Can software profile people better than HR?

Are programs, apps and algorithms taking over? Are they measuring what we thought needs human intuition?

Books such as Richard and Daniel Susskind’s The Future of the Professions make the case for technology driving a radical transformation in the way human experts will work. Moreover, in HR circles there is growing talk of using software to measure areas and qualities previously assumed to require human intuition. It begs the question: where are we – and where are we headed?

New approaches are certainly emerging. Academic David Stillwell, lecturer in big data analytics and quantitative social science at Judge Business School and deputy director of The Psychometrics Centre at The University of Cambridge, has published research that asserts computer-based personality judgments are more accurate than those made by humans. He says his studies show that people’s digital footprints on social media platforms can be translated into detailed personality profiles.

“Personality can be measured surprisingly accurately from digital records of behaviour,” he says. “In our case we used Facebook likes, and in another independent study we used Facebook status updates. Algorithms have the advantage of being able to use all of the available data, without bias, while our brains are limited by factors such as how much we can remember.”

Penny Moyle, CEO of business psychology specialist OPP, also sees potential in analysing social media behaviour, although she points out that this won’t be as accurate when applied to light or irregular users. “What would really give a lot of insight would be if candidates were to give potential recruiters access to all the emails they write,” she says. “An algorithm would be able to tell a lot about that person.”

However, Moyle accepts privacy concerns mean this is unlikely to get off the ground. Where she does expect progress is improvement in software for screening job applications, such as identifying key words and phrases that hirers are looking for, thereby reducing the amount of time spent wading through CVs.

Technology to measure qualities previously thought of as only detectable through human intuition is also emerging in the field of talent management. Business insight and talent consultancy eg. 1 has developed what it claims is the first online assessment tool to identify what it terms organisational ‘Game Changers’. The GC Index has been designed to help organisations harness the potential of highly individual and talented people, looking at what people can bring to a business rather than putting undue emphasis on personality.

Game changers, eg. 1 argues, differ from ‘high potentials’ and individuals traditionally judged as leadership material, and as such may not be spotted and nurtured when taking a standard, more human judgement-based approach.

“In my role as profiler of individuals I often find I am putting words to people’s intuition,” says eg. 1 chief psychologist John Mervyn-Smith. “So it’s not as if their intuition is necessarily way off the mark. For some of my clients it is spookily accurate and they could have made the judgment without me. It’s just that I have a way of turning that intuition into data – and that seems to give people comfort.”

However, using technology to ‘measure the unmeasurable’ is inevitably a complicated, and potentially limited, business.

“This is a really tricky area and one that is quite nuanced,” says Penguin Random House group HR director Neil Morrison. “Recruitment is an area ripe for this type of innovation, but it does come with serious warnings in relation to diversity and inclusion and the ability to genuinely recognise ‘talent’. I think if you asked candidates if they’re happy about their applications being ranked or rated by computer then they’d be pretty resistant – and I’d have a lot of sympathy. I’ve yet to see a piece of technology that professes to be able to do this in the HR space actually deliver.”

Morrison says he would like to see technology help HR teams make better choices, think differently and consider broader sets of data. “I think that is where it adds value. Technology replacing human decisions with the quality of thought that the human brain is capable of, yet sometimes doesn’t deploy, is a long way off.”

Although he takes the view that everything is up for grabs, CIPD head of London David D’Souza agrees. “Recruitment is the area that seems to generate the most noise about potential ‘magic bullets’; as we know that getting hiring right is tremendously difficult and replicable sustained success in good decision-making is rare,” he says. “But my gut feeling is that if there was one solution that genuinely delivered then we would all be using it.

“The level to which people are prepared to allow their mood and movements to be measured will be the key to some of the ongoing measures. I call it the Jurassic Park problem as there is a quote in the film that sums up some of these technology choices perfectly: ‘They were too busy thinking about whether they could do it to think about whether they should do it’. When we cede control to code we make a conscious choice to give up our input and we need to reflect on that as we go.”

What no one disputes, however, is that technology will have a major impact on HR. “The issue isn’t about replacing judgment, it’s about finding a better balance – bearing in mind the data side of things is moving very fast,” says Andrew Lambert, partner at Creelman Lambert, an international research company that focuses on the effective governance of human capital.

Achieving a better balance between human instinct and automated measurement? There’s bound to be an intuitive app for that...