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Q&A with John Sumser: How DNA Sequencing, Big Data Will Change Who We Hire — and How We Think About HR

Cornerstone Editors

Technology can be overwhelming. It can also be enlightening. Take the fact that women earn less than men. That's true, but the glass ceiling isn't to blame, says John Sumser, editor-in-chief of HRExaminer Online Magazine and a principal of Two Color Hat, an HR advisory firm. Here, Sumser describes how technology is challenging HR to think differently about common assumptions — and how it will inevitably impact who gets hired and why.

Why do we feel so overwhelmed by technology?

Eric Schmidt [Google's executive chairman] once said, "Every two days we create as much data as we did from the dawn of civilization to 2003." People want to make the most of the technology, but can’t make sense of it all. For example, most people download 40 apps for their smartphones, but only use five of them. Plus most people have smartphones that are more powerful than the technology that put the man on the moon.

Technology is becoming more powerful than the human brain. What does this mean for recruiting?

HR has to be able to tell the difference between a person and a machine. If I come to work for you with my iPhone and all the latest business analysis tools, I can use that data at my fingertips. But what about the guy from Harvard with a 4.0 who doesn’t have all those tools? How can you tell in a world where the real advantage is access to information, not educational credentials, who is the more valuable hire? You can’t tell the difference between me and my phone or me and the data that my computer provides me.

What skills will HR employees need to learn to be able to adapt to the data overload?

People in HR should take four or five advanced statistics classes at MIT, which are online for free. With all of the data comes the requirement that you’re able to understand what it means from a statistical perspective.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the idea that the amount of time people spend at the same job is declining, and we’re moving toward a freelance economy. If you don’t have a college education, statistics show that you’re going to hold your job for about 18 months. That's 73 percent of the population. The other 25 percent, the college educated, have been staying at their jobs longer and longer for the last 25 years. That’s not a freelance economy — that’s an economy where the middle class has been gutted, where the people who don’t have the ability to process information are being penalized, and where the economy is moving from hard goods production to service production.

Here’s one that hits closer to home. The average woman’s salary is 87 cents for every dollar a man makes. What that doesn’t tell you is that the vast majority of that difference is composed of the jobs that are almost exclusively female professions like teaching and social work, where the wage is lower than the median wage for a man in all jobs that men hold. If you go into any workplace in America, there’s not a statistical difference between what men make and women make. The difference is in in the distribution of jobs that women take and men take. You can’t solve that as a workplace issue, even though it sounds like you can if you say, "Women make 87 cents on a man’s dollar."

What’s the most radical change you think HR will experience in the near future?

DNA is going to find its way into the workplace. There’s a genetic snippet of how well you process oxygen, and if you don’t have it, it’s impossible to be a sprinter. Then there’s a gene that the military looks at to select front-line soldiers, called the warrior gene, which controls how long you stay mad about something. The army tries to get people who stay mad for about 12 hours, but if you have someone who stays mad for 12 hours running a candy store, that’s a bad decision. It’s probably against the law to make that decision right now. There’s not a talent management system that I know of that can import and understand genetic data. It’s going to be very interesting, and nothing like people think it’s going to be.

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