Sunday, July 05, 2009

Possible Directions in Human Resource Management

This afternoon, while having a nice soak in the tub, I got lost in a Strossian reverie. Or perhaps it was more along the lines of one of his characters, rather than the author himself. Regardless, I was thinking about management styles in modern corporations... and ways in which one might improvise.

I was only half paying attention, until the stream of thought actually started getting interesting. At which point I sat upright in the tub and started taking mental notes. Quickly showering off, I couldn't stop the flood of ideas, hoping to get to a written medium as soon as possible, lest they be forgotten.

I forget how the day-dreaming started... perhaps my usual: pick a random topic where I have some experience, and start playing with it. Run simulations and tweak parameters until there's nothing more to look at or some interesting permutation has popped up. 

Ah! Now I remember. I was thinking about the increasing importance of QA in software as more and more marketshare is gained. Not from the usual perspective ("we gotta make sure users don't see bugs, or our shit's gonna flop"), but rather as part of the original problem domain.  It's very common for open source projects to suffer from a lack of sex appeal when considering QA. QA is essential for success; just as important as the code itself. As such, there should be ways of making QA as interesting, engaging, understood, and respected as the act of programming.

That train of thought spawned a couple more pathways for exploration, but the one that ended up being the most interesting was pondering the QA-interest problem at a human resource management level. What would it take to get talented and skilled engineers who would normally gravitate towards some other field of expertise interested in QA instead? How flexible would a company have to be to start attracting for this and other positions as new needs arose due to new pressures? How could it do so by growing and adapting from the inside?

Let's take these rather arbitrary initial conditions as part of a thought experiment following up on those questions:
  • a company with a sufficient number of employees to support multiple departments
  • a highly intelligent, motivated workforce
  • flexible employees and teams, probably working in a distributed, remote environment
Imagine with this sort of company that employees are not locked into teams, departments, divisions, etc. Let's say there is some mechanism which allows for an easy re-shuffling of talent throughout the company. For budgeting and reporting purposes, corporate structures would remain, but the individuals that performed specific tasks were granted much more expansive, organic freedoms when it came to projects and tasks.

From the individual's perspective, an employee could choose to work for and closely associate with whatever team they wanted to spend some time with, given of course, that this team could make use of the newly reallocated employee's particular skills and abilities. This is somewhat analogous to the geographical freedoms one has when working remotely: you can move anywhere in the world, to whichever time zone you prefer, whatever culture you want to enjoy, given that you can continue to work effectively. 

Of course, checks and balances would have to be introduced. Otherwise, what's to prevent an employee from team-hopping, and never really getting any work done? Just playing social butterfly? Karma/experience points could be earned on per task, project, team, department, and division bases. Moving at any particular level to a different group would reset an employee's karma for that group and all other organizational units below it. For instance, changing to another department would zero out any team, project, and unfinished task karma that had been accumulated. Perhaps some of the patterns from role playing games could come in handy as sources of inspiration.

The ability to opt for a move could also be governed by an appropriate accumulation of karma points for a given organizational unit, to be determined at the discretion of that organizational unit. For example, hitting a certain karma "level" would allow one new movement opportunities. Obviously, in addition to having enough points, the target group would have to have a need and be willing to bring the requesting person on board.

Intuitively (i.e., without doing any research or checking sources), this feels like something modeled after biological systems, as opposed to the fairly static forms of systems organizations we currently see in many corporations. A company that was able to successfully implement such a human resource management approach could likely see additional, unexpected benefits. Biological systems tend to be well-suited to surviving shock, drastic changes, massive failures. We might see companies with longer-reaching vision, more innovation, less frequent employee turnover, and greater financial stability.

That aside, what appeals to me at a personal level is this: employees would be participating in their work at a new level. The management processes behind professional development would be opened up to them. Not only that, part of one's work would become a game with known rules and clearly defined markers for cumulative achievements. Rewards, though, would not be power-climbing, but rather lateral expansion and exploration. Deeper involvement in other areas of the company.

I'd love to hear from folks who can recommend some good reading/research materials on this topic...