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Have I got a job for you?

This article appeared in The Sydney Business Review on 15 October, 1995

Last month I wrote about how some of the complaints made whenever a new technology comes along seem as old as the computer industry itself.

Another thing which, sadly, has not changed is the blinkered attitude to the importance of the information processing function of organisations. I hate the term "Information Technology" because it perpetuates the myth that computers are about technology alone. Computers in business are about providing the information necessary for managers to manage. I was reminded of this attitude by an advertisement looking for someone to run the computer operation of a "major company based in Sydney's West". The ad listed all the wonderful things this person would be doing, like setting strategy and long-term planning, and then it demanded machine-specific technical experience. So much for strategy - the decisions had already been made and what was wanted was a pointy-head to make it all work.

The advertisement was placed by one of Australia's most prestigious (and expensive) recruitment agencies, and it got me thinking about how little improvement there had been over the years in the sophistication and competence of these outfits. The easiest way to earn a fee is to list the hardware and software used in the place and then make a checklist. The applicant who gets the most ticks is then recommended for the job. This cheap trick ignores the obvious fact that the only person who will fit the profile is the incumbent or the person who just left. It also shows contempt for the client by assuming that their business is static, and contempt for the candidates by implying that they are incapable of learning anything new.

I know a bit about the computer industry, so the deficiencies in these advertisements and recruitment policies are obvious to me in that area, but I wonder how many other jobs are not filled by the right person just because it is a little bit harder to find the perfect match. If near enough is good enough and risks must be avoided, then the level of management ability will converge on the barely competent at best and probably on actual mediocrity.

Another shortcut in employee selection is psychological testing. This provides a whole new list of boxes to tick. Before I get attacked by psychologists claiming that I am defaming them, I would like to say that, firstly, I actually know something about testing and, secondly, my objection is not to testing per se but to the inappropriate use of testing. If a proper profile can be developed for the job, and an appropriate test can be found, and it is assumed that the person will never move into any other position within the employing organisation, then testing is justified. I have just too often seen testing used as a crutch.

As an example, I have taken one particular set of tests at least three times. In all cases the comments made about me by the testers indicated that they were not even aware of principles and theories taught as part of any first year university psychology course. One supposed psychologist told me that this test could predict exactly how people would behave in any given set of circumstances. He had no answer when I asked him why it was not applied to all 10-year-olds to weed out those who were going to become murderers and rapists. By the way, the validation for this test (the proof that it works, if you like) was that it had, with hindsight, reasonably accurately predicted the promotion prospects of a group of 70 Los Angeles firemen, yet it was being used by high-priced consultancies to select candidates for sales, management and software development positions.

Copyright 1998- Peter Bowditch

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