Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Talent Measurement Schools of Thought


Here is a puzzle: In our day-to-day life we do not treat people as inanimate objects—but we try to measure them as if they are! We treat the people in front of us as living, breathing, reacting entities, but few consider the complexity and reactivity of human nature when developing or managing with measures. Why the inconsistency?

Two Schools of Thought: The Taylor and Mayo Dichotomy

To solve this puzzle, you have to go back to school—graduate school. As a graduate student, you’ll probably learn one of two different approaches to talent measurement. One school of thought is focused on the technical aspect of measurement, and the other on the human aspect. The challenge for measurement professionals is to master both schools of thought. The two are rarely reconciled, however. Professionals generally have expertise primarily in one approach.

The technical or engineering school will teach you how to calculate reliability and validity, and introduce you to different measurement methods. This school of thought dates back to Frederick Taylor, one of the first manufacturing engineers. Frederick Taylor is considered the father of scientific management, which emphasizes task analysis, efficiency studies, time-and-motion studies, and using compensation schemes for motivation. 

The human relations school has a different point of view: Employees are complicated, and don’t work mechanistically. If your graduate program emphasizes human relations, you’re likely learn more about personality types or team functioning measures that will facilitate interactions between people at work. You’ll be introduced to validity and reliability, but you’ll be taught very little about the technology and theory of measures. The human relations school of thought dates back to Elton Mayo, a psychologist. 

The ghosts of Taylor and Mayo haunt today’s organizations. To this day, consultants, managers, and leaders adhere to one school or the other. Taylor adherents tend to advocate for measurement as a formal and rigid process. Mayo adherents focus more on group processes, interpersonal communication, and intrinsic motivation. 

Both Taylor and Mayo made essential contributions to the art of management and leadership. But it’s not an either/or choice. It often takes decades of experience to merge the two schools of thought into a practical working knowledge of measurement. Some never see the dichotomy and its implications.

I’m writing this blog post in the hope that we can accelerate the process of combining and ultimately uniting these two schools of measurement.

The Engineer: Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856 – 1915)

“In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.”



Taylor grew up affluent and gifted in the second half of the 19th century, in an era of huge industrial change. He chose not to follow his father into the legal profession, although he was accepted into Harvard. Instead, he worked in industry, starting as a machinist and becoming a foreman, and went on to study engineering. 

As an engineer, he first improved manufacturing technology such as lathes and forging equipment. Early on, he noticed that these technical improvements demanded similar organizational innovations to be effective. As his ideas developed, he saw manufacturing as a larger system that could be improved by optimizing the various pieces to contribute to the larger system. Over the course of his career, he contributed his ideas to equipment (he had several important patents), business processes (such as accounting methods), and methods of managing employees.  

Taylor and Time-and-Motion Studies

As he looked at the larger manufacturing picture, Taylor was concerned that laborers were not working at full capacity. To fix this problem, he identified the optimum work-output level, and provided incentive pay for this level of output.  

Determining workers’ optimum output involved time-and-motion studies. Taylor divided the work into steps, each of which he timed separately. He then combined the time for each step into a total time for the job. By dividing the work day by the total job time, he arrived at an optimum production rate.

Workers were paid on a graduated scale. Low levels of output were paid very little, but as productivity approached the maximum, unit pay increased. Workers attaining the optimum production rate would be paid 60% more using Taylor’s methods. 

While he became infamous for his time-and-motion studies, it’s important to recognize that, for Taylor, these studies were part of a larger system of managing employees. Taylor used worker productivity as a talent measure. He studied measures of productivity to make decisions, organize work, set production expectations, motivate employees, and identify employees to retain. In the best cases, Taylor’s scientific management methods could reduce costs and increase productivity by 50% to 100%.

Human reaction to measures and management methods didn’t factor into Taylor’s thinking. He was convinced that employees only work for money. Labor problems were simply an engineering challenge to be managed. Taylor paid lip service to selecting and developing talent—he mostly set output targets. Workers who were able to keep up the pace self-selected and developed their capability.

Taylor’s blind spot—the human factor—can be seen in many contemporary organizational improvement interventions, such as re-engineering, which has a success rate as low as 30%. Human readiness and acceptance of change is often a barrier to re-engineering success.   

Taylor’s approach also was inconsistent. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it led to significant problems.
Employee reactions to Taylor’s intervention often led to work actions and strikes.  Ultimately there was an congressional investigation. By the time of Taylor’s death at age 59, Congress had outlawed use of stopwatches and bonus payments in the federal government. Scientific management was increasingly discredited.

The Humanist: George Elton Mayo
(1880 – 1949)

So long as … business methods take no account of human nature … expect strikes and sabotage to be the ordinary.”


Mayo grew up in a distinguished Australian family. He began his studies in medicine and ended up studying psychology, focusing on social interactions at work. His most famous research work can be found in the Hawthorne studies, which demonstrated that employees are largely influenced by social factors, and that they react to being observed.

Mayo’s most important work coincided with the Great Depression. He believed that the industrial revolution had shattered strong social relationships in the workplace, and he found that workers acted according to sentiments and emotion. He felt that if managers treated workers with respect and tried to meet their needs, then both workers and management would benefit.  

Mayo’s research indicated that belonging to a group is a more powerful motivator than money. In his management philosophy, he saw attitudes, proper supervision, and informal social relationships as the key to productivity.

Some consider Mayo’s work to be a reaction to Taylorism. But Mayo was also concerned with output and productivity. Unlike Taylor, however, he was interested in the social and psychological interventions that increased productivity. These interventions are indeed helpful, and understanding the human factor is critical.  

Thanks to Mayo’s work, we recognize that, in organizations, informal social structures matter as much as formal structures, such as the chain of command. For example, a likeable senior engineer who dislikes a new manager could undermine the manager’s authority by making jokes at his expense during every meeting. In effect, the engineer becomes more influential than the manager—outside the hierarchy of the organizational chart.

Today, many organizational interventions emphasize team-building, and are based on the recognition that organizational culture is important, and managers have ongoing relationships with employees. By acknowledging the importance of the informal structure of an organization, factors such as relationships, informal leadership, and influence can be aligned with organizational needs and direction.

Mayo’s insights were synthesized into a school of thought referred to as human relations. The human relations school continues strong to this day, often in the form of leadership development, team building, or change initiatives. 

The insight missed by Mayo is that measurement—even Taylor’s productivity measurements—are essentially a social process. Measurement is simply a method of communication—a way to make meaning between groups.

Since Mayo, many people have failed to make this essential connection: We can extend Mayo’s insight into the importance of informal (social) structures into an understanding of the importance of the informal (connotative or personal) meanings of measures. As I have discussed before, the informal meanings of measures matter as much as, if not more than, their formal meanings. Like social structures, these connotative meanings can be managed—but only when their existence and importance are acknowledged.

If you’re creating an organizational, and you follow Taylor, you may believe that compensation is the sole motivation for performance and advancement. If you follow Mayo, you may believe that love, fear, and other ineffable human factors are the primary motivators. 

In the same way, the designers of a formal measurement system may believe that their measures will motivate by providing people with a positive opportunity to make more money (the denotative meaning). Instead, the designers may find that the connotative meanings provoke reactions that ultimately trump their intentions—reactions from outright rejection to gaming the system.

It’s odd that many of our measurement systems haven’t progressed beyond Taylor’s way of thinking. We have many tools to address the informal meanings of measures—tools we can draw on from interpersonal communications theory, management practices, and organizational learning.

Another danger of following Mayo’s approach is that it often pays too much attention to the informal and emergent social structures of an organization. While these informal structures are powerful influences on individual performance, it is possible to merge formal and informal organizational structures into a shared structure. This is where measurement can be incredibly effective, if it is used as a means of communication: It can create shared meaning that bridges the organizational and personal definitions of performance, motivation, and reward.

Finding a Middle Ground

What’s most unfortunate about the Mayo vs. Taylor bifurcation is that they were both right: The difference between the two schools of thought is ideological, not practical. In practice, we use both approaches. We need both engineers and social scientists (psychologist and sociologists) to run organizations efficiently.

If we attend one graduate school, we may learn to develop measures that are technically good, but we’ll have trouble assessing the human reaction to measurement. If we attend another school, we may learn to facilitate social interaction and meaning, but we won’t be trained to motivate, direct, or improve performance through measurement and feedback. Personally, I attended a more technical school, but my life and work experiences have led me to appreciate a balanced approach.

What Taylor missed was the importance of social structures in motivation, and the human factor in reaction to measurement. What Mayo missed was that measurement in itself is a social process, and measures have informal (social) meanings that can be managed.

Today, 80 years after Mayo’s Hawthorne studies, we should be able to merge the two schools. There is a wealth of possibilities for applying Taylor’s ideas in measuring individual productivity. At the same time, we’ve vastly increased our understanding of human relations—there’s a huge industry that’s evolved out of Mayo’s original insights.

Finally, in resolving the polarity of these two approaches, we need to acknowledge that measurement is communication, and that communication is shared meaning. By starting with a simple point—that people always react to measurement, and that the reaction is unpredictable—we can take the denotative and connotative meanings of measures, the formal and informal structures in organizations, and the two schools of thought, and synthesize them into an elegant, effective approach to talent measurement.  

6 comments:

Mike said...

Great piece on Talent Assessment & Development. The middle ground is talent analytics - using data to predict how employees perform and how they are drive in order to understand them better. This embraces both Taylor's science and Mayo's humanist perspectives by getting to engagement through numbers.

Charley C Morrow said...

Thanks Mike-- it was fun to find the insight.

Talent analytics, in the sense of personality assessment of entire organizations-- as your organization does-- is right on.

But many analytics professionals note that they have a problem with acceptance of their results. I suspect the problem stems from too much Taylorism and not enough Mayo!

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