Sunday, January 24, 2016

How a mobile game made me re-think the nature of jobs

I have a lot of games on my iPad.  They go on for several pages as you swipe left.

Some are quite good, but most are just good enough that I can't bring myself to delete them, but not good enough that I play them regularly.

Every once in a while though, one comes along where I find myself playing it whenever I get downtime, usually due to some clever reward scheme that borrows heavily from the concept of variable interval reinforcement.  (come to think of it, most of them do)  You Candy Crush players out there know what I'm talking about.

Quite unexpectedly, I came across one recently that's not only fun, but made me re-think my approach to jobs.  Frankly it was rather eye-opening.  I know this sounds odd, but stay with me.

It's a game called Pixel People. It's a "city building" game, drawn from the rich history of games like SimCity and Civilization.  There are many games, like Clash of Clans, that have an element of city building, but unlike most of them, Pixel People doesn't focus on fighting, but instead on building your city.

The graphics aren't anything to write home about, you can see an example below.  The word "pixel" isn't in the title by accident.

Fortunately, the game doesn't need high-resolution graphics to pull off addicting gameplay.  And part of what makes it addictive--actually, the biggest part--is how you create people to populate your city.

Every citizen starts off as a clone, tabula raza.  You individualize them by giving them professions.  And the way you give them professions is by combining other professions from different categories.

For example, you start off with a Mayor and a Mechanic.  The Mayor belongs to the "Administration" occupational category, the Mechanic to the "Technical" category.  It was right about this point that something tickled at the back of my mind and I was reminded of a typical job classification system (O*NET being a prime example).

The best part of the game is that in order to move forward and create new professions and buildings, you combine two different professions.  For example, if you combine the professions of Mayor with the profession of Mechanic, you get an Engineer.  By doing so you create not only an Engineer, but access to the Garage and Mine structures.  You continue combining professions to create new ones, create new buildings which offer new abilities, etc.

Here are some other profession creation combinations, of which there are currently 400:

Mechanic + Engineer = Mechanical Engineer (duh)
Director + Model = Actor
Doctor + Park Ranger = Vet
Farmer + Farmer = Botanist
Mechanic + Police Officer = Firefighter
Architect + Dreamer = Artist

As you can see, the game designers put some thought into how different professions relate to one another.  They're not perfect, but close enough to make you smile when you create a new profession.

So what does this have to do with assessment?  Thanks for hanging in there.  Well, the game mechanic got me thinking about how overly logical and rational most of our classification systems are, and how little we acknowledge the overlap and relationships between occupations.

Most of us in HR structure our worlds around the idea that jobs can be categorized and differentiated.  And in some cases, this makes perfect sense.  A doctor is not the same as a computer programmer.  Different educational requirements.  Many core competencies required for the position are different.

But I submit to you that in many cases, occupations have more overlap than we pretend.  They are related to one another in ways that we don't typically acknowledge.  And this has implications for recruiting, assessment, compensation, promotional paths--i.e., the core work involved in talent management.  For example:

Recruiting:  currently, the ideal model of recruiting is to identify through job analysis the core KSAs or competencies required, and craft your recruitment campaign to attract those that possess them.  KSAs can get very specific, resulting in recruiting efforts often focused on a pretty narrow desired profile.  If we acknowledge that many jobs in our organizations have more overlap than we normally pretend, it becomes obvious that recruitment campaigns can become broader in two major ways: (1) you start to focus more on recruiting for the organization, not specific jobs, and (2) you start recruiting for broader skillsets or competencies, like analytical skill and conscientiousness.  I don't think it's a coincidence that the last 40+ years of assessment research has repeatedly underlined the predictive power of these qualities.

Assessment:  like recruiting, assessment strategies typically target very specific KSAs--knowledge of a particular programming language, knowledge of a particular area of HR law, etc.  If we acknowledge the overlap and relationship between jobs, it changes our assessment strategy.  Like our recruitment strategy, we focus on broader targets such as communication ability and ability to work as part of a team.  I'm not suggesting we shouldn't focus on those things that are critical to job performance and necessary upon entry to the position, but rather that we not prioritize those above more general qualities of the individual.

Compensation:  most often, particularly in civil service systems, compensation is based on the job category someone belongs to and their tenure.  If we instead acknowledge the somewhat artificial nature of our classification structures, it shifts the focus to compensation being based on contribution to the organization.  I recognize pay-for-performance has had inconsistent success, but I suspect that has as much to do with what's being compensated as it does with the concept.

Thinking about recruitment, assessment, and compensation in this way broadens our horizons when it comes to other aspects of talent management, such as career mobility.  It becomes easier to see how transferable skills benefit the organization, increasing its ability to adjust to new conditions, including unexpected turnover.  Instead of staffing focused on narrow KSAs, we fill our organization with people whose strengths allow them to move relatively fluidly between jobs, which helps the individuals as well in their career development.

Am I suggesting that we ignore specific skillsets when recruiting?  Definitely not.  Obviously sometimes you need people with a very particular ability or knowledge.  What I am suggesting is we shift the balance toward a much more inclusive perspective when it comes to the qualities we seek.

What do you think?  Has your organization already acknowledged the overlap between jobs?  Do you already recruit and select based on a broader mindset than simply those KSAs required for a particular position?  Have the long hours spent in front of a tablet warped my perspective?

Footnote: long-time readers will have noticed that I'm not posting nearly as much as I used to, and for that I apologize.  I took a new job last summer and since then my blogging has suffered.  If you want to follow me, I recommend my Facebook page, which I update more often.  Thanks for hanging in there! This year marks the 10-year anniversary of HR Tests and I hope to do something special in celebration.