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    Entries in Sports (107)

    Monday
    Mar312014

    The analytics takeover won't always be pretty

    Seems like it has been some time since I dropped a solid 8 Man Rotation contribution here on the blog, so to remedy that, please first take a look at this recent piece on ESPN.com, 'Fears that stats trump hoops acumen', a look at the tensions that are building inside NBA front offices and among team executives.

    In case you didn't click over and read the piece, the gist is this: With the increased importance and weight that a new generation of NBA team owners are placing on data-driven decision making and analytical skills, that the traditional people that have been the talent pool for NBA team management and executive roles, (former NBA players), are under threat from a new kind of candidate - ones that have deep math, statistics, and data backgrounds and, importantly, not careers as actual basketball players.

    Check this excerpt from the ESPN piece to get a feel for how this change in talent management and sourcing strategies is being interpreted by long time (and anonymously quoted) NBA executives:

    Basketball guys who participated in the game through years of rigorous training and practice, decades of observation work through film and field participation work feel under-utilized and under-appreciated and are quite insulted because their PhDs in basketball have been downgraded," the former executive, who chose to remain anonymous, told ESPN NBA Insider Chris Broussard.

    One longtime executive, who also chose to remain anonymous, postulated that one reason why so many jobs are going to people with greater analytical backgrounds is because newer and younger owners may better identify with them.

    "Generally speaking, neither the [newer generation of] owners nor the analytic guys have basketball in their background," the longtime executive told Broussard. "This fact makes it easy for both parties to dismiss the importance of having experience in and knowledge of the game.

    The piece goes on to say that since many newer NBA owners have business and financial industry backgrounds, (and didn't inherit their teams as part of the 'family business'), that they would naturally look for their team executives to share the kinds of educational and work experience profiles of the business executives with which they are accustomed to working with, and have been successful with.

    The former players, typically, do not have these kinds of skills, they have spent just about all their adult lives (and most of their childhoods), actually playing basketball. A set of experiences, it is turning out, no longer seems to provide the best training or preparation for running or managing a basketball team. 

    But the more interesting point from all this, and the one that might have resonance beyond basketball, is the idea that the change in hiring philosophy is coming right from the top - from a new generation of team owners that have a different set of criteria upon which they are assessing and evaluating talent.

    Left to tradition, hiring and promotion decisions would have probably only slowly begun to modernize. But a new generation of owners/leaders in the NBA are changing the talent profile for the next generation of leaders.

    The same thing is likely to play out in your organization. Eventually, if it has not happened yet, you are going to go to a meeting with your new CHRO who didn't rise through the HR ranks and maybe is coming into the role from finance, operations, or manufacturing. In that meeting your 19 years of experience in employee relations might be a great asset to brag on. Or it might not be.

    And you might find out only when you are introduced to your new boss, who has spent her last 5 years crunching numbers and developing stats models.

    Have a great week!

    Friday
    Feb142014

    Big Data - on the basketball court today, tomorrow in your office?

    Super piece over at Grantland the other day titled The Data Flow Continues: NBA D-League Will Monitor Player Heart Rate, Speed, Distance Traveled, and More, about some of the steps that the NBA, (and its affiliated minor league the D-League), are taking that leverage wearable tracking devices to monitor player movements, player vital signs, and evaluate things like player fatigue levels and stress during the course of play.

    These new devices, ones that go beyond the already in-place sophisticated video technology that records player actions like direction of movement, speed, acceleration and deceleration, and move into more precise measurements of a player's biological and physical status and condition, seem to offer NBA teams a rich and copious set of information that can inform in-game strategy, (Is LeBron really tired, or does he just look tired?), and off season training and conditioning plans.

    But of course the potential backlash for the NBA and its teams is that no one, not even highly compensated NBA players, will be terribly excited about not only having their actions tracked, but also their physical reactions tracked as well.

    But if we move off of thinking about this kind of physical tracking as something that is limited to jobs or activities like playing basketball we could easily see how this kind of technology and data collection and mining approach could have applications in other domains.

    Wouldn't you like to know, Mr. or Ms. HR/Talent pro, how a given manager's team members physically react when they are in a performance coaching session, or getting any kind of feedback on their work? Do the team member's hearts start racing when their boss enters the room or begins one of his soliloquies? Do certain team members react and respond differently to the same managerial techniques? And wouldn't that information be valuable to feed back to the manager so that he or she could better tailor their style and approach to fit the individuals on their team?

    I know what you are saying, no way are employees going to agree to be wired up like subjects in some kind of weird biology experiment. Too intrusive. Too much potential for the data to be lost. Too many chances for the data to be held against them.

    The NBA players are probably going to make similar arguments, but eventually they will succumb.

    I will leave with a direct pull quote from the Grantland piece, and as you read it, think about how naturally you could substitute 'organizations' for 'NBA teams'.

    Bottom line: None of this stuff is going away. Data of all kinds are already piling up at a rate that is overwhelming NBA teams, and the pace and variety of data available will only increase. Teams are going to have to change hiring patterns, and likely hire additional staff, to mine anything useful out of all this information. And the holy grail, to me, remains what these tracking devices can tell us about health — about preventing injuries, predicting them, monitoring players’ training loads, and keeping them healthy.

    Have a great weekend!

    Tuesday
    Feb042014

    Choosing your benchmarks wisely and the legacy of David Stern

    Real quick 8 Man Rotation style take for a travel Tuesday. Aside, I am heading out to Oracle HCM World in my favorite city in the world Las Vegas, if you happen to be out there be sure to say 'Hi'. 

    Over the weekend I had a brief Tweet exchange with the HR Capitalist, Kris Dunn, and another Fistful of Talent colleague the very underrated R.J. Morris about the legacy of the very recently retired after a 30 year run Commissioner of the NBA David Stern. One of the tweets is embedded below to give a little bit of context, and also because I find embedding tweets to be kind of fun, (I know, i need to get out more).

     

     

    The gist of the conversation regarding Stern was this: By most measures of internal comparison, i.e. taking where the NBA was in terms of hard metrics like revenue, franchise values, player salaries, international growth, etc., Stern presided over a long and sustained period if incredible growth for the league. By every internal standard, the NBA is in a far, far better and more financially successful place today than it was when Stern became commissioner. 

    But Stern has his critics too, and rather than dig into all the specific and sometimes subtle elements of his stewardship of the NBA, let's focus on just one. Namely, that while Stern did, by most accounts, a superb job of growing the NBA, it is still far, far less popular and financially and culturally massive (at least in the USA) as the National Football League. The NFL is the proverbial 300lb gorilla of modern American sports. It has widespread appeal, its game telecasts rank among the most popular TV programs week in and week out, the the culmination of the season, the Super Bowl game, has become such an important and ubiquitous event that there are fairly serious proposals that the Monday following the game be designated as a national holiday.

    The NFL is #1, by every measure that matters, and when holding up the NBA to that mirror, well then the Association falls short, a distant second really, (and possibly even third behind Major League Baseball), and consequently then Commissioner Stern must be judged as not having really been such a transcendent sports business leader.

    But I think that comparison is a little unfair, and perhaps even a little premature, (even as Stern retires). I think if we let the evolution of both American professional sports, and societal and global trends play out a little longer, I think this kind of comparison, or benchmark of basketball to American football will end up looking quite a bit different, and Stern, long gone from the scene, will have to be credited for at least some of these developments.

    To me, the NBA is like Apple Computers, in the latter part of the 90s. The NFL, the behemoth, is Microsoft of that same time.

    Back then, Microsoft was the undisputed leader in personal and corporate computing technology, was led by a legendary and visionary Bill Gates, and simply dwarfed everyone else in its space with its vise-like grip over almost every interaction you had with a computer. Apple was still interesting, quirky, made a different kind of computer that had its adherents, but never was seen as a serious threat to the MSFT ecosystem.

    And then something called the iPod came out and things started to change. You know the story and I don't need to go into all the Apple innovations and the subsequent (or concurrent) missteps from Redmond, but suffice to say the technology world in 2014 does not look anything like it did in 1998 or so.

    So back to my NBA and NFL take, and the need to give Stern some room before we all start deciding about his legacy.

    I submit that about 15 years from now the NBA will be almost, if not more popular (in America and globally), than the NFL for the following reasons:

    1. Basketball, and by extenstion the NBA, is largely an urban or city game. The game is mostly played and celebrated, in America's big cities - New York, Chicago, Boston, L.A.. And America (and the rest of the world) is becoming a more urban place as well. As more people migrate to the larger cities, the city game, basketball, will continue to thrive, often at the expense of football, a game that requires expansive grounds on which to play, lots of expensive equipment, and the type of space not easily found in a big city.

    2. Basketball is a global game, played all over the world, while American football is played (seriously) pretty much only in America. As the world shrinks, cultural and sporting phenomena like the NFL, that have only single-country relevance, will eventually become somewhat marginalized over time. While the NFL dominates the American sporting landscape, it hardly registers anywhere else in the world. The NBA, with its global reach, and high number of non-American players is far ahead of the NFL in this regard. Just witness the growing popularity of English Soccer here in the US as a small example of this trend.

    3. The talent supply chain is constricting for the NFL. Due to its violent nature, more and more parents are electing to keep their kids out of full-contact football. Every football player gets injured at some point in a season, and as the NFL has learned, many of these injuries can have incredibly serious and devastating repercussions. The recent concussion-related lawsuits, settlements, and high-profile former players revealing their stories of traumatic brain injury are beginning to cast a longer and longer shadow over not just the NFL, but the beginnings or feeder systems for their talent. This will play out over time, surely, but even today if you were the parent of a very talented and gifted athlete, would you steer him toward a violent sport like football where he is likely to have at least a few concussions over time, or a sport like basketball where the injury risks are much less?

    4. At the top, I said this was going to be a 'quick take', turns out I was wrong. Sorry about that.

    5. The NBA understands social media and new media in general. This is certainly subjective, but if you look at how the league and its teams have embraced digital and social over the last few years, you see an organization that is more forward-thinking than most others. This is a by-product of the NBA's long time strategy that elevates and promotes its star players and personalities. Think about it, only the most ardent NFL fans can name more than a handful of players on their favorite team, and even less would be recognizable. If the new world of media and commerce is about engagement and connection, then the NBA is in a much stronger place than the NFL, where the vast majority of players are faceless and anonymous.

    I probably could keep going on this, but I think I have made enough points for now, and besides, I have to get on a plane. But the bottom line to me, taking us back to the question of David Stern and his legacy I think we have to let some of these cultural and global trends play out a little longer before we dismiss Stern (and the NBA) as being somehow inferior to the NFL. Compare the NBA of 1984 to the NBA of today and then no question, Stern was a great leader and executive. Compare the NBA of 2014 to the NFL of 2014 and sure you could say he fell short, but I say we need to let these shifts develop.

    Apple wasn't Apple back in 1998. But the world changes, sometimes faster, sometimes slower than we like or anticipate. And being on top of the food chain, even if you have been there awhile doesn' guarantee you that spot forever. Just ask Microsoft.

    <post typed on Chromebook> 

    Tuesday
    Jan212014

    What Richard Sherman reminds us about high performers

    If you are a sports fan, or perhaps even if you are not, you probably heard or saw coverage of Sunday's NFC Championship game, (that is American football for the non-USA readers), and particularly of the epic post-game rant/interview from the Seattle Seahawks' Richard Sherman, a member of the winning team.

    To set a little context, in the final stages of the game, the opposition San Francisco 49ers attempted a pass into the end zone that had it been completed would have won their side the game. The Seahawk's Sherman was able to deflect the pass attempt from the 49ers Michael Crabtree and the ball was then intercepted Sherman's teammate, sealing the victory for Seattle.

    Check the video of the interview then some comments from me (Email and RSS subscribers will need to click through)

    I love this guy. Let's break it down for what is reminds us about people and performance.

    1. Some people just want to be a little better than the worst performer in their peer group

    You know this guy, he is pretty easy to spot. Never stands out at all, is definitely not anywhere close to being a great performer, but usually does just enough to nose in front of the office's weakest link. He is the antelope that realizes that he doesn't need to outrun the cheetah, he only needs to outrun the slowest other antelope in order to survive. Eventually, he becomes the slowest antelope himself, but that can take some time. They are usually pretty fun to be around though.

    2. Some people want to perform at their highest/most productive/most efficient level

    This is actually most people I think. They want to learn, want to get better, want to challenge themselves (most of the time). They usually are good to very good performers. They are your 'B' students, slightly above the curve. They are also generally pretty fun to have on the team. They do some really good work and most notably, they rarely make waves. Some part of them sees being the best version of themselves as being a good team player. A team full of 'B' students, in a mature or slower moving market might be perfectly fine for long term stability and performance.

    3. Some people want to perform at their highest level, actively seek out who they perceive to be the best performers in their peer group, and do what is necessary to outperform them.

    This is our friend Richard Sherman I think. Really driven, consumed with not only becoming the best they can be but also consumed with the measurements that validate they are the best, (and desirous of the accolades that come with being the best). These types stay up at night working, planning, and scheming on how to beat the other guy and are not going to rest until they do. And once they do, they are not shy about telling you about it. We sometimes don't like these kind of guys because, like in the Sherman video, they come off as arrogant, cocky, and kind of unlikable. We chastise them for their hubris and lament that they are not 'team players.' But make no mistake, these are the types that drive progress, at least until they flame out, stop producing the results that led to their arrogance, (while remaining arrogant), and alienate that core group of 'B' students that everyone likes.

    Richard Sherman is clearly a '3' on my little scale. Note that in his 25 second rant he hits the two main elements necessary for this kind of mindset approach. He talks about being the best there is at what he does, AND, calls out his competition, reminding everyone that he is aware of who he has to be better than, and that he is not just using some kind of internal measuring stick to judge his own progress.

    Not everyone can be a Richard Sherman, but I think every organization needs at least some of that type in order to win. Because in life and in business we like to forget sometimes that winning is not only a matter of being the best that we can be, but also involves beating the other team.

    Happy Tuesday. 

    Wednesday
    Jan082014

    HOT SPORTS TAKE: What is more important than culture?

    It's been a huge few days in the sports world - with the NFL playoffs over the past weekend, the NBA finally getting interesting, and the wind up of the College football bowl season and final BCS Championship game. there has been plenty of fodder for sports talk shows, articles and columns that feature that essential element of sports coverage these days known as the HOT SPORTS TAKE

    This is where some blowhard, (in the case of the blog you are currently reading, that blowhard is me), goes on some silly, shouty rant about a coach, or a player, or a team, or sometimes an official about how they variously choked and lost the big game, is actually a terrible, mean, no-good person, and by losing the game and/or being a mean person they have therefore insulted America or tradition or the scared honor of the lunkhead sports stars of a bygone era. The rise of the myriad number of online sports sites has certainly contributed to the genre, but by no means is this a recent phenomenon.

    Actually come to think of it, my take probably doesn't completely merit the HOT SPORTS TAKE definition, as I really am not in a snit about any specific player or coach or team, but rather wanted to use a sports analogy (again) to back up one of my workplace/talent management takes from the past. Namely, that in contrast to the tiresome (and incorrect) cult of 'Culture Eats Strategy' I contend, still, that talent trumps everything. Talent is more important than strategy. Talent is definitely more important than culture.

    What completely non-scientific and impossible to prove or disprove evidence am I going to cite?

    Just a random call to the 'I can't remember which show but they are all the same so it doesn't really matter sports talk show' following the recent NFL playoff games.

    (Transcript lightly edited due to my failing memory and to better make the point I am trying to make)

    Host: Next up Jim from Hoboken. Go head Jim.

    Caller: Hi Mel - I just want to say I hated the body language of the Chiefs/Eagles/Bengals (doesn't matter and I can't remember) at the end of the game. They just don't have a winning mentality. They just don't have any team chemistry. It's like they don't like each other.

    Host: Winning mentality? Chemistry? They fumbled three times and had 12 penalties. What's the 'winning mentality' have to do with that?

    Caller: But Mel, the play calling was terrible. They gave up on the run in the second half!

    Host: They had a receiver drop the ball in the end zone for what should have been an easy touchdown. That play would have put them ahead in the game with less than 4 minutes left!

    Caller: And all the penalties Mel. They couldn't seem to stay onside all game!

    Host: Their top three lineman were all out hurt and they had to play rookies and reserves.

    The reason they lost the game was simple. The other team is better. They have better players. They have more TALENT!

    You fans want to go on and on about whether the Quarterback likes the Running Back or the coach's play calling is shaky or there were bad calls by the officials but all that stuff doesn't matter.

    What matters, in this order, is Talent first, execution second, coaching and play calling third, and last by a mile is whether or not the guys like each other or chemistry (Note: this is the rough equivalent of 'culture' for the HR types). But make no mistake about it, the team with the most Talent wins these games 9 out of 10 times. 

    And don't forget that.

    <scene>

    I continue to believe Talent trumps all - whether it's on the football field or in the executive boardroom.

    Great players make great plays.

    Happy Wednesday. 

    (First official 8 Man Rotation post for 2014 logged)