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    Sharpen your axe

    The best piece of writing I read this week was not in a book, in a blog, a magazine, or in some kind of other forum we'd associate with 'good writing'.Famous Red

    It was the instruction manual for a product that I don't even own, an Axe from the Best Made Company

    Sure, I get what you're thinking, does a tool as simple as an axe really need a complex or lengthy instruction manual?

    No, it really doesn't.  And the folks from Best Made realize that as well, in fact they offer an abbreviated version of the already compact set of axe instuctions as follows: 

    Note: This manual consists of a short version and a long one. The short one goes like this: Keep your blade sharp, your helve moist, and everything clean.

    The manual then does offer a 'long' version, no more that a few hundred words along with color illustrations that simply, clearly, and in a straightforward and easy style take the reader through more details regarding safety, cleaning, and maintenance of the tool.  What a superb idea, to provide the simplest possible set of instructions for those for whom that will suffice, supplemented with more detailed information for beginners or casual axe-wielders.

    The axe manual makes the necessary points and covers the essentials without being superfluous, unnecessarily confusing, and by connecting 'what' the axe owner should do with the 'why' of the recommendations.  If your axe blade is dull, it will be harder to chop, take longer to restore the edge, and you or someone are more likely to get hurt.

    The manual even advises against loaning the axe to friends and family: 

    They may even ask if they can borrow yours. By all means, do not say yes. It has been our experience that once an item is lent to someone else—even a family member—it never returns in the same condition, if it returns at all. So when someone asks if they can borrow your Best Made axe to take to the cabin, it’s best to politely decline and inform them that they can purchase their very own from Best Made Co. This will help lessen the tension at family and social gatherings, because, admit it, there’s enough tension already.

    Funny stuff.  And it also helps to connect the owner to the product and cement the ownership experience.  

    Why am I blogging about the owner's manual for an axe?  

    Because to me this is an example of what I personally need to strive for more often in writing - it's engaging, contains important information without being too self-important, makes the connections simply and effectively, refers the reader to useful resources outside the company, and finally does not drone on and on boring everyone to tears. 

    The full PDF of the axe manual is here - even if you don't own an axe, don't intend on ever owning an axe, you might find the manual useful, I did.


    Disappearing Languages

    Earlier this week I read a piece on Inside Higher Ed about the likely elimination of several language studies programs at the State University of New York at Albany.  Along with the elimination of the programs of study, it seems also quite likely that several tenured faculty and long time staff positions will be eliminated as well. As in the case of many institutional and corporate restructuring efforts and corresponding staffing adjustments and downsizings that eventually follow, there are the expected calls of 'How can we eliminate these programs?', and 'These programs are unique, they can't really beFlickr - swanksalot modified or adapted to reflect a changing set of budgetary and practical realities.'

    I certainly don't know all the details of the decision to eliminate, or potentially eliminate, programs like Italian and Russian at SUNY Albany.  But at least on the surface it does seem kind of intuitive that the college student of today, staring at a ridiculously difficult job market for the foreseeable future, is not rushing to major in Italian at SUNY Albany, (at least if Mom and Dad are footing the bill).  How many folks reading this post were convinced/cajoled/forced to major in Business for the very same reasons.  My hand is up. Sadly, professors that have been carrying the flag of Russian and French studies to legions of undergrads in Central New York, some for over 20 years, will soon find themselves having to find a new way of making a living.  That stinks.

    I suppose the lesson in all this, and there has to be some kind of lesson, is that even the most secure, protected, and established occupations and positions are not immune to the inevitable shifts in markets, tastes, and organizational challenges. Ok, so that is not revelatory I know.  

    How about this one then?

    Ask yourself if what you are doing, and what you are bringing to the organization could be seen as the equivalent of teaching Russian to a bunch of 19 year olds.  At SUNY Albany it turns out that most of them are not all that interested in learning Russian, see no benefit in learning Russian, and no matter how great you are at teaching Russian, the market for your services has dried up. 

    I confess when I read the piece I thought to myself, 'Why are these professors so surprised? No one in their right mind would think that teaching Italian and French to SUNY students still is relevant in 2010'.

    But then I thought, most people don't see their passions and their expertise in the same way the outside world sees them.  In fact, I will bet many of us are safe and comfortable in what we are doing every day, and with the unique perspective and skills we offer to our employer and to society, while secretly, quietly, someone is looking at us like we are really teaching Russian.


    My first day on the job (involves numerous beers)

    October 2010 - Editor's Note - Today I am re-rerunning a post originally published in May 2009. If you make it to the end (good luck), I explain why.


    It's the weekend, (Note: I guess it was the weekend when this first ran), and I don't have the focus to craft a detailed, thoughtful post on HR Technology, so I thought I would tell the story of my first day on my first 'professional' job that I got after graduating college.

    I was a recent Business/Finance graduate and after graduating landed a job at AT&T as one of what seemed like at least 5,000 folks trying to keep track of the giant corporations finances.

    I'd rather not say the exact year, let's just say we were all still trying to get used to it being 'the 90s'.

    So on the first day, I turned up to the offices of the division that I was to be supporting in beautiful downtown Newark, NJ.  The offices were fairly modern for the time, all the necessary amenities were present, and it was altogether a normal and sort of boring corporate office environment.

    After a few hours of being introduced around the office, learning where the bathrooms and cafeteria were, it was about noon, and I was thinking about grabbing some lunch. Right about that time, two of the mid-level managers came by my desk to invite me to go to lunch with them. Ron and Frank were two 50 or so year old guys, with probably 25 years apiece in the company.  As I was brand new on the job, I did not hesitate to accept the offer and gladly went along.

    We exited the building and hit the streets of Newark for the short two or three block walk to the place these two guys liked to regularly have lunch. The place was called Murphy's Tavern.

    It was about as dive as dive bars could be.  Sort of tired looking, small, dimly lit, and with a nice, fragrant scent of about five million Marlboros and Lucky Strikes that had been smoked in there over the years.

    But I was just out of college, and had spent more time that I should admit in similar looking bars while in school, so at first, the place did not phase me at all. I was feeling pretty good to get invited out to lunch by the leaders in the department on my first day.

    As I said, this was a dive bar, not a restaurant, so the three of us took seats at the bar and were greeted by the bartender, a 60ish year old man named Jim. Jim greeted Ron and Frank (not much of a greeting really, the kind of hello that indicates it had not been a long time since they had last been in the bar), was introduced to me, and then immediately placed a bottle of Budweiser in front of all three of us.

    That's ok I thought, it was summer, it was pretty hot that day, a cold Bud seemed like a good idea.  Besides, the two managers who brought me to lunch were having one as well, so I better to go along, try to fit in and all that.

    After about five minutes of small talk and a few sips of the Bud, Jim the bartender puts a second Bud in front of each of us.  I had finished maybe half of my first beer, and number two was already there, queued up and waiting. Man, I thought, these guys aren't fooling around.  But I was ok with it, I was fresh out of school, and I did not have any problem tossing back a few beers, so I wasn't stressed. Ron and Frank seemed to make nothing of the fact that no actual 'ordering' had been done, the beers just simply appeared with not a word exchanged between us and Jim the bartender.

    So 10 or so minutes pass, I am now working on beer number two, when Jim puts a third beer down in front of all three of us.  To this point no one has seen or asked for a menu (I was actually wondering if the place even served food), and I thought to myself, 'Dang, these guys don't even eat, they just go to lunch and get bombed'. Finally, a minute later Jim comes back over with a pad to take our lunch orders.  I don't remember what I ordered, but I imagine it was the same thing as Ron or Frank had, as I had never been in the place before and apparently there were no menus. While we were waiting for our food, I excused myself to use the restroom, and on the way to the back of the bar where the restrooms were, I finally got a chance to look around a bit more.

    The walls of the bar were covered in large poster-size photographs, all black and white, of various celebrities and athletes.  James Dean, Joe DiMaggio, Robert DeNiro, Clark Gable, (Clark Gable?, that's pretty random), were some that I remember. Again, nothing too strange, just an old, dingy dive bar where these two old-timers seemed to eat lunch in all the time.

    The lunch finally came, along with beer number four, and three of us finished up, paid the bill (the guys, or Jim or some combination paid for my tab), and we headed back to the office. After four beers and a greasy lunch, I was pretty much ready for a nap, and I don't really recall anything else about the afternoon.  At about 4:00, Ron and Frank came by my desk to let me know they were stopping for a 'quick one' before heading home, and that a few of the higher-ups in the finance department were planning on meeting them, and I should probably come along and get introduced to these 'important' colleagues.

    So we headed back over to Murphy's, which was at this point pretty empty. Jim the bartender was still there, we had more Bud (I was fairly confident at this point Bud was the only beer served there), and made some small talk.  I was feeling really glad to be commuting via public transportation at this point as well, as were Ron and Frank.

    About an hour passed, and the 'important' colleagues turned up, more middle-aged dudes who liked to drink Bud, and we proceeded to hang out for maybe another hour.  I am now about seven or eight beers in on the day, but even in that condition I was able to notice that the bar was getting more crowded, and the clientele was exclusively male.  And the folks who were coming in to the place were not the middle-aged office worker types that I was with.  No, the new crowd was much younger, more racially diverse, and not dressed in white shirts and ties like we were.  Soon, disco music started to play and some of the patrons started dancing in a small area near the back of the bar. About this point I had to make my way to the restrooms in the back and as I walked past the posters of Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra, etc, and through and around the small crowd of guys dancing with each other, it finally hit me: Murphy's Tavern is a gay bar! I did not have a problem with that aspect really, but it is the kind of thing you typically mention to someone when taking them the first time, don't you think? I had maybe one more beer, and left, somehow making it to the train station for the train back home, still sort of amazed about the day and night.

    So my very first day as a 'finance professional' was spent filling out a few forms in the morning, getting loaded at lunch with two of the managers, then returning to the bar with these same managers and some of the executives in our group, and finally realizing we were in (what I later learned) was a famous 'office worker' bar by day, and 'Newark's primary gay bar' by night.

    I am not an expert on employee onboarding, but I do know this, it is probably not a good idea to take your new employee out for a four-drink lunch in a dive bar, then bring them back to the same dive bar/gay bar after work to 'network' with the execs, all the while not letting them know the 'unique' aspects of the place.

    (Original) Note: If you have read this ridiculously long post, thanks for indulging me.  The story is 100% true. I changed the names of the specific individuals mentioned in the post, although I am pretty sure there is a zero chance any of them will ever see this.

    October 2010 - Editor's Note -  One of the unnamed principals in the story, I am grieved to say, passed away last week and I was just informed about the sad news today.  While the little tale above is presented as a bit of a laugh, I fondly remember Mr. Roy Baker as an early mentor, guide, and great spirit.  He was one of the slowly disappearing 'company men', loyal to his wife, family, and company for decades.  Farewell, my old friend.


    The Screening Machine

    College and University admissions departments are faced annually with the challenge of sorting though what are often many thousands of applications for what are significantly less available positions in the incoming freshman class.   

    In fact, establishing and maintaining a low percentage of 'accepted' applicants, or conversely a high percentage of rejected applicants, is perceived as a sign of an institution's selectivity, quality, and impacts positively on those 'Best Colleges' lists that are extremely important to college administrators, current and prospective students, parents,  and alumni.

    It's kind of a virtuous cycle - improved institutional reputation --> more applications --> greater selectivity --> higher ranking on the lists --> improved reputation.  And so on.  Mix in a successful sports team once in a while, and the school is on its way to more donations, more research grants, and a spot on the Presidential debate hosting roster.

    It's all good except for the folks in the admissions departments that are tasked with most of the work in awarding these highly sought after slots in the incoming class to the select 10% or even less of the applicants that will make the cut. And as most of us who remember the college application process and experience, either our own or our kids, the applications are complex, long, and contain a complicated mix of standard measures (SAT tests), sort of standard measures (comparative GPA's), and completely non-standard and subjective measures (essays, recommendations, after-school activities). The Admitulator

    All in all, a difficult recruiting and 'hiring'process, not that unlike what happens in corporate recruiting every day.  Companies often have hundreds of applications for a position, the evaluation criteria is a mixture of standard (advanced degrees), and non-standard (impressions left after an interview), and making the right selection has important and long-term impacts on the organization.  In both college admissions and corporate recruiting, making the 'right' choice isn't easy.

    That is why I thought a new, experimental program called the 'Admitulator' looks so interesting.  From the copy of the tool's designer Golan Levin:

    The Admitulator is a custom tool for quantitatively evaluating university applicants according to a diverse array of weighted metrics. A pie chart is the core interface for ranking, sorting and evaluating applicants; it allows faculty with different admissions priorities to explore and negotiate different balances between applicant features (such as e.g. portfolio scores, standardized test scores, grade point averages, essay evaluations, etcetera).

    By attempting to reconcile both the wide variability of prospective student's achievements, capabilities, and potential with the selector's differences and biases in their beliefs in what makes a successful student, (and one that contributes to the overall institution in a positive way), a tool like the Admitulator has the potential to really inform the college about its admission practices, decision processes, and their relative success or failure.

    The tool doesn't 'tell' the college which students to admit, but rather provides insight as to the impact biases and widely-held (but never tested) beliefs in the admission process have on the composition of the incoming class.  Then, when later applied to the academic results of students admitted in this manner, it can help educate the admissions and faculty groups as to what screening metrics are more likely to identify successful students in the longer term.

    It is kind of a neat tool.  

    We all have our biases and preferences in the hiring process - advanced degrees trump skills (or vice versa), we only hire from certain colleges, or we only like to poach from a select few competitors.  But do we really know the impact of these biases? Do we know if there is a correlation between what we 'feel' and what actually happens?

    Do we need a big, bad screening machine?


    HR Technology 2010, Simplicity, and Beer

    The latest installment of the HR Technology Conference wrapped up last week,  and truly by all accounts that I have seen so far, the event was another huge success. Attendance was strong, the vendors that I spoke to all claimed to be having positive shows in terms of traffic and connections, and the (large) assembled collection of HR bloggers present expressed satisfaction and enjoyment with the event and the experience.

    What's not to like?  

    Every major vendor in the HR Tech game is there.  All the important trade publications, consultancies, and independent analysts are around.  And the number, quality, and variety of receptions, parties, and dinners is truly astounding. The event itself is well-organized, well-executed, and everyone stays on message.  Including the conference worker that would not allow me entrance to the Expo floor prior to the 'official' opening of the show floor since I did not possess the needed credentials.

    All in all, well done, and many thanks to Bill Kutik for inviting me to participate as a moderator of one of the 'Shootout' sessions where I got to watch over two vendors sweat to get their complex and comprehensive demonstrations completed in 25 minutes.

    For me, the overall theme to the event was 'simplicity'.  The most interesting conversations I had with vendors, bloggers, attendees, etc. centered around either finding technology solutions that would help to simplify workforce and talent processes, or were about adopting new technologies that frankly were better, cleaner, easier to navigate, to use, and to manage than the ones they are currently using.

    Oh yeah, 'LinkedIn' popped up in probably every second conversation I had as well.  Either as a platform that had to be integrated with, as a competitive threat (real and perceived), or in it's place in the social media trinity in a more general commentary about the social web. Connecting with social platforms is getting to be expected in almost every new product, or new release of an old product.

    So in addition to 'simplicity', I guess my other word from the event is 'LinkedIn'. 

    I asked (rhetorically) earlier in the post, 'What's not to like?'

    If I had to offer something not to like, and this is not so much a critique of the HR Tech conference itself as it is a question about the process of marketing and selling HR Technology solutions in general, it would rather be to ask why these themes of simplicity and connectivity don't seem to transfer all that well to the actual process of finding, buying, and deploying HR software?

    Why is it often so difficult for prospective customers to actually try the software out before committing to a longer term purchase?  Why is the pricing information for most of the solutions on display at the show so hard to come by?  Why are sales processes so long? And why do the large majority of HR Technology vendors seem to do at best an average job of connecting with the greater community by leveraging the aforementioned 'trinity' of platforms?

    Those complaints may or may not be well-founded, and even if they are none of that is the fault of the HR Tech Conference itself.  Unless of course by being too good an event, by being too effective as an marketing device, and having established itself as an enduring institution, that effecting meaningful structural and behavioral change in the 'traditional' sales process becomes an even harder barrier to overcome. Maybe.

    But big changes like those, if they come, will be gradual.  And even if they do, I am sure the HR Tech event will continue to thrive.  If for some reason it doesn't, I have a fallback plan though. As we were leaving the conference hotel in Chicago the next big event coming in was the 73rd Annual conference for the NBWA - the National Beer Wholesalers Association. Ironically, one of the most interesting booths at the HR Tech show involved beer.

    It may be time to start that 'Beer and BBQ' blog I have always dreamed about.

    Update - December 2011 - For reasons I am still not totally sure about, this post was translated to Bulgarian - and you can attempt to read that version here.