Figure us out if you can

Science, like the law, is an ass. Take the Genome Project, which was supposed to offer the Rosetta Stone to life itself. Yes, there have been real advances and, yes, it’s early days yet—but the bottom line on biotech? Simple: the way our genetic database is expressed is far, far more complex than

anyone ever imagined. The entire informational system, from the famous double helix on up, isn’t a clean little digital choreography but a constellation of constellations, interwoven to an incredible degree. Diversity turns out to be, literally, a fact of life.

IT faces the same temptations, the same conceptual fault lines and pitfalls: the numerical transparency of human interaction is the core assumption of human resources software management (HRSM). From the very first mechanized databases, the earliest punch card machines over a century ago, the prospect of clean, highly manipulable data, nicely bit-mapping human behaviour, has been an IT holy grail.

First off, the HR efficiencies are eye-popping. The 1880 American census took eight years to data-process; the country was growing so fast, tracking the simplest of human numbers by hand was out of control. But ten short years later, the entire census, on punch cards sorted by the first Hollerith machines, was processed in eight weeks. We’ve been eating numbers ever since.

Or so we thought. Management faced a dilemma: Mathematical models were fine, but the actual quantum leaps in productivity, creativity, and innovation are almost alchemical in process, unpredictable; in short, human. How to mate the burgeoning power of data processing to the mysteries which most leaven business progress? Making employee and management tasks financially visible, even transparent, is one thing, but the next leap is quantum.

The nexus of IT and HR ought to be the mother lode for dissecting and maximizing human potential. But the entire quest hangs on the usefulness of the models, whose creation is still a highly human endeavour. The first Cray supercomputers dedicated to civilian use modelled weather systems. Based on immensely complex models, the software made five-day forecasts a fact of modern life.

But we’re not the weather: the human critter is a cruel and unusual animal — especially in groups. We’re not genetically programmed to be organization-driven. Far from it: as primates, we humans are motivated by individual ambition, aggression, and possessiveness. We resist change, especially imposed change, and we instinctively cocoon rather than lead.

Managers are playing with people — and people are number-opaque.

We can streamline Internet recruitment, refine pension and payroll services, even customize a global company’s HR number-crunching and still respect local cultural and regulatory differences. But let’s not overanticipate.

It’s early days for HRSM. The final frontier, to paraphrase Pogo, is us: we’re only too human a resource ourselves.

Live and be well.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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