Better software, better employees: Computer simulations can help make workers and businesses more efficient.

Commentaries on economics and technology.
April 19 2011 2:17 PM

Better Software, Better Employees

Computer simulations can help make workers and businesses more efficient.

Computer. Click image to expand.
What role can computers play in worker training?

In theory, it is hard to think of a computer service nobler than the typical "Help Wanted" board. It helps people find work that fulfills their potential, and it helps employers find people who can use their infrastructure (whether machines or office equipment or even just a methodology for service delivery) to satisfy the needs of businesses and consumers around the world.

This is why, long ago, I invested in a company that produced a job board in Europe. Still, in practice I find that job boards fail to fulfill their potential. The best people usually find jobs (or are found) through professional connections, and most mediocre people get mediocre or worse jobs where they lose whatever potential they had. Even at their best, all job boards do is allocate scarce talent resources; they don't create them.

I recall all this because a startup came to me recently with an idea that included an online market for "life coaches." (I'm being vague because the company is in stealth mode.) To my surprise, there are about 100,000 certified life coaches in the United States these days. They range from experienced counselors with psychology degrees to people with a certificate from a training institute to noncertified people who just happen to be good at it. So the market is not just the buyers (people with family problems, career challenges, and other personal issues to resolve) and sellers (the life coaches). It is also the producers—the training schools that want their certificates to have value in the marketplace, and that would be willing to sponsor or advertise on such a service.


As for me, I am simultaneously a cynic and an idealist. I would rather get my advice for free from a genuine friend, or perhaps even from some folks on Facebook, than from a jobless stranger who has just spent $2,295 on a five-month, part-time course.

But then I thought about jury duty, in which people who might otherwise be in a five-month training course sit in judgment of their peers. I have performed jury duty and found it an inspiring experience. Normal people—with or without much education, with or without much money—rise to the occasion. They pay attention to the drama outlined by the lawyers, try to put their biases aside, and decide the fate of a fellow human being. I once asked former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor whether she believed, as I did, that juries really rise to the challenge. She replied: "Only twice in my career have I disagreed with the verdict of my jury."

So, could being thrust into a formal role of responsibility have at least some of the same effects as jury duty? Rather than cheapening a relationship, could training and payment actually turn normal people into excellent coaches? How much does context matter, and how much can people develop good habits when appropriately challenged? I'm not sure, but it may be that a life-coach job board is not such a bad idea after all.

In the meantime, I was approached by a company called Talent Sciences, which I am sure has a good idea. The proposition is ultimately simple: Use computers not just to find good employees, but also to help people become better employees. In part, that means generating data to assess and match people to the right jobs; it also means simulating situations—learning experiences—in which people can develop the habits, skills, and attitudes they need to match any particular job and employer.

The first step for Talent Sciences is to work with a large employer and assess "talent" with a set of games and interactive experiences: How do people reason and make decisions? Do they read the instructions first or react on the fly? Do their answers to management-scenario questions change depending on whether the delinquent employee is Juan or Alice? Do they follow procedures methodically, or do they take short cuts? Do they try harder under pressure, or do they quit in the face of difficulty? And so on.

There are no right answers, only patterns. Some patterns match successful employees in particular jobs; others match successful employees in other jobs. (You want different traits in an advertising copywriter and in an accountant.) Each company, and each kind of job within it, will have its own patterns of success (as defined by who stays and gets promoted). In a company with a pathological culture, success will be defined by liars and social climbers.

But the goal is not just selecting employees (ideally within good companies). After that, the service can be used to coach employees and empower them to improve themselves. Call it simulated apprenticeship: If your company has a shortage of supportive managers to train employees, they can be modeled in the software. The games and simulation exercises can be designed to train and reward certain kinds of behavior—quick decision-making over too much deliberation, say, or delegation rather than do-it-myself action.

It remains unclear how effective this will be, but I'm betting on it. Experience shapes us as much as our genes (or innate talents) do, and online experience is cheaper and easier to shape. In real life, success could be due to luck, and it might teach us the wrong lessons. In a game, we can make sure that it teaches us the right ones.

This article comes from Project Syndicate.

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