For those familiar with Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, you may recognize the number 42 as “The Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” given by Deep Thought after seven and half million years of computational analysis; and, as I’m sure you will recall, not everyone was happy with the answer. Poor Phouchg (probably the VP of HR) grasped the seriousness of the situation right away, “We’re going to get lynched, aren’t we?” While Loonquawl (I’m guessing he was the CIO) was sure the problem lay with Deep Thought (and by association the software vendor who supplied its programming), “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and half million years’ work?” But the problem, as Deep Thought explains, was not with the answer: “I checked it very thoroughly and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quiet honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
Like those who were present on the great day of The Answer, many of us look to our software applications to answer the really hard questions around performance, potential, risk-of-loss, and succession. The promise of predictive analytics and the possibilities associated with data mining lead many to the false hope that the answers to these difficult questions lie buried deep within their data warehouses. Many C-level executives believe it is possible to quantify a persons potential or risk-of-loss in the same way a mathematician uses a predefined formula to discover an unknown variable. They long to replace the personal (subjective) aspects of the appraisal process with a dispassionate (objective) analytic tool. But the human experience is anything but objective. Our experiences, relationships, thoughts and feelings are as unique to each of us as our fingerprints; and the practice of measuring qualities like job satisfaction, potential, and performance requires a distinctly human touch.
Now before I get escorted from the building, let me clarify what I’m saying. Well defined competency models, clear organizational goals, and well integrated talent management applications are critical tools, which every manager should utilize, especially those who are new to their role. But managers must not abandon their responsibility in bridging the gap between the objective statistics generated from a data warehouse and the subjective nature of the human experience. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, “managers need to have some skin in the game.” Calculating and calibrating a person’s performance and potential should be the natural outcome of a manager’s relationship with their employee and not a task to be completed once annually. Manager’s need to provide clear, honest, sincere feedback well before the appraisal period begins. This means meeting regularly with the employee, getting to know them, understanding what they like and dislike about their jobs, and helping them play to their strengths. These are tasks that can only be done by a person. Analytic tools may provide a good starting point for the evaluation, but they cannot replace the relationship between the manager and employee; because it is the manager, and not the application, who will understand that getting the right answer means asking the right question.