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The Science of Soft Stuff

Why the soft stuff of business life is less separate from the tangibles of tech; and how many work friends do you have?

Are you into the softer side of business or the hard facts? Are you artist or scientist? Prefer things touchable and tangible or like the nuance of the un-quantified? Do you typically style yourself as a technical expert or a people person? We are usually asked and expected in working life to take one ‘side’ on these questions. Here I take that to task and give you some examples – drawn from my own expertise with HR and with people technologies – of where and how that art v. science divide begins to break down.

The inspiration behind this article is a BBC World Service podcast about Dunbar’s Number. Dunbar’s Number is 150. 150 is the maximum number of friends that academic Robin Dunbar worked out that any one person can have. It’s a fascinating figure, about which more below. Suffice to start that the idea that our friendships can be quantified intrigued me and it provokes wider thought:

HR and the business of people

In days gone by when we were ‘Personnel’ the skills associated with HR professionalism were all of the ‘soft’, interpersonal stuff and I suspect still there is a secret pride in the HR ability to empathise, communicate, mediate rather better than those in other disciplines. Nothing wrong and much to be said for those super-people-powers.

Yet more recently, as the CIPD protest near too much about the strategic place for HR/People functions and our C-suite acceptability, it has become clear that a more evidence-based approach is called for. Evidence-based HR (EBHR) is not a phrase that I think has achieved as much traction in business talk as it deserves. It’s worth reading on (Rob Briner is my preferred source here).

The essence of EBHR is that facts create the argument for people strategy and notice how close that is to today’s concepts of People Analytics. Now this one could have greater success. Perhaps because by using the language of digital and tech we are better able to persuade of the currency of these ideas in today’s ‘digitally-driven’ working society. In my own Insights work, I like to relate concepts: EBHR and People Analytics are a pair. Like EBHR, HR analytics work takes data from the past and creates arguments about the future and how we should treat our people.

The long and the short of it is an acceptance that in HR, the business of people, the soft stuff needs to base itself on something firmer. We seek to create a science of an art form.

Human Bodies do Business

The business of the human body is medicine. How our health and well-being, as well as our wiring and brain chemistry, affect our work in other business worlds is also something that attracts increasing attention.

I am no medical expert, but I do know that the same tendencies to seek to separate the mind/body or the mental/physical – just like the soft and hard stuff of business skill – has thread through medical history. Notice how these days more and more of us accept and embrace concepts about our physicality that do not require the same kind of black and white divide: mindfulness, integrative medicines, east-meets-west practitioners and those practitioners practising their art/science as part of occupational health programmes at work.

Then there is the debate about whether decisions are best made in HR or business leadership based on evidence (see above) or ‘gut feel’. There is an interesting, albeit far from mainstream, theory about interoception, which tells us in neuroscientific terms that because of the brain-gut axis we can regard our instinctive ‘gut feel’ to be a form of body big data – a subconscious learning from vast amounts of sensory experiences we’ve had in our bodies.
Again see how we come to understand it’s less easy to separate tangible and intangible things that we bring to work.

Connected-ness and Dunbar’s Friendship Number

We seek through our business technologies greater connected-ness and networked relationships. At home, so I understand, many of us seek endlessly to up and up our numbers of social media friends. This is where Dunbar’s number comes in:
150 is the headline number, but in fact there are a series of Dunbar numbers, each relating to the approximate degree of intimacy that is shared in a relationship. We can, apparently, achieve and sustain about 5 really close friends, with 15 right for a team and rising in multiples of around 3. The theory concludes that, regardless of your community, culture or for example gender, the human brain is capable of sustaining relationships that are based on more than a pure trade but instead on a commitment, with up to 150 other people. By all means have 500 Facebook acquaintances, but prefer not call them friends. “Friendships are like cars”, says Dunbar, “They need servicing”.

This quantifying theory of friendship is, by the way, evidence-based and the method Dunbar used is not so far off the approach advocated for HR to use with People Analytics: take a source (observation of apes in this case) and an idea to solve a problem, come up with a hypothesis (oh, it looks like 150’s the magic number!), draw in all of the relevant data sources and test your theory to derive insight.

The People Technology

Let’s look at the technology and how very blurry the people v. tech becomes in digital:
The latest in AI uses natural language processing to turn vocabularies, phrasing and use of language into binary information for processing. By converse, visualisation tools and story-telling techniques are now used to turn the binary, big data into words, narrative and pictures.

What about the very concept of social media or even private messaging (IM) itself? If I’m an avid Yammerer, WhatsApper or WeChatter do I count as a techie or an enterprise extrovert? And not much good being the best at active listening or open question techniques or mediation if I’m hiding in my support office unable to work out how to turn the device on to join the right forum to join the right debates.

At Phase 3 our specialism is in what it means to be talented with people technologies – traditionally that means HR systems, with payroll and business intelligence software. HR departments need now to up-skill internally with these same skill-sets and competencies, which are all about achieving a balance in different kinds of expertise: organisation-based, people, systems, methods, as well as self-management. (Contact us if you’d like to know more about those HR tech competencies).

Make friends with the Science of Soft Stuff

If you do need something tangible then a piece of advice is this:

  • Adopt a humility with your natural strengths in business life, whether they tend towards the technology or the people and seek a balance.
  • Avoid the self-styling, either to self-promote or to self-deprecate (‘I’m such a people person!’, ‘I’m no good with people/tech’)
  • As an HR leader at least take time to sit in front of the tech and try the driving seat – you might quite like it. Ask a question or two and see the science of the soft stuff that you do.

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