When Computers Go Too Far
In my last blog entry, I highlighted a recent article by Dale Rose and colleagues that largely focuses on the use of technology in supporting 360 Feedback processes; I hope you had a chance to read it. Here is the link again: http://www.siop.org/tip/jan11/04rose.aspx
One of the points the article made was how technology can be used to basically bypass some important steps in a 360 process. One that blows my mind is offering raters a list of prefab write-in comments. Give me a break.
Rose et al speak to data overkill that can result in overly complex and lengthy reports. The inverse of that is a capability they don’t mention in the article, namely to create an extremely short report (a page or two) that is supposed to “tell” the participant what the bottom line is, i.e., what the report says is most important to work on. In other words, users want to bypass reading the report at all, and just “give me the answer.” Now, we do need to help people use the report to help distill the few messages that are relevant for their situation that will ideally lead to some development plans. But, in the end, no computer (or rater or coach, for that matter) can do that for them. (As I noted in an earlier blog, I believe it is misguided to ask raters or coaches to identify the most important development needs; that responsibility lies with the people who best know the ratee’s situation, which is usually the ratee and their manager.)
Another example Rose et al did mention, and the one that motivated to write this blog entry, was how technology can be used to create development plans. I recall being in a sales meeting some time back at a consulting firm that will be left nameless. A senior manager said, “Hey wouldn’t it be great to create the capability for the computer to analyze the report and tell the leader what actions to take. People would love it!” I think my response was something like, “Are you nuts?” Maybe that’s one reason why I’m not there anymore.
From a sales perspective, in my defense we were trying to create a coaching practice to help leaders to do just that, i.e., properly read and use their feedback, partnering with the participant’s manager (boss) to create accountability and sustainable behavior change. Speaking of accountability and sustainability, how committed will a person be to a computer generated suggestion? It might as well be a horoscope or fortune cookie.
Speaking of computers, GPS devices have become very popular. They can be very helpful and I use mine often. They also have some problems, one of which is that they are sometimes wrong. There are a couple of entertaining commercials on TV right now that use that theme to show the consequences of a GPS gone awry. Part of what is amusing about these commercials is how the drivers are totally reliant on the “data” coming from the computer and ignore reality.
If commercials are funny because drivers follow a GPS mindlessly, why isn’t it funny when we do the same with computer-generated 360 reports that tell us what to do? If anyone is laughing, it is the firms that are selling that stuff. (Let me be clear that I am not dissing development guides that list resources to choose from. I am criticizing being told, either by a computer or even a coach, which of those resources are the “silver bullet.”)
One capability that my GPS has is to display both the current (supposed) speed limit and my actual speed. Again, sometimes it is just plain wrong, maybe out of date or not able to know about construction zones, for example. In a 360 analogy, a speed limit is a kind of norm, that is, a comparison number. I am of the opinion that most (if not all) external 360 norms are likely to be irrelevant to the target organization and, therefore, each employee as well. In other words, they are often an inaccurate comparison. An internal norm, on the other hand, is a much more reliable comparison number that takes into consideration the uniqueness of the environment (terrain, weather, traffic?) and special situations (e.g., construction zones, speed traps).
My GPS actually goes beyond just displaying the two numbers (speed limit and actual speed) and makes a value judgment by flashing red when I exceed 3 mph faster than the limit. REALLY? Three miles per hour? And sometimes against an erroneous number to start with? There is a not-so-fine line between providing people with data to consider in regard to changing behavior versus telling them that what they have to do without considering the data accuracy and the context.
I have always maintained that 360’s should not be about the numbers. There ALWAYS needs to be a good dose of judgment used in interpreting and using the results. Yes, I am a proponent of using 360’s to help us make decisions. “Help” is the operative word; not to “make” decisions but to “help” us make better decisions along with other data, observations, history, values, and common sense.
No computer should do those things for us. And if/when we do ask computers to do the work for us, it is a sign of lack of commitment to maximizing the usefulness (read “validity”) of the 360 process.
©2011 David W. Bracken