Simulacrum : Looking Beyond the Data to the Human

‘Simulacrum – a likeness or simulation that has the appearance but not the substance of the thing it resembles.’ Kit White

Spring MagnoliasHere is an extract from a water colour sketch I made of some spring magnolias. It bears a likeness and simulation to one of my favourite flowers, and it is quite clearly not the substance of the flower. You can’t smell the flower, or touch it.

The notion of a simulacrum not only applies to art, but to all other things as well. I think there’s a reason why, even with all the technology now available to us, that face-to-face contact remains so important to us. That reason is the substance beyond the simulacrum.

Occupying the same physical space is transformatively different from any other shared experience. Seeing eye movements, sensing the air move as you and others physically shift, talk and laugh. All this stuff gets you closer to the substance. I once worked for a boss who used a cost cutting mantra as a reason to avoid getting the team together face to face, for a whole year. I recall few things about that time, but I clearly remember how much the team unraveled over that period, and though we shared information and data, just how little teamwork we did.

All too often, we lazily assume the data that is placed before us at work, is the real thing. It isn’t, yet we often use that data to make decisions that affect people’s lives in work and beyond. It’s scary enough when we unquestioningly decide to increase widget production without checking the figures, but when we make these choices about people, we risk pushing disrespect to a whole new level.

It’s so temptingly simple to make decisions based on a set of numbers. Everyone knows and uses the phrase popularised by Mark Twain, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” yet we seem to have a scarily easy time believing the data when it’s placed before us in a work context. I think this is at least partly because we measure that which is easy to measure, not that which is important. And I think this is partly where HRTech is currently failing us.

When making decisions about people, working to get beyond the simulacrum really matters. And in order to do this, we need access to so much more than stats and data as we currently think about them. How might that look?

John’s performance rating is a 2 out of 5; Doug’s is only a 3. John gets the pay rise and all that glitters, I get told to pull my socks up.  What’s behind my 3? Do you know or care? Maybe I was a dead last 5 the last time we looked and boy that divorce was tearing me apart but you know, I knuckled down and hauled my previously productive ass all the way back up to a 3 again.

Here’s another dilemma. Good work often reveals itself slowly. You think you don’t have the time for slow so you push for data, push for fast and make do. Those that keep up survive, the rest, well you don’t care because you don’t have the time, remember?

Wherever possible I like to invest as least as much time looking and thinking as I do making.

I know you think you’re too busy to look and think and what the hell it doesn’t matter anyway. And maybe it doesn’t. In which case, don’t create any pretence about it, just openly treat people as pieces of raw data and see how that works out for you. If it does matter though, try investing the time to gather, build and understand a richer picture so that HR has the data it needs in order to do what it should do best. Help people make work better.

A version of this post was first published at

HRTechEurope – A Review

My review of the morning session at HRTechEurope London spring warm up.

This week I was in London as a guest blogger at HRTechEurope’s spring warm up event. I wasn’t able to stay long so sadly I missed William Tincup (though we did catch up for a quick chat which was lovely) and Jason Averbrook – both of whom were speaking in the afternoon. I like these guys and in my experience they offer something different, provocation with rigour and intellect to back it up.

First up in the morning was Adrian Furnham who I confess I didn’t recognise at first as his profile picture was taken several hair cuts ago. I’d heard lots of good things about Adrian and was keen to hear him speak, his subject was:

HR Technology – Quantifying The Appetite For Social & Technological Change Inside Your Organisation.

I got rather lost in Adrian’s talk – he had a good sense of humour, ‘guru is the word used by journalists who can’t spell charlatan’ got a big laugh, but I felt that a ton of tired slides and a few well placed jokes covered up the sense for me that Adrian wasn’t really taking us anywhere. Since 2007, Adrian has been ranked in HR Magazine’s top 20 most influential list, and I think a potential problem with influence is it relies to some extent on consistency, which is an enemy of creativity and innovation.

So what did he talk about? These photos show Adrian positioned HR with his good news/bad news openers. These statements, both the good and bad, felt like opinions with nothing much to back them up and for me, the bad news stuff didn’t really hit the mark. 

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Adrian said that HR reacts to change, doesn’t instigate it, and he said that HR doesn’t network well. These are sweeping generalisations and based on my experience I don’t agree. Listening to the huge buzz in the breaks at the conference I’d say HR networks really well.

Adrian shared with us some reasons why HR Managers never become CEOs

Why HR Managers Never Become CEOsNever huh? Well I guess at least that stops any more aspiring HR people aiming for the top, according to this guy you’re never gonna make it folks. Seriously though – absolutes are rarely the answer and the way this stuff was presented closed down the debate rather than opening it up. And as Adrian continues to bombard us with slides, he asks, ‘Do you teach leadership by PowerPoint? Not often.’ I agree – so why are you inflicting a bazillion slides on us?

As time went on, Adrian clicked through big chunks of the presentation without commentary and when I spoke with others in the break, we felt that the bulk of this deck was something Adrian uses regularly, with just a few tweaks to suit. When I come to a conference I want to feel like I’m getting something new – and this talk just didn’t have that feeling. Overall I thought Adrian’s session was funny, he threw out some interesting challenges clouded with too much generalisation, and it feels like he needs fresh material, or failing that, at least tidy up and put away the stuff that isn’t going to be used on the day.

Mark Martin was up next speaking about:

WAKE UP!! Your next train is about to leave!

Mark spent a good deal of his time slagging off HR, and I felt he was provocative for the sake of it. I love to be provoked, but for it to work there has to be some substance behind the edge, and I couldn’t detect any.

Mark said ‘Why are we so inexact in HR? No other function would get away with that.’ I don’t understand – people are inexact, thank goodness! Work and life are inexact, that’s what makes them fun. Deal with it. And when was the last time you saw a sales forecast predicted with 100% accuracy? And have you never seen a finance department adjust a budget?

Going Down the Toilet

Mark said we don’t want happy people at work because that is ‘not strategic’. He told us that most executives he works with, ‘aren’t strategic’. He said, ‘people care about purpose and relationships, businesses don’t.’ He told us ‘If you have your cake and eat it, you run out of cake.’ I really don’t get where he was coming from, though he was right about the cake.

The last session I heard was delivered by Neil Lewis from Nationwide.

Implementing an HR Systems Transformation to Underpin a People & HRSS Strategy

Not the most exciting title I’ve ever read, but as a customer of Nationwide I was keen to see how Neil linked the employee and customer experience. Sure enough he was straight on to the importance of these two things before getting in to some of the how.

Neil told a story about his birthday and the well respected tradition of bringing cake to the office. He decided to bake cake instead of bring in some from the shop, and while I think about it, baking cake is a way you can have more cake and eat it, we should let Mark know about this. Neil’s point was about how he gained some of the baking knowledge he needed through Youtube and from there he linked into how Nationwide has become much more open to how technology can help employees access stuff they need directly, learn in ways they want to, and give better service.

Neil talked about steps involving: compliance (well they are a financial services company), reducing complexity, removing risk and manual process, and needing the culture to make it work. Neil spoke about the time stuff takes, removing half the customisation from their systems to make them simpler, took around five years. I appreciated his acknowledgement that patience is required, and the implication that tech is not the speedily delivered silver bullet, at least not always.

Neil’s talk was far too pitchy – he mentioned his tech supplier far too often, and in a short video he showed they got another bunch of namechecks. Come on vendors and speakers, you must know by now we hate that stuff, right?! Get the namecheck in and then tell us your story.

Something I really liked was the observation that better conversations among colleagues led to better service for customers. That’s inexact, unmeasurable and hugely valuable. Pitching notwithstanding, Neil’s session was far and away the most helpful and interesting one I saw.

The spaces in between

I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t around for William’s talk. That didn’t stop us getting checked out by the Storm Trooper security guards. I also referenced the buzz and conversation that went on in the breaks. Too often I see the exhibition as something people dart through nervously, keen to avoid eye contact for fear of being sold to. Not here. Maybe this was in part due to the high quality swag on offer – but there was conversation and interaction in abundance here. 10/10.

Taking everything into account, I had a useful fun morning. I subsequently heard that the afternoon picked up more pace and that William and Jason’s sessions were energetic and worthwhile. As more post event blogs emerge I will link to them from here.


I shared this post over on Facebook and received this additional comment from another conference attendee:

That’s a fair review of the first two speakers Doug, although I would be a bit harsher on the Mark Martin talk. Overtly aggressive (deliberate provocation to HR) and full of his own belief, meant that some of the ‘anti hr showboating’ distracted the audience from some valid points. HR does need to be challenged, HR tech vendors need to be challenged, but trying to piss them both off isn’t the best approach in my book!