Holist Assessment


By David Creelman

When we tackle any problem in management we break it down into its constituent parts. This is the essence of analysis.  For example, in job evaluation the Hay Guide-Chart breaks down the concept of job size into Know-How, Problem Solving, and Accountability. This is helpful, however it is at heart a misconception of how the Hay system really works. That system is fundamentally about making a holist assessment.

Reductionism is a useful tactic, but only a tactic. HR needs to explicitly understand holist assessment.

What is the problem with analysis?
When asked to compare the ‘size’ of two jobs many people initially assume it is a totally subjective exercise. How can you say if being a pastry chef is a bigger or smaller job than being a plumber? Yet bring in an analytical mindset and things come into focus. You can have a rational discussion of how much know-how it takes to be a pastry chef and how much it takes to be a plumber. For people who know the jobs it is not too hard to decide if the jobs require roughly similar levels of know-how, or one clearly requires more than the other.

However, after the initial relief at having some kind of handle on job size, people invariably ask “What do we really mean by each of those job evaluation factors? What is Know-How comprised of?” In the Hay system this is answered as “Know-how has three sub-factors: technical knowledge, management breadth, and human relations skill.” People like this and proceed to analyse jobs with more confidence.

Yet, there is no particular reason to stop analysis at that point, we can ask for example, what sub-factors make up human relations skill. The Hay system does not go there and for good reason. There is no end to this kind of decomposition. Trying to break down the factors into smaller and smaller elements leads to an unmanageable number of factors. Worse, measuring those sub-sub-sub factors is not necessarily any easier than measuring higher-level factors like Know-How or Accountability. Even worse, if you do take the approach of summing dozens of sub-sub-factors, instead of increasing confidence, you end with results that are less convincing.

In many kinds of management problems, analysis helps us get started, but quickly becomes a morass. It is like magnifying a picture. A little magnification may help you see more clearly, a lot of magnification just leaves you with meaningless pixels.

What is going on?
Analysis assumes that a thing is composed of parts, and the parts are made of smaller parts, which are made of smaller parts still. This is not always true (some might say it is almost never true). Since we do not want to dive deeply into philosophy, we can stop at the point of saying that, practically speaking, many management problems are by their nature not amenable to being broken down into parts. For these kinds of problems, we can usually make some progress by attempting to decompose the problem into parts, but need to know when to stop. We need to recognize that the approach is just a useful way to get our heads around something complicated, not something that reveals a deeper truth.

Getting a handle on job size and other management issues can be much like assessing how good a rock band is.  We can try to break down a band’s performance into parts like originality, stage presence, danceability and whatever.  However, while some of this analysis can be helpful, in the end we really need to listen to the band, and judge the experience as a whole.

Back to Job Evaluation
Dr Bob Sanderson, one of the world’s leading experts on job evaluation always said that job size was one thing, it was not comprised of parts. The Hay factors provide a useful starting point, especially for novices, however experienced job evaluators could  go right to a final size; saying “That’s a 702 point job”.

Sanderson also said that you could only really understand job size by comparing one job to another. Job evaluation is an exercise in ranking from big to small. It is easy for the manager of a department to compare two jobs they know well and say which is bigger. It is much harder to compare that job to some words on a page meant to indicate size. Trying to tune those words so that they can stand on their own, without the need to compare one real job to another real job, is a fool’s errand—something that would not have surprised a philosopher like Wittgenstein.

What To Do
We too often assume that analysis is the right way to proceed and that more analysis is always better than less. Engineers and MBAs are especially susceptible to this misunderstanding. In many cases it is not true that the answer lies in analysis. It is not true because the assumption that the issue is made up of independent parts is false. When dealing with holistic problems the so-called sub-factors are not actually parts, they are points of view. We can say “What does this job look like from the perspective of know-how? What does it look like from the perspective of accountability?” That is a subtly, but important for anyone serious about understanding management problems.

HR needs to avoid going down the rat hole of endless analysis and be comfortable with using informed judgement to compare one whole to another.  You can only do this if you understand the thing itself (the job, the rock band) very well.  Job evaluation experts have thought hard about thousands of jobs; through that they develop good judgement.  There is no analytical tool which can substitute for that kind of experience.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com.

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