Monday, 28 May 2018

What smart people don't always agree (with me)

One of my favourite ideas is that of "bounded rationality".

I've always struggled with the idea of why people who are intelligent, well informed, and capable could arrive at such different conclusions. I could get differences in things like values and preferences, and the like. But I struggled to get my head around what might be called more analytical differences.

Bounded rationality goes a long way to explaining this. It is a theory of decision making - the term was coined by Herbert Simon - and won him both a Nobel Award in Economics and a Turning Award for artificial intelligence (he's one of my intellectual heroes).  Simon observed that people are only partly rational; the reason for this is because we operate within limits of our cognition. In simple terms, we are not able to apply any sort of rational process to all - or even a majority of aspects - of decisions we are making. Instead, we apply heuristics - cognitive shortcuts - to simplify the processing load in making the decision.

This idea of heuristic simplification is pretty well established. If you've seen images like the one to the left, this is an example of how we use these short-cuts, in this case for reading. Rather than reading each letter, we read words and sentences and our brain fills in the blanks, ignores the exceptions, and we see what we expect. There's a lot of research that explains various aspects of how we process perceptual information.

(note: spelling is important. As is grammar. These short-cuts our brain takes means that good spelling and grammar are essential to reduce the chances someone will mis-understand our writing).

When we're faced with a complex decision, we bring to that decision a whole raft of short-cuts - preconceptions, values, biases, preferences, and other tools that determine how we shape, ask, and answer questions and take decisions. Some of these are systematic (I'll to a blog on cognitive biases and Khaneman and Tversky sometime!) These cognitive tools can be used to direct decisions - which is the foundation of behavioural economics. It explains why I think problem structuring is at least as - if not more - important than problem solving.

But, most of all, they explain how we all make such different decisions. And why smart people don't always agree (with me).

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Keeping track

A friend of mine is also looking for work. They have got themselves into a slightly tricky situation where two different recruiters have put them forward for different roles in the same organisation. A mis-understanding that has made it harder for them to go ahead with that role (and one they are really interested in).

I could've been in the same position: a recruiter asked me if I'd been put forward to a company or not. I wasn't sure - I had discussed a role at a company while driving to work one day last year; I distinctly remember that call. I think I decided it wasn't right for me; but I'm not 100% sure. So I probably haven't been put forward, but I don't know.

These two little vignettes summarise one of the biggest challenges in job hunting: keeping track of all the different applications. It's compounded by the fact that there are often roles with more than one recruiter, promoted in multiple places, and - annoyingly - with subtly different job descriptions (and titles!) Given I'm in technology, it seems there could be a solution.

My mind-set for job hunting is it's basically the same as selling process. I'm the product, the job is the deal. My CV is the proposal. The recruiter is the purchasing department. And it's often tricky to get to the real customer - the hiring manager. This thinking pointed pretty directly to the solution: CRM.

There are a number of free CRM systems out there; I chose Zoho. It's probably the second biggest CRM in the world (behind Salesforce) and the free license seems pretty open. It lets me:

  • Track the stage for each deal (job application)
  • Record job details when I first find the opportunity
  • Record actions - and set-up tasks with reminders for next steps
  • Save copies of documents - most obviously the job description and CV
  • Record the various people involved - the recruiter, the hiring manager, and anyone else
  • Track leads before they become jobs
  • Manage contacts and calls
  • Track everything from an app on my phone
  • Remind me when I need to do something

Of course, a CRM will, never solve every problem; and Zoho took a little re-purposing to suit my needs. But it does provide a tool and if I use that tool well, it makes it a bit easier to keep track of everything. I'd highly recommend it to anyone who's looking for work.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

The Social Construction of Organisations

One of the more challenging ideas I encountered when I was studying was 'social construction'.

Social Construction was an idea that came from a pair of sociologists (Berger and Luckman) and, as I understand it now, is actually quite simple. The idea is simply that most of the things around us are products of human behaviour - and this extends to abstracts: things like 'money', 'law', 'jobs', and, most relevantly for me given what I was studying, 'organisations'. The process by which this happens is a little more complex: knowledge gets interwoven into a degree of shared understanding and behaviour. But even that isn't actually that hard to understand. The coins in my pocket are worth a certain amount because I believe they are and when I go into a shop tomorrow and hand them the coins, they'll believe it too - and let me buy some coffee with them.

So why did I find this idea so hard to get my head around - such a challenge? I can think of three reasons.

The first is because I tended to confuse materialism with objectivism. Materialism is the idea that material things are the essence of all things (and a rejection of the notion that things exist outside of material world - specifically, a rejection of Cartesian dualism: my mind is not separate from or independent of my body). Objectivism is the idea that things exist independently of human perception. They're not the same thing, but I didn't really know that! Social Construction sits right in the middle of that difference: it argues that the material artefacts of society are a products of human behaviour, which, in turn, is a product of human perception.

The second is that language of social construction tended towards obfuscation. The original 1966 book is wonderfully written; it's dense: but necessarily so as it deals with complex ideas. However, much of the surrounding writing was that worst kind of academic writing - this was around the same time of the Bad Writing Awards.

The final reason, which is a consequence of the first two is is seemed anti-empirical: "How can you measure it?" Ironically, once of the foundations of my field - The Hawthorne Studies - is easy to interpret as an example of the same mechanisms as social construction. In these studies, workers were split into two groups; one was left in normal working conditions, the other were exposed to a variety of experimental conditions. The group exposed to the experimental conditions saw increases in productivity - even when those change should have made things worse (e.g. both lower and raising the lighting levels improve productivity). There are competing interpretations as to exactly why this happened, but the simple fact is behaviour (of the scientists) had a material effect on the productivity of the organisation.

Funnily enough, this idea that I so resisted became the core of the findings from my Ph.D.

(If you want to read Berger and Luckman, you can download the PDF here).