Psychometric testing is controversial. That hasn’t stopped it being popular with human resource managers and recruiters. They see it as a quick, efficient way of sorting people.

From their point of view CVs, interviews and references only show a person’s skills and experience. Uncovering their personality – in particular their ability to mesh with a corporate culture – is harder. That’s the sales pitch.

In reality stressed recruiters use a barrage of tests, including psychometrics, to speed hiring. Some tests are automated. Candidates sit computerised psychometric tests – perhaps in a recruitment company’s offices. In other cases professionals supervise paper-based tests.

Psychometric testing a waste of time?

Without a qualified, experienced professional to interpret results, psychometric tests are a waste of time. The results are complex to interpret and sensible analysis is beyond a layperson. It might be fine to hire a cleaner on the basis of an automated test, sane people wouldn’t hire knowledge workers that way.

I met psychometric testing a decade ago. After a series of intense interviews for a senior position, I was asked to take a series of tests. The session lasted four hours, almost without a break. I warmed up with what looked like IQ tests and moved on to logical reasoning exercises. A long and vaguely baffling exercise followed where I had to choose from seemingly random pairs of job titles in order of preference.

For example, the test might pair ‘janitor’ and ‘rocket scientist’. Picking one isn’t hard. In fact, the test was obviously designed for an American audience and included some job descriptions that, while not incomprehensible, certainly were not familiar.

Not difficult

Finally the real psychometric tests – I suspect the job-ranking test might be a form of psychometric exercise too. Answering the questions isn’t difficult; indeed, the tester asked me not to think too hard but to go with my first response to any question.

By the end of the four-hour test session I was emotionally drained, physically exhausted, thirsty and hungry. After a 30-minute lunch break I returned for a task-specific question and answer session.

A few days later an industrial psychiatrist called me to discuss the tests. He discussed my longer-term career prospects and plans and made suggestions that I hadn’t otherwise considered. I worried the tests might show him that I was an employment basket case – or worse. In fact the news was largely positive and insightful. It turns out I’m far better at certain things that I previously thought. As it happens I got the job, but that’s another story.

Some merit

Going purely on my personal experience, I can see some merit in the ideas behind this kind of testing. Personality is the most important factor when hiring an executive, more important than skills and experience and as important as aptitude. It makes sense to establish objective benchmarks that go beyond the kind of human prejudices we can all be, even unwittingly, guilty of. I have two concerns. First, despite what the professionals say, it is possible for people to learn how to answer psychometric tests in a way that portrays them in a favourable light.

Years ago I interviewed John Wareham a New Zealand-born recruitment expert who helped develop these tests. He said the trick people quickly learn is to avoid the extremes.

Most tests ask you to rate things on a scale of 1 to 5 – if you want to get a good job make sure the bulk of your answers cluster around the centre of this range.

On the other hand minor alarm bells ring if you fail to tick any extreme answers. Wareham also said the tests quickly detect any dishonesty by cross-referencing; answer truthfully or you’ll be exposed as a phony.

My second fear is that managers often use it to offload decision-making responsibility. External objective measures are good, but they can’t make decisions. There’s a temptation to just look at printouts and test scores and not go beyond this to look at other, possibly more compelling, evidence.

Grant Frear writes about the demise of the knowledge worker after reading Daniel Pink’s book A Whole New Mind.

Pink says people in rich countries need to move away from left-brain (linear, organised) thinking towards more right-brain (or creative) thinking.

Frear’s first sentence says; “Well maybe not a complete demise but most certainly a geographic shift”. So we won’t accuse him of an exaggerated report of the death of knowledge work. the headline’s a handy excuse to quote Mark Twain.

Geographic shift

Frear says work involving logical, repeatable left-brain tasks is better done by computer. Bosses can offload tasks which aren’t easily automated to Asia where there’s a cheaper workforce, hence the “geographic shift”.

It makes sense. Low value work has moved from Australia and New Zealand to Asia for at least a decade. How often have you rung telephone banking and spoken to someone with a strong Indian accent?

To make up for this geographic shift, Frear (or more accurately Frear quoting Pink) says people in richer countries need to work on their right-brain activities which are largely creative, non-linear and conceptual.

The problem he identifies is most rich-world employers favour left-brain thinking. They reward people based on these values and not on their creativity. All of this is true.

Knowledge work, left-brain right-brain

Frear (or maybe Pink) assumes knowledge work is a left-brain activity.

It can be, but is not always: writing is creative, but a form of knowledge work.

Also, while there are people who seem 100 percent left-brain or right-brain, in reality most show a healthy mix of both.

Rather than requiring a disorienting binary switch from one type of thinking to a totally different one,  a smarter strategy might just be to steer one’s thinking more towards creativity.

If Frear and Pink are right, the good news is that in the future there will be less boring knowledge worker jobs in the richer world and more stimulating work.

Demise of the knowledge worker « Mutterings of a consultant

Knowledge workers are taking over.

A third of American employees are already knowledge workers. The number is lower in Australia and New Zealand. Yet we’re catching up.

In developed, developing and even in some undeveloped countries they are the fastest-growing employment group.

Knowledge workers outnumber industrial workers

In the developing world, knowledge workers outnumber industrial and agricultural workers. In more advanced countries they outnumber the two groups added together.

America has roughly as many as service industry workers. In most rich countries knowledge work is the most important sector in terms of economic and political clout.

A new idea

The idea that people can earn a living dealing purely with knowledge has only been around for 50 years.

Writer and management expert Peter Drucker is often credited with inventing the term. He first used the term ‘Knowledge Worker’ in his 1959 book “Landmarks of Tomorrow”.

Drucker modestly claims to be only the second person to use the phrase. He says the honour belongs to Fritz Machlup a Princeton economist.

Drucker popularised the term. He spent 40 years expanding on the original idea, explaining its implications.

Knowledge workers misunderstood

Although the term is widely used and people generally understand what it implies, there is still much misunderstanding about its exact meaning.

One common misconception is the term applies exclusively to people working in the information technology industry or elsewhere using products created by IT workers.

While almost all IT workers qualify, they are only a subset.

Anyone who makes a living out of creating, manipulating or spreading knowledge is a knowledge worker.

Broad church

That’s a wide definition. It includes teachers, trainers, university professors and other academics. You can categorise writers, journalists, authors, editors and public relations or communications people as knowledge workers. We’ll put aside for one moment arguments about whether the knowledge created by these people is accurate. Lawyers, scientists and management consultants are all included.

One key difference with other white-collar workers is the level of education and training. There may be some who don’t have a formal tertiary education or high-level training. They are a minority.

You need a degree, most of the time

As a rule, they have a minimum of a university undergraduate degree. That’s not always the case. Older knowledge workers tend to have less formal qualifications than younger ones. That’s partly because higher education wasn’t ubiquitous when they started out — university isn’t the only path to knowledge.

Another reason is that practical experience counts for a lot. The here is that each individual posses their own reservoir of accumulated knowledge they apply in their work.

Compared with other groups of workers, they are well paid. Knowledge workers can belong to unions. But are often not organised in that sense.

This can lead to forms of genteel exploitation. Few knowledge workers get overtime payments. Yet employers expect most to voluntarily work for considerably more than the basic 40 hours a week.

Mobile

On the other hand, knowledge workers are more mobile than industrial workers and can often take their skills elsewhere at the drop of a hat. They often do.

Any employer who abuses knowledge workers’ professionalism is likely to see their most important assets walk out of the door. This applies as much today as it did when there were more jobs around.

Few governments have come to terms with the implications of having a highly mobile, highly educated, knowledge workforce.

Many can quickly find a new employer if necessary, most can move freely between countries. Any nation that doesn’t look after its knowledge workforce can expect to lose it.

New Zealand knowledge workers

This applies in New Zealand. We operate a so-called progressive income tax system that, at times, appears deliberately designed to alienate knowledge workers.

The marginal and absolute rates of income tax paid by most New Zealand knowledge professionals are higher than in many competing nations.

From that point of view, Australia looks attractive.

If anything the flow of knowledge workers migrating to more benign economies is accelerating.

Drucker distinguishes between classes. High-knowledge workers include professional groups such as doctors and teachers. They deal mainly in the realm of the mind. While knowledge technologists work with their hands and brains in the IT industry, medicine and other areas.

Although both categories are growing, the bulk of growth comes from this second group.

I’m a career journalist and editor (almost 30 years now). I mainly blog to learn more about blogging and how it works. It’s a way of staying current. Right now I’m on my fourth blog and I think I’m getting the hang of it.

What have I learnt so far?

1. You don’t need fancy software to blog.
2. The free hosting services are as good as or better than self-hosting.
3. Blogging can take up a huge amount of time, but it doesn’t have to.
4. There’s a community aspect to blogging that isn’t apparent until you dive in and do it yourself.
5. Blogging is similar, but not the same as journalism.
6. My blogs don’t tend to drive traffic to my website, nor do they deliver any direct economic benefits.

The evolution of computer magazines

An interesting post from the Australian Newsagency blog which has noticed how computer magazines are broadening their coverage to include home entertainment and other kinds of electronic hardware.

This has been the case for some time in New Zealand where the local edition of PC World has a long track record of covering mobile phones, plasma and lcd TVs and other home entertainment hardware. New Zealand PC World has taken this a step further with its NZ Gear Guide – a glossy how-to-shop-for-hardware publication which is now on its second edition.

Two bloggers posted journalist perspectives on the power of blogs. Both are recent blogging converts. Both have worthwhile observations.

In why journalists must learn the values of the blogging revolution, The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade argues that in the past journalists were secular priests pontificating to the great unwashed. He says news was a one-way traffic. Blogging, with its built-in feedback mechanisms has turned that on its head.

Maybe. Here in New Zealand, there’s often plenty of negative feedback when you write something that somebody doesn’t like. The odd thing about blogging and online news is you also get positive feedback. This is strange and unusual to some of us.

Future journalist bloggers

Greenslade goes on to write:

“I have tended to predict that future news organisations will consist of a small hub of “professional journalists” at the centre with bloggers (aka amateur journalists/citizen journalists) on the periphery. In other words, us pros will still run the show.

I’m altogether less certain about that model now. First, I wonder whether us pros are as valuable as we think. Second, and more fundamentally, I wonder whether a “news organisation” is as perfect a model as we might think.”

I’d be concerned about Greenslade’s conclusion if I agreed with his hub and periphery prediction. My vision of the future of journalism is that it is more like a sports league with professionals operating on one level, semi-professionals working at another and the amateurs elsewhere. And, as with the English FA Cup, there’s always potential for the occasional upset.

Towards the end of his piece Greenslade writes:

When we journalists talk about integration we generally mean, integrating print and online activities. But the true integration comes online itself. The integration between journalists and citizens. Of course, there should be no distinction between them. But journalists still wish to see themselves as a class apart.

Funny, I’ve never thought of myself as being a class apart from my readers. I’ve always regarded them as my employers.

New Zealand blogger Bernard Hickey writes he feels liberated as a blogger. He likes the speed of the medium, the feedback and the ability to connect to his audience. As Hickey says, he is now a blogging evangelist.

Hickey’s blog interests me because it serves an audience that is relatively ignored in New Zealand. For want of a better label his target is middle class, aspirational and liberal in the British sense, not the American sense.

Predictably, The Australian newspaper said illegal downloads are the reason in worldwide music sales have fallen to their lowest point in 23 years.

It says 1.8 billion albums sold in 2007, roughly the same number as at the start of the CD sales boom in 1985.

MP3 downloads have an impact – but they are not the whole story. After all, The Economist reported earlier this year EMI can’t even give CDs away to younger listeners.

Thanks to music industry-lead legal actions attacking downloaders, p2p services and ISPs it was harder to illegally download music than in the late 1990s and the early years of this decade when Napster and other services were at the peak of their popularity. The surviving p2p networks are now chock full of spam and music industry-generated dummy files designed to make downloading difficult.

Here I want to concentrate on one important aspect: the music industry was the architect of its own decline.

The last serious flowering of popular music was in the late 1970s and early 1980s – I know, I was there. An explosion of new talent appeared as punk rock and new wave morphed into dozens of other fresh new music styles.

Significantly, the burst of creativity gave birth to acts as diverse as The Clash, The Jam, Talking Heads, The Smiths and the Ramones. Accompanying this was a commercial blossoming as hundreds of entrepreneurial, occasionally idealistic, small record companies and other related businesses arrived on the scene.

Similar waves arrived in the 1950s with original rock and roll, then again in the 1960s with the Beatles and rock’s second coming and then a third wave from 1967 through to the early 1970s. Each successive wave  had a creative aspect and a commercial one.

Around the time CD sales took off, the record industry began a process of consolidation that eventually left just four major companies accounting for most global sales (about 70 percent in the USA, more in some other western countries).

Along the way these new mega-companies trimmed their rosters of acts and began playing it safe; which meant squashing innovation and creativity. They also started mining their back catalogues far more than they did in the past. I can’t quote numbers, but old music accounts for a sizable share of today’s total sales.

As a result of these moves there are now  fewer signed artists and less room for commercial mavericks to flourish. The remaining acts are more predictable and controllable — great for large corporations reporting to shareholders, not so good for nurturing the next generation of talent. Independent record companies pick up bright new acts, but sooner or later they the majors acquire them and the squelching starts all over again.

Which means the music industry would be in serious decline now even if illegal music downloading never happened.

The Australian newspaper says illegal downloads are the reason music sales fell to their lowest point in 23 years. It is no longer online.

According to the paper 1.8 billion albums sold in 2007. That’s roughly the same number as at the start of the CD sales boom in 1985.

MP3 downloads have an impact – but they are not the whole story. The Economist reported earlier this year EMI can’t even give CDs away to younger listeners.

Illegal downloading harder, riskier

Thanks to music industry-lead legal actions against downloaders, p2p services and ISPs, illegal downloading is now harder than in the late 1990s and the early years of this decade.

That was when Napster and other services were at the peak of their popularity. Surviving p2p networks are now filled with spam. They have music industry-generated dummy files designed to make downloading difficult.

This aside: the music industry was the architect of its own decline.

The last serious flowering of popular music was in the late 1970s and early 1980s – I know, I was there. An explosion of new talent appeared as punk rock and new wave. It morphed into dozens of other fresh new music styles.

New wave music, creative boom

That burst of creativity gave us acts as diverse as The Clash, The Jam, Talking Heads, The Smiths and the Ramones.

Accompanying this was a commercial blossoming. Hundreds of entrepreneurial, at times idealistic, record companies and related businesses arrived on the scene.

Similar waves arrived in the 1950s with original rock and roll. Then again in the 1960s with the Beatles and rock’s second coming. A third wave was from 1967 through to the early 1970s. Each successive wave  had a creative and commercial aspects.

Around the time CD sales took off, the record industry began a process of consolidation. This left four major companies accounting for most global sales. About 70 percent in the USA, more in some other western countries.

Music industry squeezing out innovation

Along the way the new mega-companies trimmed their rosters of acts. They began playing it safe; which meant squashing innovation and creativity. They also started mining their back catalogues more than in the past. I can’t quote numbers, but old music accounts for a sizable share of today’s total sales.

As a result, there are fewer signed artists. There is less room for commercial mavericks to flourish. The remaining acts are more predictable and controllable. That’s great for large corporations reporting to shareholders, not so good for nurturing new talent.

Independent record companies still pick up bright new acts. But sooner or later they the majors get hold of them and the squelching starts all over again.

Which means the music industry would be in serious decline now even without illegal music downloading.

Even so, I’ve decided to make sure my music collection is one hundred percent legal.

Mark Neely asks Is ‘Born Global’ the new normal for software start-ups?

Anyone who has played the board game Risk knows the smartest strategy is capture Australasia before setting out to conquer the world. Risk may have been a powerful metaphor in the past but it doesn’t apply to business in the digital age.

When the product you’re exporting weighs nothing and can travel to its destination at the speed of light, geographic barriers are meaningless.

New Zealand tech companies learnt this early. They latched on the Born Global idea earlier than their Australian counterparts. That’s partly because they are further out on the fringe of the global economy. But they were treading down a tried and tested path.

Global only  option for New Zealand start-ups

Unlike Australian firms, New Zealand companies had little choice. The local market is tiny and poor by OECD standards.

Almost every successful NZ business of the last 20 years has exported from day one. The list includes children’s clothes, fashion, biotechnology and booze as well as software and online services.

Most of the economic factors Mark mentions in his post (market size, ex-pat community etc) apply in spades to New Zealand. Here, exports are about 30 percent of GDP. In Australia exports are roughly 20 percent of GDP.

Incidentally, both figures are depressingly low by OECD standards where the average is almost 50 percent of GDP.

Tiny economy, aware of global issues

New Zealand is a tiny economy, but everyone working in it is painfully aware of its relative international insignificance. I’d argue Australian businesses are misled by their seemingly large and buoyant economy and are more complacent about exporting. That Risk strategy looks smarter in Sydney than Timaru.

One significant difference is NZ start-ups don’t tap into overseas investment as much as Australian firms – if this impression is wrong please let me know. Instead our entrepreneurs opt to cash out of their businesses at an earlier stage – in many cases when their business and products are still immature.

I’m not a finance expert, but this tells me New Zealand companies suffer from poor access to venture capital – or if they have access to VC funds, they don’t have access to the right kind of venture capital.