Three quick book reviews (or what I want Santa to bring me)

Profile picture for user brianssommer By Brian Sommer October 5, 2021
Summary:
A no-travel pandemic means I have a lot of extra time to read books. Here are his reviews of three that have recently crossed his desk. One looks at AI and Hiring, another at Digital Disrupters, and, the third describes the kind of managers all firms should have.

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Supply chain watchers have been advising us to shop early this holiday season as many things we want are in short supply. If you’d like to get ahead of the curve, here are three business books worth considering as great gifts this holiday season.

“The Employee-Centric Manager” by Dr. Jack Wiley 

What I really liked:

This book is very timely as businesses are undergoing the Mass Resignation right now. CHROs and operations leaders are struggling with retaining the people they already have and finding net-new people to fill the ever-growing shortages occurring now.

I agree with Dr. Wiley that managers are either a big part of the problem or the solution. Since people leave their firm/boss more than 50-60% of the time (over all other departure reasons), businesses need a more self-aware, thoughtful manager. In my parlance, I believe great managers are people that design a work environment that causes people to want to stay with the firm years longer than they otherwise would have. Just this weekend, HR pundit Laurie Ruettimann stated it more succinctly: “be the kind of manager people won’t want to leave.”

 

The book is well-designed and I could see someone using it to develop a management course from it.  The book looks at eight attributes that employees want from their bosses. Of these attributes, five are managerial behaviors, one is a key skill and two are key values. Within each of these 8 items, the author looks at what employees/jobseekers want and other data.

Within that other data, the content around “positive manager experiences” and “negative manager experiences” is pure gold. That content comes from asking 80,000 employees from 27 countries what they want. While that sounds simple, it generates a multi-faceted, often nuanced set of hoped for managerial responses. Dr. Wiley provides real quotes from real employees and divides these into the positive and negative camps and offers up his assessment of these situations. Honestly, if you’ve ever worked for anyone, you’ll see yourself in a number of these comments.

My One Request:

My nit with the book is that the content only works for those managers who actually want to improve and believe they could stand some improvement. If you’re an employer/manager who treats employees badly and isn’t interested in change, you won’t read the book or adopt its concepts.

I hope Dr. Wiley, et.al., can do all kinds of workshops with employers across the globe to help them improve the quality and humanity within their managerial/leadership ranks. You might not be able to change a psychopath boss or a boss who is without empathy but for many; however, the book can help those that want to change and also help them identify what employees really want in a manager-employee relationship.

This book is brand new and is currently available here.

 

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“Decoding Talent” by Eric Sydell, Mike Hudy & Michael Ashley

What I really liked:

There are two great uses for this book. First, I’d challenge most software executives to write (not have ghostwritten) a book like this that clearly explains: the how of the technology powering their solutions; the right and wrong ways this technology could be used; and, the really novel issues this new technology will trigger (and with which people will need to manage for years to come).   The second use is for most CHROs and other executives to read as many may still be behind in their FULL understanding in how AI (artificial intelligence) will power and influence HR and business outcomes.

Decoding Talent’s authors are connected to HR technology firm Modern Hire (a firm formed from the merger of Shaker and Montage). The company has a lot of history with video interviewing, assessments and other HR functions. But more importantly, they have a lot of first-person experience with AI projects at clients.

Rather than a dry, academic treatise on artificial intelligence, Decoding Talent takes readers on a journey to understand how AI works in solving the talent acquisition, promotion and retention issues challenging firms today. That alone makes the book quite relevant. It’s a well-balanced read as it explains the good and bad along the way. It also makes sure we realize just how these functions are changing (and will change). Stick-in-the-mud CHROs who hope they can continue to use old tech in their old processes aren’t going to like the book’s content.

This is probably the best and most-accessible long-form piece I’ve read on AI and HR.

My One Request:

In a revised edition of the book, I hope the authors will add more on the correlation/causation problem in many HR/AI tools. Specifically, I get that AI tools are great at spotting patterns but to get any statistically meaningful correlations will require access to piles of data, big data. This means that some smaller firms will not/cannot get value from these tools as there is not enough data to support any recommendations. The authors are good at pointing out that just because a technology can do something, it doesn’t necessarily mean users should do it. Where the authors could add more emphasis is on the kinds of correlations users should avoid. Job performance or retention tools can spot connections that may be best left alone.

For example, just because an AI tool finds a high correlation between retention and people with certain degrees doesn’t mean that someone with a different degree can’t also be successful. I believe some readers might miss this point. Just because a correlation can be found doesn’t mean that the presence of that factor is the cause or proof of some future event. If an AI tool only looks at the results a firm got in the past, it will simply reproduce those same experiences and recommend the same kind of actions. While the book hits on these points, I’m just not convinced that many executives fully get this.

This book should be required reading for any HR executive contemplating a purchase of a newer, AI-powered technology. (I got an advance copy of the book. It will be available in January but it can be pre-ordered.)

 

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“Everybody Wants to Rule the World” by R “Ray” Wang

What I really liked:

Ray Wang’s a fellow industry analyst who has been bugging me to get this book for a couple of months now. I recently did that. It turns out, it’s even better than this first book!

Until the pandemic, I would see Wang somewhere almost weekly. I’ve even sat in the audience when he’s giving one of his “digital” keynotes at user conferences. To say that I’m familiar with his points of view on a number of tech issues is an understatement. So, with that preface, I wasn’t expecting to read a lot of new content in this book. I was wrong.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World actually does a solid job explaining why established firms have done such an awful job of creating large-scale “data-driven digital networks”. Old firms, with their plants, processes, compensation methods, etc. keep one foot firmly planted in the past and try to go digital in baby/incremental steps while new competitors do the opposite.

I’ve written about how firms subvert phrases like “digital transformation”. Making it easier for employees to schedule paid time off is not transformative at all while successfully creating a new business model to take market share from Amazon may be. The difference is whether the ‘transformation’ is little ‘t’ transformation or big ‘T’ transformation. Wang’s book puts a clear face on the inadequacies of little ‘t’ efforts and how these will not help a firm long-term.

Ray lays out his case in a straightforward, accessible read. And, any executive or board member who wants his/her firm to be a winner long-term needs to get hip to the new table stakes. Slavishly kowtowing to Wall Street will win you short-term accolades but may doom your firm to insufferable competition from ever larger digital competitors that operate on a breathtaking scale and with towering amounts of data/insights.

A surprisingly good read.

My One Request:

I’m not sure if Wang believes that many firms can make the journey to become one of these data-driven network companies. These companies use scale to grow to a massive size and then mine the data exhaust from their activities to generate more insights and more market exploitation opportunities. So, if the market only needs a few giant digital retailers (e.g., Amazon, eBay, Alibaba, etc.) what do the tens of thousands of other retailers do?

The outlook for many old school firms won’t be great, for sure, but are there some more lessons to be learned from traditional firms that have turned the corner in some important way? I know there’s a case study about Deere & Co. in the book but I’d like to see a few more stories of successful, large-scale transformations. I like stories about companies that play offense, especially underdog stories.

Again, a surprisingly good read. You’ll find it for sale on Amazon.