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Opinion Editorials

How to ruthlessly use data like a boss without becoming inhuman

(EDITORIAL) The use of analytic data is already well-documented in identifying likely customer behaviors and responses. But there’s something at the core we aren’t always talking about here.

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Risk and predictive analytics

Through the power of predictive analytics, I can tell you when your employees are looking for new jobs, based on such factors as the timing of their sick leave requests, their word choice in company memos, and the number of emails that they send and to whom in your organization.

If I want to outsource that responsibility, I can tell you through the efforts of any one of a number of third-party vendors what the likelihood of your employees leaving you is, simply by examining the employees’ behaviors on social media sites, such as Facebook and LinkedIn and aggregating that into a risk factor.

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The power of prediction in business

The use of such analytic examinations in human resource functions isn’t a widely established practice yet, but it’s already well-documented in identifying likely customer behaviors and responses. For example, in perhaps an unlikely place, consider amusement parks.

In research conducted by Pikkemaat and Schuckert, they identified key factors that determined customer behavior, including warning signs of customer behaviors that would lead to the failure of parks altogether.

Having the ability to know what your customers think and believe and how those factors will predictably translate into action is an amazing tool, one which allows you to harness hundreds and thousands of data points and utilize them in preparing your business for success.

Predictive analytics are being used to seemingly trivial things, such as determining which items Amazon recommends for you to the challenge of predicting civil unrest in Latin America, which Virginia Tech’s EMBERS project has been doing since November 2012.

Consider: We are human

I’m not denying either the importance or the power of using predictive analytics to help you better understand your employees or your customers. Having data and utilizing it in a timely fashion to drive planning is the hallmark of a good business plan. You should be appropriately investing in these segments, but at the same time you’re doing so, you shouldn’t forget that behind each of these data points is a real human being.

We’re drowning in information, while dying for wisdom; we have so much data at our fingertips about the actions of people that we often fail to consider the person individually.

Some of this is the ease which data can be amassed and quantified; quantitative research is fairly simple to conduct, assuming that your data points are clear from the beginning, and that you have enough of them, appropriately sampled, to make a generalizable conclusion about the population.

Some of it is science; Dunbar’s number, a theory proposed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar, proposes that humans can hold space for approximately 150 close stable social relationships, although we can obviously tangentially know many more than that. With the human limitations on getting to know one another in a meaningful way, and the speed at which we can now analyze the actions of the group at large beyond our immediacy level, it’s often easier just to let that amalgamation of information serve as an entrée to understanding who your customers and employees actually are as people, rather than just relying on reports on them.

Your impact, your challenge

But those reports don’t tell you the whole story. The human touch is what provides the value to your data, and helps you understand how the practices that you take as a leader and those that you implement in your company actually impact people.

So here’s a challenge for you. Gather the data, but leave your office more.

Take the time to call or talk to your team face-to-face rather than just relying on emails or texts to communicate. Write a hand-written note of appreciation when things are going well, or more importantly, a word of encouragement when things aren’t. Ask your customers and staff for input, but only when their input actually matters, and ask them for their support when you need it, with logical reasons why they should care.

A small lesson

Former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill was in public office for nearly five decades, partially because of a lesson that he learned in his first campaign in 1937. Walking outside of his house on election eve, O’Neill was stopped by a Mrs. Elizabeth O’Brien. Mrs. O’Brien was O’Neill’s high school elocution and drama teacher, and a neighbor who lived across the street from him, and had for years.

“Tom, I’m going to vote for you tomorrow even though you didn’t ask me,” Mrs. O’Brien said, looking up at the politician. Her statement shook him; he’d had a neighborly relationship with the woman for years, and had helped her around the house with small chores from time to time

“I didn’t think I had to ask for your vote,” he said.

She replied, “Tom, let me tell you something: People like to be asked.”

Data doesn’t equal heart

People like to be asked, included, and made to feel welcome, customers and employees alike. We all want to feel as if we have value to our workplace, and to the places we brand ourselves with by being a customer of.

Relying only on an impersonal touch doesn’t give you that same level of intimacy, nor does it make anyone feel as if they actually matter. The data collected isn’t as important as the soul welcomed, nor is the ability of your company to make a predictive guess as what’s going to come next as vital as making people feel integrated to your company

Make a customer experience so strong at both the interaction and the heart level, and people will flock to work or buy from you. Ignore that in implementation, and all the data in the world won’t be able to rectify what you’ve broken.

#BuildRelationships

Roger is a Staff Writer at The American Genius and holds two Master's degrees, one in Education Leadership and another in Leadership Studies. In his spare time away from researching leadership retention and communication styles, he loves to watch baseball, especially the Red Sox!

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Opinion Editorials

Learning in the workplace: An exploratory mindset can foster efficiency

(OPINION) A typical business model is to run a tight ship with fear of inefficiencies, but cultivating learning can bring the best out of organizations

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Despite living in an ever-changing world, many people assume that learning, be it academic or vocational, more or less stops with the conclusion of formal education. Harvard Business Review’s John Hagel III posits that an exploratory mindset, rather than fear, is the most effective way to cultivate an ongoing interest in learning – something that, as Hagel reveals, is more beneficial to a modern world than business owners realize.

Inefficiency is perhaps the most common fear of any business owner, and for good reason- Efficiency is tied directly to profits. Because of this, the majority of industries focus on establishing protocols, training employees rigorously, and then holding them to their prescribed models of operation.

And while those models can be extremely restrictive, the fear of inefficiency prevents employers from fostering creativity and personal learning, prompting some to go so far as to penalize employees who color outside of the lines. Indeed, Hagel describes one such interaction affecting an acquaintance of his: “As someone who was excited about improving the company’s supply network, she created and began testing a new intake form to assess supplier reliability.”

“She was fired for not using the standard procurement forms,” he adds.

But Hagel’s acquaintance wasn’t acting maliciously, at least by his description; she had simply identified a bottleneck and attempted to fix it using her own expertise.

We’ve written before about the importance of trusting one’s employees, implementing flexible procedures, and even welcoming constructive criticism in the interest of maintaining efficiency in a growing market. This is exactly the point that Hagel drives home – that holding employees to standards that are optimized for maximum efficiency discourages flexibility, thus culminating in eventual inefficiency.

“In a rapidly changing world with growing uncertainty, front-line workers find themselves consuming much more time and effort because they have to deviate from the tightly specified processes, so scalable efficiency is becoming increasingly inefficient,” says Hagel.

The irony of rigidly efficient practices inspiring inefficiency is clear, but the process of moving away from those structures is fraught with missteps and a general lack of understanding regarding what truly motivates employees to seek education on their own.

Let’s be clear: No one is advocating for a Montessori approach to work, one in which employees spend more time licking the walls and asking questions about the sky than they do attending to the tasks at hand. But employees who have been encouraged to explore alternative solutions and procedures, especially if they are supported through both their successes and failures, tend to be more ready to “scale” to increasingly changing demands in the work environment.

Ultimately, those employees and their expertise will create a more efficient system than all of the best-thought-out procedures and guidelines one can muster.

“Cultivating the passion of the explorer enables innovative thinking in the organization at a whole new level,” Hagel summarizes. “But harnessing that opportunity requires us to move beyond fear and to find and cultivate the passion of the explorer that lies waiting to be discovered in all of us.”

It is both Hagel’s and our own hope that businesses will find ways to appeal to that same exploratory passion – if not because it is in the best interests of employees, then, at least, in the name of improved efficiency.

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Opinion Editorials

Art meets business: Entrepreneurship tips for creative people

(EDITORIAL) Making your creative hobby into a business is an uphill battle, but hey, many other people have done it. This is how they crested that hill.

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If the success of platforms like Etsy has proven anything, it’s that creative people can launch successful businesses, even with relatively few tools at their disposal – and for many hobbyists, this is the dream. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, though, and what pushes someone from creator to businessperson can be hard to pin down. In one study, the determining factor was encouragement by family and friends. Others make a slower transition from hobby to side hustle to full-time employment in the arts. Whatever the motivating factors, though, artists interested in becoming entrepreneurs need to hone an additional set of skills.

It’s All In The Plan

From one perspective, artists know how to follow a plan. Whether we’re talking about a knitter who can work through a pattern or a novelist outlining a chapter and building characters, creative thinkers also tend to be very methodical. Just because someone can create or follow a plan, that doesn’t mean they know how to develop a business plan. Luckily, there are plenty of guides to starting a business out there that contain all the basic information you’ll need to get started.

Business development guides are full of valuable technical information – what paperwork you’ll need to file, the cost of licenses, and other similar details – but they can also help you answer questions about your goals. Before you can even start writing a business plan, you’ll need to consider what service or product you want to offer, who your clients will be, and what differentiates your product from others out there. This last question is more important than ever before as more people try to break into creative fields.

Assess Your System

Once you know what your business goals are and what products you’ll be offering, you need to consider whether you have the ability to scale up that operation to fulfill market demand. There aren’t very many art forms that you can pay the bills with fulfilling commissions one at a time. The ability to scale up the artistic process is what made the famous painter Thomas Kinkade so successful during his lifetime when many others have failed. For the modern artist, this might mean asking whether you can mechanize or outsource any of your activities, or if you’ll be doing only exclusive work for high-paying clients.

Find The Right Supports

Every business needs support to thrive, whether in the form of a startup accelerator, a bank loan, a community of fellow professionals, or some other organization or resource. Artists are no different. If you’re going to develop a successful creative business, you need to research and connect with supports for working artists. They may be able to help you access tools or studio space, get loans, market your business, or connect you with a receptive audience. These groups are expert repositories of information and you don’t have to be in a major city to connect with them.

Find Professional Partners

You’re a talented artist. You have a vision and a plan. That doesn’t mean you have to go it alone – or even that you should. To build a successful creative business, you’ll want to partner with people who have different strengths. Not only will these people be able to lend their expertise to your operation, but they’ll make you a better artist and entrepreneur by lending a critical eye to your approach. Just like a major corporation won’t thrive if it’s composed of yes-men who are just along for the ride, your creative undertaking needs internal critics whose ultimate aim is to support you.

Stay Inspired

It’s easy to get bogged down in business logistics and lose your creative spark. In fact, that’s why many artists are reticent to monetize their work, but you shouldn’t let that fear hold you back. Instead, put in the effort to stay inspired. Read books about art and creativity, keep a journal, or go to museums. Experiment with new forms. Be willing to push your own limits and know that it’s okay to fail. Many businesses that aren’t tied to creative output flounder and struggle to find their way, and there’s no reason your business should be any different. Still, the surest path to failure is stagnation and losing your spark. That’s worse for any artist than a sloppy business plan.

Artists are often told that they aren’t meant to be entrepreneurs – but the most successful businesspeople are creative types, even if they aren’t typical artists. Use that outside-the-box thinking to your advantage and make a splash. If you want to do more with your art, you owe it to yourself to try.

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Opinion Editorials

Why tech talent is in the process of abandoning Austin

(AUSTIN TECH) There is no single reason Austin tech talent is packing their bags, but a handful of factors have collided to create a tenuous situation.

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“Nothing’s keeping me here” is a phrase we keep hearing around town. Being in the center of the tech space, we’ve been able to keep my finger on the pulse, and what we thought was primarily housing that is driving folks out of town turns out to be far more insurmountable than we could have ever imagined.

A perfect storm is brewing as the housing market collides with a dramatically transformed workforce that has become accustomed to working remotely and shifted priorities.

Last time Austin was bleeding talent, the year was 2011 and most investments were focused on early stage startups and there weren’t enough open roles that were senior level, so we started losing people to competitive markets. In response, we built a massive employment hub (the Austin Digital Jobs Group (ADJ)) and volunteered hundreds of hours to help make Austin a magnet for high quality employers.

This time around, we expressed to the Group of over 55K members that we were frustrated that people were confiding in us that they were leaving (or considering it). Some are even people that we all imagined to be part of the very fabric of Austin tech. We feel helpless this time.

Many of these talented people said that the soaring housing prices in Austin had them eyeballing smaller towns in Texas, or worse, their hometowns outside of the state. There are only so many times you can try to buy a house, get rejected, or get outbid on 22 homes before you start looking at other places. Only so many people will accept a billion percent rent increase at renewal time before thinking that going back home to Louisiana’s lookin’ pretty good.

This week, Austin CultureMap reported that Austin now ranks number two among the most overvalued home markets in America.

Tesla is getting ready to open their Gigafactory, Oracle is moving their headquarters to Austin, and Samsung is currently trying to get buy-in from city officials in Taylor so they can build their mega plant near Austin. Home investors and firms from all over are salivating.

It all feels both exciting, yet overwhelming when you’re going to buy a house here, only to get outbid by $150K over asking price from an investor in California. It’s been demoralizing for so many.

Because we also own a massive real estate publication, we’re firmly in touch with that sector, and brokers in Austin are telling us that the summer was out of control and overheated, but they’re already seeing that hyper-activity slow a bit.

Housing alone isn’t enough of a reason for an entire sector to be packing up or dreaming of leaving. So what gives?

At last count, a thread in ADJ on this topic is at 806 comments, and I personally received several hundred more via direct message with people in tech explaining why they’re leaving or considering leaving.

There are challenges within the city limits of Austin that have bubbled over like crime and separately, the contentious issue of houselessness – it’s an ongoing and very serious issue that has people leaving downtown, but not necessarily leaving the surrounding areas.

So if housing isn’t the exclusive driving force, how has that problem combined with the employment market shifts? How has the job market changed in such a way that talent is ready to hit the eject button on this town? It boils down to a changing talent pool, fractures in the hiring process, a shift in priorities, and a lingering brokenness in the entire process that is exacerbating all other conditions.

Let’s dig into that further.

Because of the global pandemic, remote work has become a staple in the tech industry, teams adjusted and realized the office is more of a luxury than a requirement, and many large brands swear that they’ll never require their employees to come into the office again.

For that reason, tech workers’ expectations have been forever changed. Fully remote options will drive the market for years to come, and hybrid options or flex work hours will also be how large tech firms attract and retain talent – ping pong tables and chill vibes will be less of an appealing sales pitch.

The pandemic has also shifted the talent pool to include everyone in America – if all workers are remote, employers no longer have to look just to the local workforce. This talent pool expansion is a double-edged sword – if an Austin tech company can look to Nebraska for workers, then remote workers can look outside of Austin to other budding tech hubs, potentially shifting the entire environment. That’s the main driver for Austin brands continuing to hire in Austin, lest the entire ecosystem fail.

All that said, a disconnect in the job market in Austin tech remains. Holdouts from attitudes and old systems of the past linger on.

A theme we continue to hear from high quality candidates is that employers have increasingly unrealistic expectations. You already know the stereotype of job listings that say they’re entry level but require a decade of work experience. But as budgets tightened in the face of uncertainty, Austin tech companies are becoming phenomenally great at hiring someone to do three jobs that pay less than one. One of our Group members asserted that employers are looking for turnkey employees. It used to be that employer job descriptions were a realistic wish list and that if you hit over 60% of them, you might get an interview. Now people believe that the requirements are becoming unrealistic and if you meet less than 100% of them, there is zero chance of an interview. Many have complained that hiring managers and recruiters continue to not be aligned, slowing the process repeatedly.

The timing of the acceleration of unrealistic expectations has locals feeling like the pandemic created conditions that allowed for employers to take advantage of job seekers who must be desperate since the world is upside down. I don’t personally believe this has anything to do with the pandemic, rather it is a continuation of an ongoing trend.

If you think this is an exaggeration, just this week a job seeker let me know that a recruiter sent them a job description that required the “ability to code in any language.” WTF. The recruiter was serious. Try telling me this isn’t out of control and I will laugh right in your face, friend.

Another serious point of contention in Austin is that salary levels are not increasing anywhere near the skyrocketing living expenses.

Many believe the salary levels are a decade old and simply can’t keep up with the market conditions in Austin and while we’ll leave the “you are a remote worker, you shouldn’t earn as much since you moved to a less expensive locale” debate to another day, we will firmly assert that this problem will hold back the tech innovation and the overall economy in Austin.

In that massive thread in our Group, one member asked, “So I guess a question is: do we accept the idea that Austin is now only for those making 6 figures??”

What is so disheartening about the salary conditions is that changing this couldn’t possibly be done overnight – it requires time and structural changes, and the bigger a company is, the slower it is to turn the proverbial ship.

Meanwhile, numerous people retired early during the pandemic, or began freelancing or consulting full time. Many of these people aren’t likely to return to the workforce under current conditions, and they feel like they have less roots in Austin – they can live anywhere now. See how remote work has caused a ripple effect?

Do you remember when some tech executives in Austin reluctantly sent employees home as the pandemic hit, flippantly warning that it wouldn’t be a coronacation!? Bad behaviors like this and other employee treatment during the pandemic haven’t and will not be forgotten – the memories will remain as fresh as the time you got shoved by that bully in elementary school. You may have forgiven, but you’ll never forget. Trust has been broken.

Trust was also broken during the pandemic when people lost what they believed to be stable jobs. It has created a certain trepidation in the marketplace.

The pandemic has forever altered all of our lives as individuals. Thousands died from COVID-19, and those of us left behind lost loved ones. We were all sent home with no job security. Many of us became homeschool teachers and somehow also had to keep up with our careers. We were forced to share spaces with our partners, our children, our parents, our family.

Some would think all of this is a recipe for resentment, but in the majority of cases, what has happened is a serious shift in priorities to favor the family, to appreciate quality time, to find solace in more quiet time and a less full calendar.

People tell us they don’t intend on going out for drinks after work when they’re called back into the office – it turns out we actually like our kids or partners now that we’ve gotten to know them, or that we value our newfound connection to old hobbies. The priorities aren’t fleeting – this pandemic has changed us.

Because of this fundamental change in who we are, ongoing problems in the employment market are now magnified.

“Isms” still plague the hiring process. Ageism continues to be a very serious problem in Austin tech, for example. People tell us that they’re still experiencing sexism, racism, ableism, and every other sort of discrimination. In 2021. It’s unbelievable. You can say all of that is simply perception, but in this scenario, perception truly is reality. And because our priorities have shifted, our giveashitters are pretty low when it comes to tolerating bad actors.

That same shift has also lowered tolerance levels for burnout. One member in the Group pointed out that after the market crash in 2008, resource levels were depleted – and here we are in 2021, they haven’t been restored. People were burned out before the pandemic, and now they’re moving to the country to work remotely and begin healing this burnout that is coming to a head.

It’s difficult to deal with ghosting (be it computer-aided or overworked recruiters) when you’re already burned out and thinking you’re the only one. It’s giving this sector a terrible reputation that is spreading.

Resources aren’t the only factor here that is stuck in 2008. Companies were so used to getting a flood of applications for every single job listing, their ATS (applicant tracking system) filters were implemented accordingly. The volume of applications has dropped, yet the filters remain overly restrictive. They put their ATS on auto-pilot once upon a time, and it remains that way, yet they continue to reach out to us in confusion, asking us where all the applicants are.

In the eyes of tech talent, the hiring process has deteriorated. Simultaneously, in the eyes of companies hiring, the process has been improved. Enhanced.

The disconnect here is not in the unrealistic expectations previously outlined, or the rising opacity in salaries, but in the actual mechanics of the hiring process. Even smaller companies have added additional rounds of interviews and ridiculous red tape in what is an effort in vain to compete with the Googles of the world. There’s a lot of what I would call “playing office” going on, with non-technical hiring managers hiring for technical roles, or unrelated staff being roped into panel interviews to weigh in on whether or not someone is a “culture fit.”

The process has become lengthy and demanding with endless personality tests, whiteboard tests, Zoom calls, questionnaires, more phone and video calls, aptitude tests, and so forth. Most people have come to accept these as hoops to jump through, but the practice of having job seekers do extensive unpaid projects as part of their job application is creating deep resentment and a growing resistance. No one expects to shake a hand and get a job today, but doing a 12 hour assignment that is due in 24 hours is unreasonable, especially unpaid and with no promise of their intellectual property being protected.

It started off as a way to aide candidates into demonstrating their true skills and it was simple. But over time, the practice has “evolved.” It feels to some like every Austin tech recruiter and hiring manager went to some evil underground conference a few years ago and were brainwashed into thinking that if they ALL assign abusive tasks, no one in the sector will notice because they’ll just accept that it’s “how things are done now.” But that’s not happening and the overly complicated process combined with other market factors is driving seriously qualified tech talent out of Austin.

The hiring process has continued to degrade and for no good reason. We actually built ADJ in a way that would directly connect hiring manager and job seeker, promoting the concept of simplifying the hiring process. Yet here we are.

The final nail in the coffin is that candidates and employers are blaming each other for a power imbalance, and thinking that their situation is unique. A feeling of isolation is growing due to peoples’ inability to openly discuss this process – both hiring folks and job seekers.

The bottom line is that numerous market conditions have converged to create a scenario where people are tired and simply won’t settle anymore. Expectations have changed. And we have changed as people.

We will inevitably get hate mail because of this editorial and folks will say that the very publication of this piece will push people out of town, but we would argue that if no one makes an effort to diagnose the growing illness, it will metastasize.

This editorial was first published here on September 09, 2021.

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