Tell a story. No, not that one.

14 12 2010

I discovered Sheena Matheiken’s Uniform Project while reading the colour supplements this weekend, and was hooked. I love Matheiken’s inventive sense of fashion, I won’t lie, but I also loved how she took a difficult, complex agenda and hooked it into such a simple narrative.

Sheena Matheiken, The Uniform Project

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Better off with CVs?

17 02 2010

Just time for a brief post today, but this is a topic that fascinates me. Have you ever made a really big hiring mistake? I know I have, and it’s given me a strong interest in how we actually know that our selection methods are any good.

The common-or-garden job interview? It’s not very good – in fact, some studies show better results by judging strictly from CVs, with no face-to-face contact whatsoever. But there are aspects which can improve the interview – check out this 1994 paper to find out more.

Is it worth it (financially) to go to uni?

6 02 2010

As someone who employs new graduates, I wonder about this question a lot. It’s a popular one for blog posts and media stories; Penelope Trunk is firmly on the “con” side of education for education’s sake. The BBC offers some rather more unconventional reasons (you might meet a spouse with good middle-class earning potential!), but, with costs and graduate unemployment going up both in the US and UK, and places available likely to face a crunch, I think it’s worth considering soberly just what you’re likely to get out of it.

I was prompted to make this post by this Times Online article, which argues that so-called “Mickey Mouse degrees” like golf course management and brewing are in fact a smart bet, leading to profitable careers because they directly prepare you for a particular sector. The article also trots out the “a degree is worth X thousand pounds over a lifetime” figures. As usual, the top-earning degrees are quite comfortably medicine and law, with engineering and modern languages tailing behind by some way.

But I can’t help wondering whether this actually proves anything, really. The single greatest predictive factor of success – both in university and in a career – is intelligence. Medicine and law courses are highly sought-after. They’re immensely challenging careers, intellectually. Universities have enough competition for places to set the entry bar extremely high, and pick and choose who they accept, which makes the degree, in some respects, just a “surrogate marker” for intelligence. If these courses were effectively open entry, I wonder if the graduate earning potential would be somewhat diluted. It certainly helps, though, that vocational courses directly give you the skills you’ll need on graduation, rather than instilling “soft skills”. While I want to hire, and work with, people who can think intelligently and critically, I’m yet to come across a uni that does much, in its courses, to instil the kinds of soft skills that are crucial when first starting work, and one of my key jobs as a graduate manager is to give them a crash course in these skills, and quickly. The social and interpersonal skills tested by any job are very different from the skills imparted by your average undergraduate course.

I suspect that, on top of the vocational nature of some of these “Mickey Mouse courses” (and I don’t agree with that name) also comes from the fact that the graduates on them are determined and focused enough to dedicate themselves to a course in something very specific. I further suspect that this determination and focus starts before the graduate begins the degree. In the absence of a study that controls for intelligence, it’s hard to tell how much is really added by the degree itself. But my advice for seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, based on my experience at work, would be this: If you aren’t sure what you want to do after university, and you aren’t passionate about any particular subject, and you aren’t sure you’ll get into a top university – strongly consider working for a year or two, and thinking about it.

“There aren’t any stupid people out there”

26 01 2010

Thus spake Ben Goldacre, at his lecture on Risk and the Media at Darwin College, Cambridge last Friday. Check out the talk when it becomes available on iTunes shortly – it’s provocative, informative, and hilarious.

As a practicing NHS doctor, Ben’s argument was that he has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of people confronted with weighing complex evidence and making decisions with enormous consequences, and they do, with admirable comprehension, because they are extremely motivated to do so.

Psychology, for the record, backs him up. Motivated adults (and children) do better in IQ tests, in interviews, in jobs, in college.  Sometimes they do better than people who are, objectively speaking, smarter. You’ve probably heard the stories of people, in moments of great stress, displaying superhuman strength, because they’re highly motivated to save themselves or the ones they love.

All this, I can’t help thinking, gives the lie to the idea that we, as practitioners of best practice (which, as I like to say, isn’t always obvious) should simplify things, should dumb down, because we don’t think the people we need to convince can understand it. All that shows is a failing in us – we haven’t sufficiently convinced them that it’s worth understanding.

When people need to chew through complex medical studies which sometimes indicate differing things, potentially-conflicting medical advice, all while dealing with the stresses and strains of a health crisis, they manage it. They’re not stupid. Perhaps our job is less to manage the information flow for the people we secretly think are not-so-bright, and more to convince them it’s worth their while to show how bright they are.

Gender bias is dead. Long live gender bias.

21 12 2009

Women’s lib is dead. Positive discrimination is right out. We’ve won all of our battles for equality. Right? If women aren’t in the boardroom, it’s because they’re choosing not to be – not to work the hours, not to take the stress. Or it’s something inherent to women’s work behaviour. They don’t push. They say “I’m grateful to have a job”, when they should be saying, “I am the linchpin of this organization. Up the offer or I walk”.

No, the one thing I think it’s not OK to say is that women might not get to the top of organizations because we are still subconsciously far harder on them than we are on men. All of us. I’ve often wondered if a man who walked and talked and acted the exact same way as I did would ever get told he was “abrupt”, or “not a team player”. I’ve often wondered if the same assumptions would be made about this hypothetical him. I have, needless to say, suspected that they would not.

In the spirit of my scientific credentials, obviously, I can’t make a statement like that without testing it. And the only way to test something like this is in a controlled trial. And there is a way to do a controlled trial – remotely, like, say online. What would happen if two people supposedly presented themselves, and produced work, and all-in-all were judged over a period of time, exactly the same, except that one was a man and one was a woman?

James Chartrand knows. The story of how a female writer came to work primarily under a male pseudonym, because the same work got more bids, better pay, and more respect, is fascinating and depressing. I wish I could believe that this was unusual. I really do. The people who paid more for “James’s” work than that of a female writer, and praised it more highly, almost certainly had no idea that gender was a factor in how they responded. How can there be equality in the workplace when we still understand our own brains, the filters through which we see and judge people, so poorly?

Yes, your team really do need to concentrate

8 12 2009

A personal vindication for me, this one: Pop-ups and email alerts significantly slow down work by breaking our concentration.

(Source: Wales Online. Original study Cardiff University.)

I’ve often wondered why it isn’t more acceptable to simply turn off email and the Blackberry when you need to concentrate on something. You’ll get it done faster, and your ideas will probably better. You’ll certainly enjoy it more.  Yet, every time I’ve done this, I’ve felt the need to hide it (and usually to work somewhere away from my normal desk so people don’t come to find me to ask me why I’m not answering emails). In fact, can’t we turn the alert all the way off? Why not batch-process all emails every couple of hours, maximum?

Every study of cognitive psychology (i.e. of the ways we perceive and process the world) has to deal with the fact that we only have a limited amount of attention, and it is quite literally not possible for us to focus it on two things at once. Multitasking, as Henry Ford might have said had he lived this long, is bunk.

I’m going to keep on trying to change attitudes slowly with this one by taking time to concentrate when I need it, and telling people that’s what I’m doing. It’s part of a broader issue, though, I think – the fact that the work environment is often pretty much unconducive to the kinds of work that need to be done. What are the barriers to us all stopping pretending that we can do everything at once? Is it just attitude?

A very human disaster

25 11 2009

Virtually every big disaster comes down to human error – Chernobyl, Bhopal, plane crashes. To be more precise, they come down to  small mechanical failures, compounded and created by human panic, or confusion, or failure to communicate. In an unusual work environment, like a nuclear power station or a plane cockpit, the way people relate to each other can make the difference between life and death. How’s that for psychology at work?

I recently read and enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, which has a significant chapter on the human role in air disasters, and in particular the bad safety problems once suffered by Korean Air. It’s shocking and fascinating to read some of his transcripts of terrible, avoidable disasters that came down to people feeling too inhibited, confused, and distressed to be able to speak up at crucial times. Gladwell reports on two South American pilots who simply felt too inhibited by the assertive and vocal air traffic control crew in New York to be able to communicate that their plane was almost totally out of fuel and due to crash. Both pilots and the passengers lost their lives.

Air Korea’s poor safety record was for some time a source of mystery, as their equipment was as up-to-date and in as good condition as anyone’s. If it weren’t for the “black box” reportings of everything that’s said in the cockpit, it might have remained a mystery. Korean culture is highly deferential to authority, and authority in a Korean plane cockpit was vested and embodied in the captain. Before each flight, the co-pilots and crew would be expected to bring his meals and attend to his every need. The net result of all of this was that in any problem or difficulty, no-one would voice an opinion that ran contrary to that of the captain, despite the desperate need. It’s painful to read the transcripts of the co-pilots trying desperately to communicate that the plane is in trouble to their captain. “Captain, the weather radar has helped us a lot.”

I always think of those co-pilots when I hear it said that people are the same everywhere, or that culture and environment do not affect how people respond. The pilots were unable to overcome the cultural inhibitions binding them, even though they knew well the outcome could be their deaths. Korean Air, by the way, now has an excellent safety record, but getting it involved intensively training their air crews to put deference aside and communicate honestly and robustly in the air. The patterns of culture and communication we live in affect the results of all our lives profoundly on a daily basis – the question is, is it in the way we’d like?