HRExaminer Radio

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HRExaminer Radio

Guest: John Sumser of KeyInterval Research interviewed by Heather Bussing
Episode: 96
Air Date: May 22, 2015


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In the spirit of turnabout is fair play, Heather Bussing, editor of the HRExaminer, interviews John Sumser on the research projects at KeyInterval Research.

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Begin transcript

John Sumser:            [music 00:00-00:12] Good afternoon and welcome to the HR Examiner radio show. I’m your host, John Sumser. Today we’re coming to you from a gloomy downtown Occidental, California. Regular listeners will realize that Occidental is where innovation got it’s start in the great state of California, and I can tell you for sure, this is where Luther Burbank did his great rose experiments and the rose bushes are just exploding today.

We’re going to do something different today, Heather Bussing, who is the editor of the HR Examiner, is going to interview me. I’m going to just turn it over to Heather. How are you, Heather?

Heather Bussing:     I’m good. Good morning everyone. John invited me to be on the show today and I said, “How about if I get to interview you?” Then I had to talk him into it, but it wasn’t terribly hard. John, it’s a pleasure to have you here today. Why don’t you introduce yourself?

John Sumser:            This is what I do to everybody. I’m John Sumser and I am the founder, part-time editor of the HR Examiner. I’m also the principle analyst at Key Interval Research, and I am a jack-of-all trades with a broad range of experience.

Heather Bussing:     That leads me to my first question, which is, tell us about your career. What are the three most pivotal moments in your career so far?

John Sumser:            I’ve been lucky to do all sorts of things. I’ve been a sales person, I’ve worked in retail, I was in the restaurant industry for many years. I was an engineer in the deepest, darkest corners of the defense industry. I’ve been an analyst in the HR and recruiting universe for the last 20 years or so. It’s been a great run.

Three pivotal moments, one of the most interesting things that I did, I started working when I was 10, which meant that I took a great big box with 50 half dozen doughnut boxes in it and walked door-to-door, selling doughnuts. That taught me how to have something to say when the door opened. After a while, do you want to buy some doughnuts, wasn’t the best sales pitch. There’s this 10-year-old kid knocking on doors and having to start a conversation when the door opens. That was fun.

Second, really cool moment was I got a philosophy degree, I learned how to code, I went to work in the defense industry. Because I was kind of an oddball, I got offered the interesting jobs that nobody else would take. One day, I was dumped in a room, I found out on Friday and the job started on Monday. There were 40 recent graduates from the Taiwan Naval Academy in the class, that I was to teach eight hours a day, for the next 18 months. My job was to take these guys through the process of building a frigate, so that they could return to Taiwan and start building the infrastructure necessary to build the frigate. When I started, I didn’t know anything.

Heather Bussing:     Did you know how to build a frigate?

John Sumser:            I didn’t have the slightest idea, they didn’t teach frigate building in the philosophy and psychology classes. They certainly didn’t teach frigate building …

Heather Bussing:     What did you do?

John Sumser:            Well, I found out that as long as you are five minutes ahead of the class at the end of the day, you’re still the teacher.

Heather Bussing:     This has been your approach as an analyst for the last 20 years?

John Sumser:            It’s a little bit deeper than that, but staying ahead is what I learned how to do. Then doing the work necessary after work is over to stay ahead, is what I’ve learned how to do. One of the reasons my career is so extraordinary is I’ve also worked the job, and then had some major project on the side where I was learning about the next thing. I never stopped learning about the next thing and I never stopped tackling my weaknesses and trying to figure out how to [inaudible 05:06].

The last big moment, I had this great engineering career for 16 or 17 years and defense was contracting. I came out to California to run something called The Whole Earth Catalog, which older people in the audience might recognize. I worked there for 18 months and I got fired. For my money, being fired is the single best thing that can happen to you, if you’re having a long run of success. I got to the point where I lost any shred of humility and needed to be jolted awake to be reminded of that. I’ve had great luck and my luck trumps how smart I am by leaps and bounds. At that moment, being fired from what was my dream job shook me up and reshaped me and gave me the opportunity to start a company of my own and put me on the track to being where I am today. I recommend being fired.

Heather Bussing:     Why were you fired?

John Sumser:            Why was I fired? The nicest way to say it is, non-profits don’t handle goal oriented management very well. The more accurate way of saying it is, I didn’t have the slightest idea how to manage a board of directors or a staff that was fundamentally a volunteer staff. I treated both sides of that equation as if they were subordinates in a military setting, which is what I learned how to do in defense, and they weren’t and they objected to being treated that way. They had enough aggregate power and authority to literally pick up my desk and all of my belongings and take them off to the edge of the dock where we had the offices, and throw them in the bay.

They were not happy, and what they weren’t happy about was partly my attitude and partly the realities of [inaudible 07:37]. It was a great lesson in the importance of cultural fit. I wasn’t the fittest engineer. This was a bunch of Northern California long hairs, and it’s taken me 20 years to get my hair long enough to actually consider that I might fit in there.

Heather Bussing:     How do you see going from the defense industry to going to hippy-dippy non-profit Whole Earth catalog, to where you are today? I see connections there, but how do you connect those dots?

John Sumser:            The most important thing there is, I have never wasted my time following somebody else’s curiosity. I have been either bull-headed enough or lucky enough to chase the questions that I’m interested in, my whole life. You can probably caveat that and say, I have a pretty strong ability to be interested in the thing that sitting in front of me. I’m generally really curious.

Learning how to code, learning how to do complex engineering, some of my projects included the very first supply chain software that the air force ever purchased. The air force has perhaps, the largest supply chain of any organization. I worked the project with a partner who was a customer in Georgia, and we built, in Unix, a supply chain management tool that was the first database software sale registered in the defense industry. I had this, just tremendous good fortune to work with people who are really curious and interested in experimenting with the next thing. That’s the connection.

Whole Earth was, when I was in the defense industry, Whole Earth was a way of getting ideas that were beyond the imagining of anybody who was in the defense industry. My relationship with them wasn’t instantaneous, it was a lifetime relationship that I had with the publication and the people who worked there. It was a source of insight that you could take. That’s what I learned about innovation in all of these settings.

Innovation is most often, the movement of an idea from one culture to another. It’s rarely the invention of something new. There’s a ton of that going on right now, but the most impactful innovation comes from taking an idea out of one culture and putting it into another. That’s why the United States has such an extraordinary capacity for innovation when all of the cylinders are firing properly. That’s how the United States is built, by taking people from other cultures and bringing them in. Everything about the country is innovative. I see it as one long look at technology from a variety of angles.

Heather Bussing:     Politically, I see the United States as really, there’s a huge group of people that are becoming very monolithic in their belief system and what they believe is right and they are trying to narrow the culture and narrow the approaches to things. Is that a back-lash to technology and innovation and the speed of change? What do you see there?

John Sumser:            It doesn’t look any different to me than the late 19th century. As big technology waves pass through the culture, capital consolidates in the hands of the people who introduce the technology. Then that actually does, I’m going to sound like a Republican there for a second, but it actually does.

Heather Bussing:     You’re in Occidental, you’re not allowed to.

John Sumser:            What happened in the first part of the 20th century is all of that consolidated wealth was factored back into the hands of the employees. That’s what the union movement did in the early part of the 20th century. Then wealth consolidated again and now we’re having this, it’s overblown because of the way social media focuses attention on certain things. The media is driven by the envy of it’s audience so as people are envious of extremely wealthy people, you get this constricting sense that we have now.

If you look at how people are living, everybody is carrying around a computer, in their pockets, expensive, wonderfully varied clothing, eating an array of food that was unimaginable even 50 years ago. Consuming levels of personalized entertainment that would have made kings blush 150 years ago. This idea that wealthy and power are being systematically consolidated is fun to believe, because it enables you to feel like a victim and have somebody to blame.

The reality is, we are living large lives of luxury in this country … Am I sounding like Marie Antoinette yet?

Heather Bussing:     Yeah, you are. You are because I can’t help but notice the poverty and discrimination and despair of great swaths of our communities and the people in this country. How the middle class is shrinking and becoming closer to the poverty line all the time.

John Sumser:            Yes, I think those things are true and I think it’s easy to forget that both things are true. Part of the despair and angst about discrimination is a direct consequence of the success we’ve had to date, unbundling discrimination. No, it’s not perfect, it’s not even close to perfect, but the way that we treat the disenfranchised in our culture, is pathetic. We have figured out, as a culture, how to learn that our behavior is mistaken and how to open our hearts to enlarge the definition of who is in the franchised universe.

We’re not perfect at doing that, the struggle isn’t complete, but we do know how to do it. We’re setting an example that other cultures can follow, even if it’s an imperfect example. We are showing how to move towards diversity, over hundreds of years, and do it imperfectly and if you don’t have cultural patience it looks like it isn’t happening at all, but it appears to be happening.

Heather Bussing:     Is this a place where technology and data can have an affect or make a difference?

John Sumser:            Oh God, once we get over the torment associated with monitoring ourselves and being monitored 24 hours a day, and start to understand what we can do with that information, we’re at a moment in time where our ability to be completely human is about to be unlocked. Data is an answer, technology is an answer. It’s not the only answer, it’s not the final answer. The process that we’re going through right now where we can understand and measure things that were elusive, intangible and unmeasurable just 10 years ago, is extraordinary.

It allows us, if we want it, to be what I think is the ultimate thing that you can be as a human being, which is fundamentally concerned with your own improvement. You get dealt a hand of cards and what you can do with that hand of cards is improvement to the best of your ability. That seems to me, to be the ultimate standard for being a quality human being, that you want to do that.

Heather Bussing:     Tell me a little bit about KeyInterval. This is your latest project where you and William Tincup, who is amazing, are looking at how technology and human resources interact. How the technology that is designed by the vendors and the engineers, actually gets used by people who are not engineers. What are you doing and what are you learning?

John Sumser:            KeyInterval Research is a company that I started with Tincup about a year ago now. We launched it in the fall at HR Tech in Las Vegas and have as the center of the company is this research calendar. Our goal has been to put out a report a month. The reports are based on deep quantitative and qualitative research. We try to get about a thousand responses to survey questionnaires that have a hundred-ish questions. It’s a huge amount of data. What we’re trying to look …

Heather Bussing:     What are you looking at right now? What are the questions?

John Sumser:            Today, I’m in the middle of writing a report about what is the optimal technology stack for HR. By that I mean, there are all these different kinds of HR software out there, we looked at 13 different categories. Each organization that has HR technology uses some of these bits and pieces of technology. There are things like a recruiting system and a learning system and a payroll system and a performance management system, HR information system, benefits administration system, time and attendance. Those sorts of big chunks of HR technology and every organization uses some of those things.

What we want to find out is who’s using what and how do you put together the stack for your company? What we’ll have in this report is category-by-category, a description of what kinds of organizations are using it, what market penetration is across five categories of organization size. We’ll have a net promoter score, the net promoter score is the current standard for measuring customer perception of quality in an are. We have a net promoter score for each of those 13 areas.

Then we have desirability, which is of the people who don’t have one of these things, what percentage want one? We’ve got data about how long it is to train replacements. We can tell you what percentage of these tools are outsourced. We’re building a picture of what the real usage of these tools is. That’s one of 12 reports. The prior report was about the elements of a successful implementation. We found amazing things like, if it’s just a technical implementation it’s going to fail.

Heather Bussing:     What do you mean by technical?

John Sumser:            If you just install a new piece of software, that’s a technical implementation. If you just installed the upgrade to the new piece of software. They don’t work because you can’t build an adequate layer of support for something like that.

Heather Bussing:     Why not?

John Sumser:            Let’s say that you are installing a new performance management system.

Heather Bussing:     Okay, so I’m head of HR and the company decides we’re going to do employee reviews using this system.

John Sumser:            Well probably the company doesn’t decide that, which is the beginning of the problem. Probably HR puts the idea forward and the idea that we’re going to have this new process in place. In order for something like that to succeed, you need a management champion who is a guarantor that you’ll have the resources necessary to get the job done.

Heather Bussing:     With something like that you would have to have every manager who does performance reviews, decide that this was a good thing and that we’re going to use it, and actually use it?

John Sumser:            Prioritize it to the point that they actually use it. Prioritize their time and their internal resources. Every manager in the organization has to do that, and that’s not going to happen.

Heather Bussing:     Right, but why not? Why do people resist moves like that?

John Sumser:            Well frankly, Heather, we didn’t ask that question. We asked what does it take to be successful? I don’t have data about why people resist, I can give you my opinion. My opinion is the idea that you want me to do something without explaining to me in great detail, why it’s more important for me than all of the things that I’m currently doing, is at the root of this. Right?

Heather Bussing:     Right, I agree.

John Sumser:            Resistance to change, resistance to change, simply means, I’m not doing what you want me to do. It doesn’t mean resistance to change, it means, I don’t think your idea merits my attention or I don’t know how to prioritize my work so that I can do what you want me to do. In the places where implementations are successful, the thing that matters is that the entire company is onboard for something that transforms the company. A program that can solve …

Heather Bussing:     There is a greater …

John Sumser:            There’s a greater good.

Heather Bussing:     Yeah, or a greater change, where the software is just a piece of it.

John Sumser:            Eighty-five percent of the successful implementations, and we looked at about 850, 85 percent of those successful implementations were driven by transformation projects. It’s huge, it’s huge. I’ve never seen that before. It’s counter intuitive and it creates some interesting problems, I think. What technology companies can’t offer is transformation services.

Heather Bussing:     A cool tool is not enough?

John Sumser:            A cool tool is probably a guarantee that it won’t work.

Heather Bussing:     Wow.

John Sumser:            That was the second report. The first report was about how do you have an ideal relationship with a technology provider? We identified a spectrum of relationship types and articulated how those things work and how you can use those relationship types to get things done.

Heather Bussing:     You’re three surveys and three reports into this, what are you learning about the intersection between humans and technology and where people make a difference, rather than a rule based system?

John Sumser:            What we’re learning primarily, in this early stage of this process, is that our views are deeply colored by the fact that we’ve spent a ton of time working with people who make tools for a living. By that I mean, in the world of tool makers, everybody needs new software.

Heather Bussing:     Right.

John Sumser:            In our work, what we’re finding is that only 20 percent of people think that they need new software, it’s a fraction. It may be a changing fraction, but it’s a fraction at any given point in time of people who think that they have a problem big enough to bear a change in their software. That’s a surprise because I always think I need new software.

Heather Bussing:     Right, and you love cool new tools.

John Sumser:            I love cool new tools and the people I spend time with love cool new tools and that just isn’t what it’s like at work. Cool new tools mean you have to stop doing work to learn something and people would generally rather be doing their jobs.

Heather Bussing:     Well, and each tool brings with it a whole new layer of work. In many instances and some of my experiences with software at work is that the software may automate some repeatable processes, but it creates as much work as it saves. Just in managing and filling out the forms and putting in the data and doing, using the software. That takes time.

John Sumser:            I don’t have data about that, so I’m not sure what I can tell you. It sounds right to me, but we haven’t researched that questions. Part of the thing at KeyInterval is we want to stick to things that you can prove with the data and research. There’s something to what you’re saying and we’re trying to understand how to get at that.

Heather Bussing:     Okay. What’s the next one after this and then we’re almost our of time.

John Sumser:            We’re going to get done very quickly here, we have about 30 seconds. The next report is about the range and variety of data that constitutes HR data. It’s going to be a qualitative report that will serve as the foundation for next years more quantitative work on top of it. We’re really excited about it because we think that HR data is bigger than most people do.

With that, I’m going to say we’re wrapping up. Thanks for the interview, Heather.

Heather Bussing:     You’re welcome Let’s do this again some time.

John Sumser:            We will be back next week. Oh, let’s

Heather Bussing:     Have a good day everyone.

John Sumser:            Okay, bye-bye.

End transcript

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