Friday, March 20, 2009

Specialization in Recruiting in Hard Times

Recruiting is only one part of the human resources game, but it’s a self-contained sector when businesses are clamoring for talent. It’s a specialization that has a hard time remaining sustainable when the economy isn’t vibrant enough to support specialization.

Recruiters who are having a hard time have an opportunity to un-specialize, and to turn the business into something that is aligned with circumstances in the here and now. That doesn’t mean that they’re guaranteed to survive, but if they do, they’ll be well-placed to emerge quickly from the slump when it ultimately comes to an end, and to do so with more diverse and compelling services. As difficult as things are right now, dealing effectively and creatively with constraints and surviving them is a darned good way to build a foundation that will support a bigger and better business when the economic tide finally turns.

Recruiting is a brokerage business. In good times, recruiters build well-tended relationships with buyers and often terse and purely functional relationships with recruits. The recruiter brokers the relationship between a business and the talent, collecting fees for acting as an effective middleman. At least that’s how it works when there’s flow through the system.

Without demand from buyers, the need for middlemen essentially collapses, but that doesn’t mean that the human resources business simply disappears. It means that the relationship broker’s role has to change to account for the deficient flow. When the market is down, smart recruiters can play the down market by investing!

Sooner of later, businesses will come looking for talent again. A recruiter that emerges from the downturn with a strong portfolio of relationships with good talent to broker with buyers will emerge strong, and can remain strong for the duration.

Here are a handful of things that recruiters can do now to help weather the storm and to prepare to emerge with strength on the other side:

Build Relationships with Employees
Recruiting is a relationship business. If the relationships with the demand side of the business have gotten quieter, then turn your attention to the supply side! Stay in the game: build more relationships with employees. There are more of them to connect with and they don’t know you as well as your buyers do, so trying to pull this off from your desk is likely not going to work. Get out from behind your email app and Facebook and show up in person at community events. Relationships with people should be personal.

Be a Career Counselor
You’re an HR professional with valuable experience. Get an understanding of employees concerns and give them the benefit of your experience as a professional to help them understand the current climate. You have inside knowledge of the kinds of things that employers value and of the things that make employees valuable. Understand their challenges and concerns and help them to stay focused on the personal development that will help to lend more stability to their professional lives. Listen to what they have to say. Giving the benefit of your experience to the employees is not only beneficial to the employees themselves, but it’s also valuable to employers whose employees you serve. This economy can only benefit from well-informed, level-headed employees that have a continuous source of good counsel.

Invest in their Skills
Nothing builds relationships like giving people something of value. Help people to step up to new skills and to improve the skills they have. Host creative learning and education events to help the supply side of your business to go deeper in their work. Connect them with teachers. Partner with teachers to make investments in the market and leverage the access to the supply-side to deepen your understanding of what makes them tick and what they are concerned with. Build them up!

For Goodness Sake, Don’t Recruit Them!
You’re not doing all this to prepare employees to be poached from their employers once the downturn is over. You’re building relationships with employees because relationships with employers are increasingly scarce. Great relationships with employees that have come about because you’ve made an investment in those employees will turn into great relationships with their employers. And if an employee chooses to move on from an employer, you may have an opportunity to help them find their next position, but under no circumstances should you try to actively harvest them.

When the employment market heats up again, the human resources business people with the best reputation building and sustaining a human resource portfolio – especially in a constrained market – will be in demand.

When this economic slump is over, I’d like to work with recruiters who have not only survived the downturn, but who have thrived. When the slump is over, the specialists are going to be crawling out of the woodwork again after having lain low while the going got tough. While the recruiters who have hibernated through the downturn may be just as good as any others, I’m more confident that those who have learned to thrive under constraints are definitely the ones I want to know more about.

In fact, I not only want to connect with them when all this is over, I want to connect with them right now!

Ampersand GT

Working with software developers and organizations to help realize the potential of software product development through higher productivity, higher quality, and improved customer experience

Learn more about my work and how I can help you at

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Productivity, not Bailouts

More than fifty years ago Toyota learned that it was possible to survive tough economic times by facing them head-on; by dealing with drastic reductions in resources through drastic increases in productivity.

If you have fewer resources to do the work at-hand, and the amount of work can't be reduced, then productivity must increase. Reducing waste is a huge part of increasing productivity, but waste reduction on the scale necessary to dramatically increase productivity doesn't happen without organizational and cultural changes.

People must become inter-disciplinary and cross-functional during periods of lower prosperity; times like right now. We can survive and even thrive in tough times by increasing productivity, and we can increase productivity by reducing the amount of time lost to hand offs between individual specialists in a workflow, and by capitalizing on the increased knowledge that comes from people having a greater understanding of the work going on around them.

Greater inter-disciplinary work leads to greater productivity, and greater inter-disciplinary work means challenging our assertions about our entitlements to our particular comforts with remaining generalists or specialists. Rather than continuing to toil in a paradigm that pits generalism and specialism against each other in a constant, irreconcilable tug of war that itself causes more lost time, we need to extend the reaches of individuals into the disciplines that surround their present areas of operation.

We tend to get a bit lazy in times of greater prosperity. We feel entitled to our comfortable, walled gardens. And from this entitlement we generate ever more waste and slack; waste and slack that isn't much of a concern relative to the prosperity that we enjoy. When the prosperity goes away, we're faced with the inefficiencies inherent in the hand offs between walled gardens that accrete along the workflow.

Becoming inter-disciplinary doesn't merely mean trading specialization for generalization, though. It means purging the entire paradigm that pits specialization and generalization against each other as natural opposites.

Specialization and generalization can only exist in relatively pure forms when we can afford the waste that they cause. The waste comes when we have either specialization or generalization. This either/or model is unsustainable. Sustainable productivity is created by a workforce that is both specialized and generalized within the context of someone's area of operation, with the understanding that a person's area of operation will continue to expand over their career.

Failures to reproduce Toyota's successes in the west were originally blamed on the cultural differences between Japanese and western workers. Western companies ultimately learned that the real reason for the failures was that they had missed the essential and immutable organizational imperative of Toyota's methodology: the creation of a learning organization through the fostering of a learning culture. Western organizations consistently failed to replicate Toyota's successes because they often merely adopted Toyota's processes as process improvement efforts.

The world sits on the cusp of the greatest opportunity we've had to rid ourselves of the antiquated mass production methodologies that we continue to wring ever decreasing returns from. At no time in this workforce generation's life have we needed a revolutionary boost in productivity.

Before we had this massive financial crisis, we had a massive productivity crisis. It has been with for years; looming, ever-present, waiting to be triggered. And here we sit in the midst of it. Nothing is so immoral at this time than the continued protectionism of our petty specializations that do nothing but exasperate the productivity crisis that we find ourselves in. And nothing reinforces the entitlement to these specializations like an organization that has little understanding of how profoundly an organization's productivity can be transformed by meaningfully committing to becoming a learning culture, and bending all procedural and organizational imperatives to that goal.

And once we've made the meaningful changes to our organizations and culture to bring about dramatic and sustainable changes in productivity, those new habits can be sustained through the prosperity that follows. We have an opportunity to learn not only how to thrive during crisis, but also how to bolster our society against the cultural rot that regularly brings us to the brink of productivity ruin.

Whether or not the bailouts will serve us in the long run, productivity certainly will. And the productivity that we need is likely not the productivity that comes in a box with a major software company's logo on it. We need a culture of productivity holding together a society of productive people, empowered by vigilant awareness and knowledge.

It's my great great hope that we look to the revolutionaries of human productivity of our time and seize this opportunity as if our society depended upon it.

Ampersand GT

Working with software developers and organizations to help realize the potential of software product development through higher productivity, higher quality, and improved customer experience

Learn more about my work and how I can help you at

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Software development pop vernacular probably doesn't need another "ility" word.  We've got a good collection of the them already: scalability, extensibility, availability, recoverability, among others.  Nonetheless...

Mature production industries already recognize a design quality called "workability".  Workability is at the heart of a number of software design qualities that individually often deliver a fractured message about what makes good software practices good.  Approaching software design and implementation from the perspective of workability helps me stay focused on the higher order objective while simultaneously not loosing track of the principles and practices that permit workability in software development.  That higher order objective is producing.   Or said differently, it’s production.  Or better yet: productivity.

In The Toyota Product Development System, the authors talk about Toyota's concern with workability during digital assembly, a form of virtual reality simulation geared partially to proving that a product's build workflow is practicable:

Use workability DA [Digital Assembly] to study in detail the effects that design changes will have on ergonomic issues involved in assembling a vehicle.  By utilizing DA in conjunction with the assembly plant pilot team (hourly workers assigned for two years to work on preparing a new vehicle launch) during the Kentou [prototyping, modeling] period, they can address both current as well as anticipated human factor issues and identify the ergonomically safest and most efficient way to assemble the vehicle.

Workability is the design quality that simply permits a job to be finished some day.  Workable software allows us to keep working on a software product without being obstructed by the software that we’ve already added to the product.  Without considering workability in design, workers end up painting themselves into corners that they can’t get out of.

We see this all the all the time in software projects whether we recognize it or not.  When productivity degrades sharply after the initial parts of a software product are built and assembled, it’s the absence of workability that is at the root of this all-too-common situation.

Workability is a higher order concept that accounts for  a myriad of principles, properties, tactics, and counter measures that are constantly in-play when high-functioning teams are at work.  In software, workability is the testability, the readability, the maintainability, the SOLID principles, and a host of concerns that are continually being balanced, evaluated, and enacted during design and implementation in the name of defending a software effort from stasis.  In fact, those principles are so essential to productivity that they are far from unique to software.  They permeate all kinds of production across many industries. 

There are a lot of elaborate and expensive tools and ideas in the software industry, but the vast majority of them simply don’t serve workability, and many of them actually obstruct higher orders of productivity.  If productivity can’t be sustained over an entire software effort, then that initial productivity really isn’t much in terms of productivity, is it?  In fact, productivity that can’t be sustained is arguably not productivity at all, and tools that deliver an initial, rapid productivity spike at the beginning of an effort are likely also contributing to it’s decline.

Sustainable productivity isn’t the result of tools, it’s the result of the collection of design qualities and practices that in aggregate can be thought of as workability.  Tools serve workability, but they can’t cause it – people cause it.  As long as people are involved in making things, workability is simply how good things get made.

Ampersand GT

Working with software developers and organizations to help realize the potential of software product development through higher productivity, higher quality, and improved customer experience

Learn more about my work and how I can help you at