Monday, February 19, 2007

Good to Great: Business v. Social Sector

No doubt many of you have read Jim Collins' 2001 best seller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap...and Others Don't.

What you may not have read is a small monograph that was published four years later, titled Good to Great and the Social Sectors.

The line on the front, "Why business thinking is not the answer" tells part of the story. Collins' basic point is that while some lessons of great businesses can be fruitfully translated from private to social sector organizations (e.g., discipline), others cannot (e.g., financial measures of output).

This point has been made before, but the desire to mold social sector organizations into businesses keeps cropping up, and the HR field seems to be fertile ground for this tempting idea.

Tempting because many people, particularly those in the social sector, often feel (a) frustrated with inefficiencies, and (b) hopeful that lessons from the private sector, if adopted, would transform these organizations into lean, productive stars, garnering praise and respect from constituents.

Measuring greatness in the social sector

Collins gives several good examples of how social sector organizations have dealt with one of the most vexing challenges--how to measure performance:

- The New York Police Department went from focusing on "input variables" such as arrests and cases closed to outputs--namely, crime rate.

- The Cleveland Orchestra measures outputs such as number of standing ovations, number of invitations to prestigious festivals, and influence on other orchestras.

How does this relate to recruitment & selection?

One of Collins' big points from the 2001 book is that hiring the right people comes first--or as he states, "First who--getting the right people on the bus." While I would argue that you need to know some of the "what" before you can get the "who" (e.g., what are you looking for?), he makes some sound arguments in the monograph:

- Once the right people start joining the group/organization in large enough numbers, low performers/poor fits often self-select out, like "viruses surrounded by antibodies." (We'll generously ignore the fact that he's comparing people to viruses)

- "There is no perfect interviewing technique, no ideal hiring method." Can't agree with this one enough, although his solution (focus on a probationary period) is easier said than done. I would argue a reasonable amount of time spent upfront on defining the job and being smart about the hiring methods used saves time and energy down the road on poor fits. You wouldn't buy a house based just on a 30 minute tour--why would you hire someone this way?

- "The more selective the process, the more attractive a position becomes." Again, agree with him here. Organizations, whether private or social sector, need to make positions desirable to the highly qualified. Demanding selection procedures haven't kept Microsoft, Toyota, or Google from attracting top talent.

- Last but not least, "the social sectors have one compelling advantage: desparate craving for meaning in our lives. Purity of mission...has the power to ignite passion and commitment." I believe this is what attracts and retains most of the top talent in the social sector, and it's the factor that organizations need to capitalize on.

Social sector organizations aren't making widgets, they're keeping people from having their homes robbed, keeping children from being molested, keeping drinking water safe, etc. Those are powerful outcomes. Use them to recruit and retain the most qualified.

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