owlnation ( 858981 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:58AM (#27199921)

    HR is ripe to accept any new technology that is thrown its way.

    It's really just an attempt to justify their existence. As a child, no-one -- absolutely no-one -- dreams of working in HR. The only people who work in that field are those that have no ambition, insufficient skills, and yet an hunger for power. They are the mediocre and the inadequate.

    Smaller firms don't need this kind of technology, nor really any HR at all, because managers -- who are best suited to judge their employees after all -- can assess staff directly, and accurately.

    HR departments are the singular reason why Corporations stagnate. Creative, driven, intelligent people are often "difficult" employees. They have opinions and won't necessarily toe the company line. They won't accept adequate, or selling something as a success when it's poor quality. HR depts will promote those who are the polar opposites of that. And this tool seems designed to filter out the outliers, the ones who actually drive a company forward and create change.

    If you want your company to cease innovation, give power to your HR dept. If you want a successful, innovative, profitable company, avoid HR as much as possible.

    Human Resources is one of the biggest brakes on human development in the 21st Century. They contribute nothing to society, they are simply holding creativity back.

    Why would anyone with an heart, soul and brain work for a company that uses these tools?

  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:58AM (#27199927) Homepage Journal

    Theodp always submits this kind of "story". Read the linked story - it's largely speculative nonesense.

    It wasn't the quants who did for financ so much as greedy managers who believed the numbers, especially when they told them what they wanted to hear. That and failure to apply small quantities of sodium chloride.

  • by krou ( 1027572 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @10:59AM (#27199929)

    When I read things like this, I'm always reminded of Frederick Taylor []. If you've never heard of him, he's probably the guy you should thank [] for such quackery.

    In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.

    This idea of mathematically determining the value of each employee fits very well with his ideas. Face it: in the modern corporate world, humans are part of a system that is, overall, far more important than the individual. It is increasingly a scientifically-managed system, so it should come as no surprise that such dehumanising practices should take place. Business does not want humans; it wants workers.

    It is quite a logical outcome of our increasing reliance on scientific principles to explain and analyse our world. I find it ironic that many /. members would hate this approach of analysing workers, yet its roots lie in our reliance on science to breakdown, label, categorise, and figure out how we and our world works. In the same way psychology, neuroscience, and other mind-related fields were bastardised to figure out how to manipulate the human mind to makes us consume, the computer sciences will be used in a similar fashion to make us behave a certain way: if you don't want to get fired, you need to make sure what you do conforms to their model.

    Sadly, figuring out the "optimal" and "perfect" workers will, like my .sig says, make us realise just what it was that made us human, instead of just robots.

  • by couchslug ( 175151 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @11:18AM (#27200041)

    "It's as likely to encourage people to cc everyone and their cousin, or other silly tactics to game the metrics."

    It will demand, not encourage, such behavior. I have no problem with that since I have no moral obligation to care about stupid or malicious employers. This system needs to be compromised so people can best craft traffic to exploit it.

  • by multimediavt ( 965608 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @11:30AM (#27200099)

    Am I the only one very, very disturbed by this type of analysis? To reduce a human being down to a statistical average and use that in hiring and termination practices is just utterly ridiculous. A person is worth more than the sum of their quantifiable parts! I agree that there are far too many people that are either deadwood within an organization or have no business being managers of areas that they have little to no background within, but there are people out there that excel at areas they have no background in (mostly because their thought processes function differently than others, i.e. thinking outside the box) and have the ability to cut across quantifiable boundaries and contribute to an organization's goals in immeasurably positive ways.

    This is a horrible idea and will backfire on those that implement it. Mark my words, the first person to be wrongly terminated because of this practice is going to ream the hell out the company that does it. You cannot quantify the human element in an equation. They will ALWAYS surprise you!

  • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @11:34AM (#27200127) Homepage Journal

    That's a big part of why metrics like TFA talks about will fail. The guy at the water cooler is the guy who meets with an informal representative of each group each day, receives a condensed report of how they're REALLY doing and what they're REALLY working on and then shares the significant parts of that with informal representatives of all of the other groups.

    He has a much clearer "Big Picture" of how the division's doing and where it's going than the bosses boss. He also has a tiny pale circle because he doesn't email every irrelevancy in his head to everyone else just because it's easier to remember all@ rather than a particular person's email address.

    Meanwhile, his KLOC is half that of the others because he spends half his day working over the problem in the back of his mind so that when he sits down and starts coding after lunch he has already whittled the big complex hairball down to a simple and elegant solution.

    Since the metrics say he's deadwood, out he goes. Then management spends the next 6 months wondering why, in spite of their bold and brilliant management, the whole division seems to be getting dumber and slower by the day. Time to cut some more deadwood, they figure.

  • by dougwhitehead ( 573106 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @11:34AM (#27200135)
    So basically, you are saying you want a club to beat people with. That way you can choose who gets the beating.

    Most of the discussion here is about determining whether the metric is actually valuable.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday March 15, 2009 @11:40AM (#27200177)


    You obviously don't know many Mining or Civil engineers!

    That sort of stuff is their bread and butter.

    As for the deadwood boss crap, I have never met a useless idiot who thought they were a useless idiot. For some strange reason they get upset if you call them stupid, even if you have proof.
    Now it comes down to the definition of useless idiot and there is a good chance your boss has a different view than you.

    There is however a real problem in quantifying employee value that is summed up nicely in the old saying -
    If you can't measure it, you can't control it. If you do measure it, it will be manipulated.

    Now just tell me what you are measuring again....

  • Re:Approximation (Score:3, Insightful)

    by houghi ( 78078 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @12:27PM (#27200441)

    One does not exclude the other. I have seen a lot of people say "this is a good employee" and when you ask "Why?" the answers are generally very vague. Having objective points to measure is not a bad thing, AS LONG AS IT IS NOT THE ONLY ONE.

    I once had a very good idea who where the best people working for me, until I did a real measurement. Then I noticed that I favored some above others. The reason was that those people where more open, so they spoke more to me and I apparently liked that. The job did not require it.

    Yes, some managers will abuse it. Those would abuse anything, including the current way of doing things.

    The difficulty is to come up with things that you can measure objectively. A cook will be measured in a different way then a coder or a manager or an accountant or ...

  • by sjames ( 1099 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @12:32PM (#27200491) Homepage Journal

    Divide and conquer. Others in the department know very well who is deadwood and who quietly holds the whole thing together. If their managers are any good, they know it as well. The manager's peers and reports know very well who's a good manager and who's just suit stuffing.

    The above is hardly perfect, but will be orders of magnitude more accurate than people half a continent away who never have and never will meet any of the employees they're making decisions over using a broken mathematical model that they don't even understand.

  • by symbolic ( 11752 ) on Sunday March 15, 2009 @12:55PM (#27200709)

    Agreed. This is just KLOC as a social metric. There are people who may say very little, but produce great results. And the reason they say very little is because they are more focused on the results than on the BS that many people rely on to convey a (false) sense of usefulness. One wonders how much of this "value" will be determined by politics, and have little to do with reality. This is especially true in situations where the "valued" information might be very accurate, but very unpopular.

  • Re:Yes it is... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by enronman ( 664750 ) <john@joh n r g r a> on Sunday March 15, 2009 @01:13PM (#27200867)
    As an MBA, let me tell you I'm very involved in making things and selling them. How/where we make things falls into my lap, what price we sell them at also falls into my lap. Identifing new markets to sell our products into to new products, something I do.
  • by Clover_Kicker ( 20761 ) <> on Sunday March 15, 2009 @07:05PM (#27203961)

    The whole area is far from a solved problem

    Understatement of the day :)

    The only thing I've ever seen to work is having good people acting on good faith with each other. Any attempt to impose policies or metrics or rules seems doomed to being gamed.

    Too bad it's so rare to work with good people acting on good faith...

  • Why not just remove HR from the equation, and teach managers how to do their jobs properly? Managers should be able to ... you know ... manage people ...

    I know, this means that they need to develop the soft skills, need to learn how to be effective mentors, how to avoid getting into turf wars and pissing contests, how to better communicate, how to protect their people ... all the things that those "team-building" exercises are supposed to teach, but don't, because it's not just something you can do by filling in a checklist.

    Weinberg had it right:

    1. No matter what they say, there's always a problem;
    2. No matter what they say, it's always a PEOPLE problem;
    3. If you know how to listen, they will tell you the solution in the first 5 minutes, then spend the rest of the time putting up roadblocks to the solution

    In this case, the article tells us that the REAL problem is that most management doesn't have either the skills to identify the problems with employees, or the interest in helping them - it's easier (though more expensive) to just swap people around, than it is to change the culture so that every employee is given the resources needed to do their job (which in some cases might be being mentored by someone else, and in other cases might mean figuring out how to identify weak areas in a non-threatening manner).

To write good code is a worthy challenge, and a source of civilized delight. -- stolen and paraphrased from William Safire