Sunday, 25 September 2016

What I've been reading - March / April 2016

A slower couple of months on the reading front so combined into one ...

Predictably irrational by Dan Ariely

Really enjoyed this book.  As the cover puts it …. “In a series of illuminating and groundbreaking experiments, behavioural economist Dan Airely demonstrates how expectations, emotions, social norms and other invisible, seemingly illogical forces skew our reasoning abilities.   Not only do we make astonishingly simple mistakes every day,,but we make the same types of mistakes.  We consistently overpay, underestimate and procrastinate.  We fail to understand the profound effects of our emotions on what we want, and we overvalue what we already own.  Yet these misguided behaviours are neither random nor senseless.  They’re systematic and predictable."

Not going to argue with that - fascinating read,

The book is full of examples of intriguing experiments that have been run.  In one case undergraduate students were recruited to take part in an experiment.  In the first part they were to solve some anagrams.  When the'd done this they were told that the experiment had a second part and that they needed to go down the corridor to another room to complete it.  What was actually being studied though was simply how long it took them to walk down the corridor to the second room.  Some of the participants were given words to unscramble that could be associated with “elderly” - US experiment so examples included Florida, bingo, ancient etc.  The people primed with the elderly words had a considerably slower walking speed to the next room than the control group that was not primed in this way!

In another example they explore how satisfaction with your food in a restaurant can be best assured by being the first person to order!  ( That way your order is not influenced in any way by what people before you have said).

Big Data by Bernard Marr
The world is getting smarter and big data is at the core, we increasingly leave a digital trail and this can be analysed by increasingly smart analytic software.  “Big Data” is often talked about and the huge volumes of information that is being gathered.  Arguably though the value is not in the volume but rather in the things that can now be done with that data.

The book provides a SMART framework for Big Data
  • Start with strategy - get clear on what you want to achieve, and what questions you want to answer
  • Measure metrics and data - understand different sorts of data ( structured vs unstructured, internal vs external etc), think though what sources of data you need to answer your questions
  • Apply Analytics - use the appropriate analytic tools to process the data
  • Report your results - think through how the data will be visualised, lots of new ways being developed that can be used to enable people to see the data.
  • Transform your business and decision making - gain fresh insights into your customers, internal processes, people.

The author has also written “Big Data in practice” - a collection of 45 case studies showing how companies are applying Big Data and analytics to their businesses.   Given my focus on the application to HR it was interesting to note that none of his 45 case studies are from that area.  

The HR Scorecard Linking People, Strategy, and Performance by Becker, Hustlid and Ulrich

The book focuses on how HR professionals can take a more strategic view of HR and its contribution to the success of the organisation.  Issues of alignment and mapping how HR contributes to the business strategy are covered.  Important to note that as HR Scorecard is developed this is not a one off activity but rather something that will need to constantly evolve as the needs of ht business change.  

They draw a distinction between Lagging and leading indicators.  Lagging indicators reflect what has happened in the past, e.g. financial indicators.  Leading indicators, unsurprisingly, are things that you can measure now which are predictors of future outcomes, examples might include current customer satisfaction as indicator of future sales.   Using lagging indicators is easier but they compare it to trying to drive a car by looking in the rear view mirror.

Another important point they make is the issue of using available data rather than relevant data to drive decisions.  Will be tempting to use the data that we are already collecting to base decisions on but this may not be the data that you need.  Using convenient data rather than relevant data to drive your decisions may not be a formula for success.

Monday, 5 September 2016

What I've been reading - February 2016

OK so this is a bit after the fact but here are some thoughts on books I read in February

Corporate Responsibility by Michael Blowfield and Alan Murray second edition 

This is a text book that sets out to provide an introduction to the "key ideas and practices in the field" of corporate responsibility.  Split into 3 sections it starts by covering what corporate responsibility is and its origins.  Next, it turns to the question of managing and implementing corporate responsibility before concluding with a section on the impact it has, some critiques and some thoughts on the future.  Throughout it is an easy read with lots of examples and case studies to illustrate the points being made.

Doing a Literature Search by Chris Hart 

Comprehensive but very dated feel to the book.   Covers all sorts of data sources and where to look for a literature search but originally written in 2001 and a lot has changed since then.  For someone familiar with libraries and working with information sources there in unlikely to be much to gain from reading this book.

Learn to Write Badly, How to Succeed in the Social Sciences by Michael Billig

Some very interesting ideas in this book that looks at the style of academic writing in the social sciences.  He asks, why is the style used by social scientists routinely poor and why does it continue to get worse.   Makes some points about why academic language has evolved as it is and draws various comparisons between natural sciences and social sciences.  For me the second half of the book was less engaging as it became much more specific and less general.

In contrast to today's highly specialised language, he talks (on p15) how writers in the past, such as Adam Smith, wrote in a way that their work could be read by people from different disciplines.  Their writing was rooted in the use of non-technical words which enabled easier understanding.  As he puts it they were "writing in small words for big circles" versus today where "The words have become longer and the circles, in which they circulate, have become smaller."

In talking about league tables and how universities emphasise their research capability he picks the University of Winchester as an example and discusses at some length what their website says about the university.  Guess he had to pick somewhere but still a surprise to see Winchester featuring as the only university whose website he comments on.

When Prophecy Fails by Leon Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schachter

The first of 2 books this month where the author(s) reflects on experience of having been part of a group - in both cases, especially the first one, some real challenges around how the presence of the observer may affect the group being observed.

The experimental psychologist Leon Festinger had been working on a new theory of cognitive dissonance and how this would affect human behaviour.   In essence this says that when we have 2 mutually incompatible things in our head then we need to work out some way to reconcile them.     For example if I know that exercise is good for me and I also know that I don't exercise how do I reconcile these things?  I could start doing more exercise or I can construct a rationale to explain it away... I would do more exercise but at the moment I'm very busy at work so I can't but as soon as that is under control then of course I will do some more exercise.... that sort of thing.

This book tells how they were able to join a cult which believes that the world is set to end in the coming months.  How would the members of the cult feel when the predicted end of the world didn't occur and they were not picked up by a spacecraft as had been foretold?  

The answer is surprising at first but consistent with the theory.   When they are not picked up and the world does not end, what is beautifully labeled as the "disconfirmation event", the cult grows significantly in its efforts to recruit new members and starts proselytising in a way that they did not previously.

An easy read ( certainly compared with the books above !) and a well told and engaging story alongside the theory.  Given the small size of the cult the researchers did form quite a significant part of the group which certainly did make me wonder about their influence on the group.   This however is something that is addressed by the authors and creatively dealt with - including the time when one of them was asked to lead a session.   No way to back out of it and not wanting to preach to the group ( and hence potentially influence their thinking ) the researcher, in a stroke of genius, leads the group in silent meditation.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh

Sociology student goes out into “the projects” and gets involved with the local gang - the Black Kings.  Befriends the gang leader JT and gains insight into the workings of the gang including different perspectives from people inside and outside the gang.   

Fascinating insight into how things work and the similarity of the challenges that leaders face, motivation, discipline etc - all be it in a different context and with very different mechanisms for implementation.

Also interesting to see challenges of observing from within the system that you are studying.   Presence there influences the situation around you so you can never observe detached from the system.