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It is better
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John Sumser

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The Electronic Recruiting News is a Free Daily Newsletter For Recruiters, HR Managers, Advertising Agencies and Clasified Advertising Operations

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Talent Labs

(August 03, 2000) We're not big fans of companies that claim to revolutionize. It always turns out that they are effective to the precise extent that you see things their way. Being from earthquake country, we're leery of movements. While we'd love to find the next "pet rock", we have no illusions that products or services have a longer life-cycle than the next teen band.

Normally, we like to see businesses that want to make customers happy. We get a comfortable feeling from offices located in working neighborhoods. We're reassured by an executive who wants to make his customers successful.

That's not to say that experimentation or "out of the box" thinking isn't important. In today's employment environment, it takes a combination of pure devotion to customers and a willingness to take calibrated risks on their behalf. The question is, at the root, who owns the risk.

Some things need a desperate fix and customers are excited about the prospect.

If you haven't seen Fast Company magazine, it's probably because you haven't been in an airport, at a newsstand or in the reception area of most players in our industry. Founded by an ex Harvard Business Review managing editor, Fast Company is a highly influential business magazine targeted at new generation leaders and professionals. The goal of the operation is:

to chronicle how changing companies create and compete, to highlight new business practices, and to showcase the teams and individuals who are inventing the future and reinventing business.
As is the case with many 21st Century businesses, Fast Company is pushing the envelope that defines the boundary between journalists and the news. Not content to simply chronicle the changes in the marketplace, the firm is actively getting involved in the lives of its readers, their employers and the ways that they work together. One of the first targets of this juggernaut is the job fair.

Built on the hard work of Paul Burrowes and the early team at Westech (now BrassRing), job fairs have traditionally been high-energy networking, intelligence gathering and job interview events designed to keep the candidates who attend them in the know. With a cattle-call feeling, the center of the game was always the vendor booths. On a heavy day, it was like walking down the old Las Vegas strip with hawkers at each booth trying to persuade passers-by to come visit.

The Fast Company Alternative, Talent Labs, is designed to get all of the players into the center of the event. Conceptually, the recruiters' booths are at the fringes of the event while the "main court" is designed to create an environment in which a new form of peer-to-peer recruiting can emerge. The idea behind "Talent Labs" goes something like this:

In a labor scarcity in which free-agent style mechanisms are becoming the dominant way that leaders and professionals acquire the next assignment, recruiting is a peer-to-peer transaction.

For that reason, the events appear to make the interesting assumption that recruiters are also looking for their next gig. The goal of Talent Labs seems to be to create a momentary marketplace in which skills can be polished, connections can be made and deals can be initiated. That's why the attendee list includes CEOs, recruiters, vendors from our industry, Fast Company readers and job hunters. By experimenting with the traditional definitions of the job market (you know, it's no more than buyers, sellers and vendors), Talent Labs is all about finding the next level of effectiveness for Fast Company's range of customers.

We think it's a lot more than a simple experiment and plan to be there. If you can squeeze it into your schedule, you ought to.

We plan to fill you in further as the event approaches.

- John Sumser © TwoColorHat. All Rights Reserved.

Role Model

(August 02, 2000) You have to look far and wide to find examples of an HR operation that really adds a real wallop to the strategic aims of its company. For the most part, this is because HR isn't structured to give that benefit. Armed with limited, process oriented training tools and an administrative army, the textbook HR department is designed to be a sideline manager. With no real skin in the game, many of the things we talk about are beyond the reach of the typical HR team.

When we talk about the emergence of a Chief Technical Officer, the aggressive sales techniques required for contemporary recruiting,or, HR as a cash profit contributor, we're not always optimistic that the current players will end up executing the ideas. We often talk with current practitioners who have that "I know what you mean but can't imagine how to do it" angst. Like asking a dog to purr, wanting to get it right might not be enough in some cases.

It's worth investigating the way that the Federal Government approaches the issue.

Personnel Departments in the government operate differently from those in industry. (The fact that they are often still called Personnel Departments tells you something.) The difference, in the simplest of terms, is that Federal Personnel functions have managed to acquire and maintain a decent level of control over the output of their efforts. They actually manage the distribution of Human Resources around the organization. While they certainly perform the private administrative functions (and even more paperwork, if you can imagine that), all money flows through Federal Personnel to employees and projects, Staffing issues are never resolved without their involvement and approval. A functional manager's success or failure depends deeply on the efforts of the Personnel group.

Although the solution is overly procedural (and god knows you can't accuse the government of rapid market adaptation), there is something important to be learned from the way Federal Personnel is organized. With real input to the process and a strong interest in the management of resources for mission success, the function is more heavily enabled to succeed than its private counterparts. Behind the restrictive layers of regulation and paperwork, there is a model for effective HR functions that is truly different from the private industry model.

It all boils down to money.

Without meaningful control of resource allocations, private HR departments will continue to flounder.

- John Sumser © TwoColorHat. All Rights Reserved.

Usability (from our vault)

(July 31, 2000) At first pass, it seems straightforward. Usability means clarity, simplicity, authenticity and ease of use. Obviously, the more usable a website is, the more effective it is. Right?

Well maybe not.

Without going overboard, it seems to us that usability (as currently understood) includes a great deal of baggage from the military minds who first coined the term in the 1970s. Their problem was discovering a method to ensure that recruits could navigate the complexities of complex electronic military hardware and the associated technical manuals.

At that time, the US Armed Forces were undergoing a radical transition. The draft, which kept a constant flow of white college educated workers in the pipeline, was ending. The military's vision of its future included lots of new employees with only moderate literacy. They were scared and more than subtly racist.

The earliest examples of usability improvements included the operating manual for the M-1 tank. Technical complexity was reduced to four ideas per page. The comic-book style was designed to be read in pictures, not text. Everything that could be simplified was. The message: please don't think, just look at the pictures. From a 100 page handout, the manual grew to over 3,500 pages. It was very easy to understand.

From there, usability evolved into a design discipline in the software industry. You may notice a certain sameness in software design. The principles of usability and usability testing, which have grown to include focus group style testing, produce a bland and universal output. The object is to deliver to the lowest common denominator.

The Engineering mind can be somewhat predictable. One of the rules of the game is that anything is better if it can be reduced to a formula or a procedure. In that regard, engineers share a lot of common ground with MBAs. It is predictable that the global Engineering community would embrace a view of usability that was formulaic. With their decidedly 20th Century mindsets, its no surprise that the Marketing and Sales communities have widely adopted the concept. After all, conventional usability testing looks and feels a lot like focus groups. The output resembles advertising taglines.

Cynicism, predictability and familiarity have conspired to deliver a view of the Web that is decidedly backward looking. As the "great unwashed" increasingly use the net with their virtually free PCs, we can only imagine that it will get worse. We're guessing that it will take web designers as long as it took the Military to understand that their fears are mostly groundless (about 25 years).

Until then, the usability of a website will have to strike a very difficult balance. To the extent that a web page evokes passion and engages the reader's heart, it has a very limited appeal. To the extent that it is usable (in the conventional sense), it is devoid of passion. From here it looks like you have to choose one or the other. Either optimize a page for broad consumption (dumb it down) or focus on a very tiny audience.

Interestingly, Recruiting, which demands the delivery of passion and engagement, may well be at the cutting edge of the evolution of usability tools.

The web creates a very intimate communications environment. While usability design is a necessary component, building on the mediums' inherent "heat" is a critical piece of wildly successful Recruiting. This means that Recruiters ought to be better at using the Web to accomplish both objectives.

In short, we think that the kinds of improvements suggested by conventional usability consultants are an important starting point. But, they are only a beginning. Learning to use the Web to convey just the right message to just the right person is a step beyond the conventional. It involves constant improvement and an eye towards perfection.

- John Sumser

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