The limitations of Employee Surveys

by Graham Email

Since I worked for my current employers, I have completed numerous Employee surveys. However, my patience with such surveys has become strained by the dysfunctional way in which the results have been processed, and how certain information cannot be revealed by such surveys.

1. Processing and play-back of results
As an employee, I expect leaders in my corporation to be honest with me, honest with themselves, and honest about the corporation.
I therefore become rather bothered (to say the least) when the results of employee surveys are selectively used to attempt to persuade employees that aspects of corporate life are improving. This is more usually referred to as "spin" by most employees.
Those of us who have been in commerce long enough have pretty accurate bullshit detectors. When a corporation publishes selectively chosen results from an employee survey, and does not publish all of the data, this raises suspicions that there is a spin machine at work somewhere. This suspicion will be converted pretty quickly to a strongly-held opinion if the corporation has previously selectively quoted data from surveys and ignored other contrary data.

2. Failure to address causes of employee departures
Another frustrating aspect of corporate governance is how many corporations react to the impact caused by significant numbers of people leaving. The normal course of events is for highly capable people (the "franchise players") to depart first. To use an old English expression, the people with the get-up-and-go will be the first to get up and go.
Once it becomes apparent that people are discontented and are leaving, many corporations, in an attempt to stop the outflow, start tinkering with compensation, benefits etc., commissioning employee surveys, or (maybe) they actually start listening to the results of employee surveys instead of politely ignoring them or spinning them.
However, employee surveys in this context are not going to reveal enough information. If a corporation wants to accurately understand why people are leaving, it needs to be contacting ex-employees to ask them, not talking to current employees. Bluntly, a number of current employees may not ever leave, since they lack the capabilities or motivation to do so. A corporation needs to be asking gifted ex-employees why they left in order to address its problems. You never know, if you start an honest dialogue with an ex-employee, you might be able to persuade that person to re-join...

The usefulness of the Exit Interview in corporations

by Graham Email

For many years, I have wondered at how useful an Exit Interview truly is when it comes to allowing corporations to find out why people are leaving, and address those issues. The Exit Interview is mostly an HR administrative closure process.
Several observable facts have convinced me that exit interviews are fundamentally limiting in what they can achieve:

1. Departing employees rarely tell the full story about why they are leaving during an exit interview. They usually do not want to burn any bridges in case they want to come back at some point in the future.
2. The Exit Interview takes place on the last day of employment. This is too late (for example) to address any issues that may have caused the employee to want to leave in the first place. The interview can only be a post-mortem, not a remedial exercise.
3. Senior leaders are rarely involved in Exit Interviews. The interview is usually conducted by a middle-ranking person filling a full-time or part-time HR role. Any messages that the departing employee might want to provide about fundamental corporate dysfunctionalities are going to be filtered (and possibly distorted or lost), which reduces the chance that senior leaders will need what they need to hear.

My conclusion is that Exit Interviews are not fulfilling their potential for addressing issues that cause employees to decide to leave. I would recommend the following changes:

1. A remediation interview should be arranged with any employee who has resigned within 24 hours of that resignation being tendered (assuming that the corporation does want the employee to stay, which may not always be true...). The purpose of this interview is to understand why the employee wants to leave, and to assess what actions (if any) are possible to persuade the employee to stay. The employee's normal management chain must not be involved in this interview, since that may prevent the employee from speaking freely.

2. Any departing employee should be offered a chance to speak to a senior leader during the period before his/her departure, in order to explain to that senior leader why they decided to leave. It should be made clear to that employee that this interview will not have any influence on whether the corporation would want to re-hire the employee.

3. The last-day Exit Interview should be a purely administrative departure management process.

Interesting research on high-performing teams in software organizations

by Graham Email


...some interesting insights here.

Corporate leaders caught padding resumes...

by Graham Email


The headline on this story was the discovery that the CEO of Radio Shack had inflated his resume. However, this is merely the tip of a very large cultural phenomenon that is discussed in more detail here.
One thing I fail to understand is how so many people let themselves be suckered by "creative resume writing" exponents. When my ex-wife joined Texas Instruments many years ago, they did validate that her college degree existed. Clearly Radio Shack could not be bothered to execute that simple process. One wonders what other simple processes many corporations have not been taking care of recently...

Humor for use within Corporations...

by Graham Email

Finished reading "The Flight of the Creative Class"

by Graham Email between over-stressing my body while skiing in Durango this past weekend.
"Flight of the Creative Class" extends the concepts, research and ideas first surfaced in "Rise of the Creative Class". The first part of the book deals with criticism and comment excited by that earlier book. Florida notes that various parts of his first book were either hijacked for partisan ends, or distorted for partisan ends. He also observes that the current polarized state of the US political landscape is leading to significant issues being ignored.
Florida points out that the Bush administration is dominated by representatives of extractive and utility industries (oil, mining, steel, transportation etc.), with little focus on creative and innovative next-generation industries. It is also becoming obvious that the administration is currently gerrymandering scientific investigation for its own ends, which is eroding the worldwide reputation of the USA as a place to conduct scientific activities. Florida's book should make it clear how counter-productive that approach will be in the long-term.
Along the way, Australian researcher Terry Cutler offers this anecdote of what happens when the diversity component of the creative stimulation message is deemed to be unwelcome, at a meeting with civic leaders and local opinion leaders about how to attract creative individuals:

Summoning my courage, I described Florida's findings about the correlation between bohemianism and diversity in the location of high-tech firms. The palpable recoil around the room at such a radical and distasteful recipe for success left me in no doubt that these civic leaders would clearly prefer to drift into a genteel poverty.

The leaders that Cutler found in that room may well have belonged to a category of leaders christened as squelchers by veteran urban activist Jane Jacobs. She explains:

Squelchers are those political, business and civic leaders who divert and derail human creative energy by posing roadblocks, acting as gatekeepers, and saying No to new ideas, regardless of their merit.

It seems to me that I have come across a number of squelchers in the corporations where I have worked. Readers may also have come across these individuals in their work or civic lives.
One message in Florida's book is we need to be wary of and prepared to defend creativity and innovation against the depredations of squelchers.
The other key message is that creative people cannot afford to be exclusive. All humans have the innate ability to be creative. If the creative classes, once they reach a position of (relative) affluence, retreat behind gates and walls to play golf, shunt investments around, and generally cut themselves off from other segments of society, then this will give workers caught in declining industries the perfect excuse to see the whole debate about the economic future of the US through the "us and them" lens that is so prevalent today, "us" being real workers, and "them" being the caricatured collection of "elitists", "latte-drinking liberals", "gays" etc. (insert further caricaturing cliches here). Interestingly, there are corporations woring in the USA to harness the skills of workers in rural states and areas. Here is an article from 2004.
As a governance approach, "us and them" has no future. It is like fighting a war at home. If squelchers invoke those kinds of frames and memes, we need to be challenging those people to drop the empty sloganeering and explain what the long-term game plan is for the USA.

Article from 1998 charting the rise and fall of Seer Technologies

by Graham Email


When I worked for James Martin Associates and Texas Instruments Software in the 1990's, we competed for a long time with Seer Technologies. Although it was never officially confirmed, rumor at the time was that their core product, Seer/HPS, was in fact a copy of IEF, created by a clandestine reverse-engineering exercise at CSFB, who were an early (and short-lived) licensee of IEF.
From about 1990 through to 1994, Seer represented significant competition for IEF, partly because IBM was a Seer distributor, and would aggressively pitch Seer/HPS in competition against IEF with its customer base and prospects. IBM at the time was pitching Seer mainly because it had no Model-Driven Development tool of its own; we had talked to them about IEF being part of their AD/Cycle initiative in 1989-90, but the talks fell through, possibly because IBM's licensing terms were way to onerous for TI to tolerate (for evidence about what happens when IBM gets to screw over licensees and partners, see The Fate Of OS/2).
After 1994, competion from Seer dissipated, and the competition became the new generation of visual development tools such as PowerBuilder and Visual Basic.
This article (from 1998) is a neat summary of how Seer rose, peaked and crashed back to the ground. By the way, the rumor that Sterling Software seriously looked at buying Seer is almost certainly true - I heard that rumor internally within my employer in 1997 after we were bought by Sterling Software.
I am currently working on a similar article looking at the rise and decline of the IEF division of Texas Instuments. A companion article is also in the works which expands on other articles about why CASE tools are currently seen as an industry failure.

The importance of diversity in problem-solving

by Graham Email


For many years now, corporations have been worshipping at the altar of "diversity", which is claimed to be A Good Thing. Most medium-to-large corporations have Diversity Policies, written in personnel handbooks and trumpeted on internal and external wesbites.
However, I have yet to work at a single corporation whose "Diversity policy" contained any direct links to, or quotes from, supporting research. In effect, most espoused diversity programs and policies are composed almost entirely of assertions and bizbuz shibboleths. Employees are supposed to embrace diversity because...well...diversity is A Good Thing, therefore we need more of it, so everybody run along and be more diverse.
Many larger corporations have diversity training offerings for employees. The ones I have seen I have found to be lacking. They tend to underplay some really obvious challenges to embracing diversity, such as the differing cultural norms that impact on decision-making and communication. The classic German style of corporate decision-making, which tends to require senior leadership approval, is often very different to the more free-wheeling style of American decision-making. However, what is also missing (more importantly) from the corporate diversity initiatives is any evidence as to why diversity is A Good Thing.
All of which brings me to this research paper by Lu Hong and Scott Page about the impact of diversity in large decision-making groups. Their most important finding is that you will not necessarily get the best decision outcome if you form a group of very clever people. As Hong and Page put it:

a team of randomly selected problem-solving agents outperforms a team composed of the best-performing agents

This is exactly the sort of research information that corporations should be pointing to, in order to inform and explain to employees and leaders why recognizing and planning to accomodate diversity is A Good Thing. The results of this research are explored a little in this blog entry.

Interesting line from a Paul Graham article...

by Graham Email

In the excellent collection of essays on Paul Graham's web site, there is an essay about start-up companies. One paragraph in this essay caught my eye:

During the Bubble, a lot of people predicted that startups would outsource their development to India. I think a better model for the future is David Heinemeier Hansson, who outsourced his development to a more powerful language instead.

He then goes on to point out that the capability and productivity of modern languages (he uses Python as a example) is way better than older languages such as C++.
My view on this is "absolutely", although I would caution that there is still a significant potential cost saving available by shifting work from a country with higher labour costs to a country with lower labour costs. At present a lot of CIOs are demanding significant cost savings via that route.
However, I would go one stage further. When I worked on I-CASE tool consulting in the 1990's, we found that a properly-structured project using those tools could be a factor of 4-5 times more productive than having developers code in lower-level languages. Not only that, but maintenance and enhancement used microscopic numbers of developers compared to more conventionally-built solutions.
My conclusion: if you want to be competitive, forget Python. Go for Model Driven Development tools. Developers and support staff are the biggest I.T. expense - just about everything else dropped to commodity status some time ago. MDD tools, properly deployed by people who know how to get the best out of them, offer a mchanism for allowing corporations to build I.T. solutions without using 150 drones in a warehouse in NowhereIstan. The problem with running remote development organizations is that the industry has a terrible track record of converting requirements to solutions, because of the overall lack of a precise enough language for requirements definition. Instead, we use natural language, which is terrible for requirements because it contains concepts such as "nuance" which drive software designers and developers crazy when they try to convert the requirements to software. MDD tools, if they contain a powerful and precise collection of DSLs for specification of requirements, can help to sidestep the current inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of conventional programming approaches, which IMHO are still largely stuck in the dark ages.

Maximum Team Sizes for effective working

by Graham Email


An interesting article that points to other resources discussing team size. This is all part of the origins to my comment at last year's OMG MDA seminar in Orlando, where I pointed out that software development as a group activity does not scale well. Every software project I have ever come across which was organized using large teams has either run out of control, or has required herculean management effort and focus to keep it on the straight and narrow.

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