I have just returned from a week in Pakistan where I taught strategic L&D Masterclasses in Karachi and Lahore. When I received the original invitation, some months ago, I thought really long and hard before I decided to accept but still viewed the impending trip with some trepidation (especially after reading the advice from the UK foreign office). This was one of those trips you do not do just for the money. As an evidence-based manager I wanted to see it and experience it for myself; following the principle of genchi genbutsu that I learned from Toyota. I am really glad I did because this was one of the most rewarding trips of my entire career. Both groups were amongst the most intelligent, most eager to learn, most open-minded and most mature in their thinking of all the groups I have ever worked with anywhere in the world. Maybe ironically, dire political and economic circumstances can somehow bring out the best in people rather than the worst? Oh, I forgot to add, they were incredibly polite and a real pleasure to work with. I can also recommend flying PIA.
Did you just notice something as you read that opening paragraph? Stop for a second and consider the perspective I appear to be taking – did it not sound incredibly patronising? Why shouldn’t the people in Pakistan be better than some of the best people I have worked with; in fact why should they not already be better than me and anyone else in the West? So let me immediately apologise to anyone from Pakistan who I might have already offended. My praise is genuine and does not come from a place of assumed superiority, quite the opposite, it comes from a heartfelt and humble desire to learn with and from the best. It comes from the best traditions of the real gurus in the East – where the Sanskrit term for “teacher” or “master” originates. The real wisdom of the guru surely comes from their humility and acute awareness of their own ignorance whilst trying to contemplate the world around them, in order to make sense of it. This is why those who seek true enlightenment have often travelled to the Indian subcontinent.
Maybe that is why I now feel more enlightened. My trip to this dangerous neck of the woods made me start thinking about what was happening back at the ranch. Having worked in HR for over 30 years, and taught many management classes, I always reacted against the notion of such a thing as a ‘management guru’ and particularly from the country that seems to think it has more than anyone else – America. I am also conscious, particularly these days, that any hint of ‘anti-Americanism’ could get me into trouble because that is associated with those who blindly follow an opposing ideology. Yet that is precisely my point, any ideology that is followed blindly always ends up in intimidation and that is not good from a human capital management perspective. So what is this ideology called the American Way and is that ultimately in America’s interest, never mind anyone else’s?
Here is my take on it. By definition, ideologies are simplistic and dogmatic – the less thinking you have to do the better. The profit motive that supposedly underpins capitalism in the US is the simplest ideology in the world – you invent or make something, if customers like it they buy it, you make a profit, they are satisfied, everyone is happy. If it were that simple though why do gated communities start springing up in the most affluent areas? If the sole motive of profit* is such a great way for us all to get along why does it have to split us apart? If the people you have to employ, to make things customers want, are not 100% behind your philosophy then what are your chances of achieving your own simplistic ends?
The American Way certainly has some great strengths. America welcomes talent and is generally a democratic meritocracy: that fits perfectly with getting the best value from human capital. It has also done a great job, thus far, of providing Americans with great wealth and a very high GDP per head: let’s not mention the US’s huge debts or inequalities though. In short, no ideology can be that simplistic and, the way the world is shifting at the moment, simplistic ideologies are snapping under the weight of changing paradigms. So anyone who has learned their management practice from the American Way needs to think again but the dogma is so deeply-rooted in the American management psyche it tends to want to run over everything that it deems to be in its way. It is the philosophy of ‘my way or the highway’ – it’s just a big, brash humvee. Silly me – I always thought humvee had something to do with humans in vee-hicles. How wrong I was.
One extremely successful company that embodies the entirety of the American Way – its best and worst traits – is Google. It was founded by two very bright people, whose ancestors may have emigrated to the US, who received an excellent education and used their brains to innovate. I truly bless the day Google allowed me to reduce my research time down to a fraction of a second, it could possibly be the greatest innovation of all time, benefitting everyone in the world. I might even go so far as to say I don’t mind a company holding a monopoly and literally ‘printing money’ – as long as that monopoly is not abused. Then I have to keep reminding myself that no social, political and economic system can ever be that straightforward. Google is megalomania. I don’t ever remember being asked whether a Google vee-hicle could trundle down my street and take photographs of me and my house. Worse still, no doubt the CIA do some of their research using Google and I’m now on their anti-American list (read to the end fellas, it ain’t that black and white). I only want the good bits of Google thank you and the only good bits will be the democratically-sanctioned bits – so how anti-American is Google?!
I can even understand how the halo effect comes into play. High profits lead the unthinking to assume that the management at Google must be equally talented and effective but I have seen no evidence from Google that they have any idea what good management means, never mind evidence-based management. In fact techies are famous for their lack of interpersonal and other managerial qualities (Google acknowledge this) so let us think really hard and choose our evidence very carefully before we jump to any conclusions.
What conclusion would you draw from the The New York Times (12th March, 2011) article entitled “Google’s Quest to Build a Better Boss”? Here, in my humble but evidence-based opinion, are some of my own tentative conclusions. Its head of HR, Laszlo Bock, does not know how to build better bosses, presumably even after many years of working in the field called HR, which is supposed to be good at managing and developing people. What does that tell me about the profession of HR – is it all smoke and mirrors? Maybe. It is more likely that the problem has always been one of measurement, how do you measure what makes a good boss? Apparently nobody in HR knows, that is presumably why Bock recruited Prasad Setty (a mathematician) to crunch some ‘HR analytics’.
‘HR analytics’ is a new piece of HR jargon, invented in America to pretend that they are evidence-based, that does not stand up to the slightest scrutiny. It is based on the very old ideas of HR measurement ‘guru’ Jac Fitz-Enz, who received SHRM’s blessing, despite causing HR to veer off the road a long time ago. It has yet to climb out of that ditch because of its inability to admit it was wrong. The same psyche is compelling Lee Webster, SHRM’s HR standards director, to jump into the driving seat of America’s ANSI humvee and take over the chair of ISO committee TC260 on international HR standards. This is the downside of the unthinking American Way. HR at Google is the disease run rampant in my view. Should Google shareholders be afraid of what Bock is doing? Yes. Are current American HR practices a threat to the best aspects of the American Way? Most definitely. Maybe the CIA ought to be investigating its own HR department first for signs of un-American activities? It gets even worse – we are actually witnessing the birth of the next big HR fad.
According to the NY Times article “D. Scott DeRue, a management professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, applauds Google for its data-driven method for management.” I don’t think an evidence-based management professor would be applauding Google; they would be advising serious caution. Even if Google were good at this the professor should be saying don’t try and copy Google. GM tried to do that with Toyota and look what happened to them because they did not (and still do not) fully understand Toyota’s Eastern philosophy. So what is already being endorsed and disseminated in the headlines as leading edge practice (without any evidence of profit) could actually be worst practice. Such American management practices can so easily become a deadly virus. They already are. Go now and check your competence framework and calculate the damage it has already done. Better still, go back and check every single, non-evidence-based, ‘HR best practice’ you have ever copied from all of your similarly non-evidence-based HR peers.
Alternatively, take a trip to Pakistan and meet some of the thoughtful people there who do not pretend that they know all the answers; who did not bat an eyelid when I said, on day one, that we were going to throw HR best practice out the window and who did not have to rise to the challenge of thinking for themselves because they already do. They readily accepted my advice that unless you can see the sense in something yourself you will not be able to get anyone else to. More importantly, although most of them worked in commercial companies that had to make a profit, I sensed that they go to work for a much higher purpose than pure profit. That might not be the American Way, it might not even be the highway but it is certainly the most intelligent way.
*See ‘The Value Motive’ for a more humane alternative