Time To Embrace The Wisdom Of The Crowd?

12/10/2016 10:53

Dare I mention how many weeks there are left to the end of 2016? For many this triggers a small panic attack about preparing for the holiday season - for others it signals a countdown to the trauma of end of year performance appraisals.

Much has been said in the last few years about the death of the traditional annual performance review. Organisations are questioning the very foundations of something that has had its place in the workplace for at least 100 years - rooted in the merit rating system of the US military during World War I. Managers, hard-strapped to dedicate effort to their people responsibilities, have increasingly pushed back against the mammoth consumption of time these established approaches bring, pointing to a lack of evidence of tangible returns (and motivation) for all parties involved.

A recent HBR article suggested that at least one third of US companies are now abandoning their traditional processes, replacing them with informal check ins, looking at current rather as opposed to past behaviour, with a focus on feedback to encourage employees to develop their potential rather than an over-indexing on short comings in the past.

In the same week that the HBR "Workforce for the Future" feature came out, McKinsey published an article examining the transformation happening in the oil and gas sector - and the drive to build a more agile and responsive culture in an industry renowned for glacial movement. One of the key people processes highlighted for disruption was performance management - and the "crowd sourcing" of feedback was seen to be key.

So let's ask ourselves just what we mean by "crowd sourcing" and its implications in this context?
Crowd-sourcing is nothing new - it represents a belief that the aggregated view of a large group is generally more informative than the answer given by an individual which may be skewed or "unrepresentative". Fundamentally the idea of research is founded on "crowd sourcing". Let's not ask one or two people - let's go out and ask enough people to have a confident view that we understand what that audience thinks, believes and will therefore do.

Reminded of this definition I found myself asking if the classic appraisal process viewed as a piece of research would stand up to scrutiny - and worryingly the answer is probably no. Of course the definition of "large group" is the key here - what is the crowd you are sourcing from? Is it relevant? Is it well placed to have an informed view? Is the "sample" constructed effectively enough to dispel any significant bias? For decades it was down to an immediate manager and a few pieces of paper. Then it moved to a "circle" of colleagues, superiors and external stakeholders - 180, 270, 360 degrees - it pulled a few more people into the mix but was still open to many questions of validity. It is no surprise we have something here that has proven ripe for disruption.

Many management consultancies - and I am, of course, a partner in such a setting - have the advantage of an operating model which has demanded a more innovative approach to performance measurement. Our teams are fluid and so we need to be looking at how people are doing within each and every project we execute - colleague feedback collected throughout the course of the year plays a huge part in how we track performance. Ours would be seen as a hybrid model - we still use ratings but we have a far reaching approach focusing on "real time" to gathering input.

Advocates of crowd sourcing now point to social platforms as pivotal, creating, if there is nothing in place, a channel or community space where achievements can be captured, a wider circle of input sought, and inspiration and interactions shared to have a ripple effect on learning and therefore culture in the organisation. I really do think you have to be careful about this. Going with the crowd can be "a fashion"; it can be about favouritism, who belongs and who does not - and if we take our "research sample" analogy we might not necessarily get the insight we need.

Another issue with real time social feedback sources is that the people you really need to hear from might not be active. There is a clear challenge right now for many big corporates where collaborative and community platforms are used by certain audiences but not by others - and unfortunately senior leadership are often those who are not the active participants. How comfortable can you be if the skew of insight is from one part only of the organisational ecosystem and not necessarily capturing all parties concerned? This is likely to change over the coming years but right now it is a potential flaw in the "crowd sourced" approach.

From my consultancy's perspective I am a complete convert of disrupting the old ways of performance management - and we can and will go further I am sure. In its purest form I worry about "crowd sourcing" - you have to understand your "crowd" to be really sure it is going to give you what you need!