An article in The Guardian the other week made me think. Its central question was “does the Internet make us smarter?” That simple question reveals a host of sub-questions. The answers to these are fundamental to managers in recruiting quality staff.
The Internet’s amazing. It allows anyone to look up anything they need to know. That’s a fact. A tree surgeon can look up the recommended pruning for a Tree of Heaven. A nurse can look up the recommended use of omeprazole. And an electrician can look up how to wire a contactor.
The discussion goes something like this. If the Internet makes us smarter, it matters little what quality of staff managers recruit. These staff just need to be able to use the Internet from wherever they are working. But if the Internet doesn’t make us smarter, the established state prevails: managers still need to select able staff. So here’s the conclusion.
The first sub-question (suggested by the Guardian article) is to ask upon what the ability to excel in a job depends? Is it attitude, like Richard Branson argues? The flaw in his argument is that attitude is a function of context – the firm and its management create attitude. Or is it task-related competence – the thing that allows someone to actually do the job they’ve been hired for – like fly a plane or program a computer? Or is it about something else more abstract?
Boiling it down, it’s about intelligence. In recruiting quality staff, the key criterion is intelligence.
Research suggests that bright people learn new jobs faster than those less able. Intelligent people generally perform better in jobs – that is, any job. That’s generalising but it’s true. On the whole, intelligent people perform better than those less intelligent.
That’s not to say that we need rocket scientists in every job. But the research results are clear. Those more able tend to do better. This implies that for any job, we’d want to select those in the top half of the distribution – those above average in that profession or craft.
The second sub-question is one about the nature of intelligence.
Organisational psychologists – the folk that think about these things – would suggest that intelligence comprises two parts. The first part is fluid intelligence. Fluid intelligence allows us to reason. The second part is crystallised intelligence. Those with higher crystallised intelligence tend to know more and understand more. The good news for those getting older is that crystallised intelligence tends to increase with age – perhaps that’s not surprising. The flipside is that fluid intelligence decreases slightly with age.
We can also look at intelligence another way. It’s the ability to reason with numbers, language and abstract concepts. These three abilities are distinct. Some people can have high verbal and low numeric abilities. And some can have high abstract reasoning but lower ability with numbers and maybe language. Any combination is possible.
So intelligence is not one thing – though organisational psychologists do sum everything up in a single characteristic – termed g – short for General Mental Ability.
So what part does the Internet play in our General Mental Ability? And what relevance does it have for managers?
GMA and The Internet
What’s accessible via the Internet is information? As it is, out there in the Cloud, it’s a load of stuff that is useless until accessed. Staff access this information in the course of their work.
The third sub-question centres on who is accessing this information. Now comes the crunch. If the person accessing the information:
- can understand the context in which they want to use the information; and
- has the intelligence to make the link between that context, the information and the problem; and
- can reason a solution to whatever problem they are addressing; then
- that information becomes knowledge through the cognitive processes in the person’s brain.
Knowledge is useful to a firm. Knowledge is the stuff of competitive advantage. Knowledge can be assimilated by a firm to enable it to transform processes and develop product. Knowledge helps salespeople sell, architects design and doctors cure illness. If one firm has greater ability to generate and assimilate knowledge than another, prospectively they will sell more and generate more profit.
It’s knowledge that allows those three practitioners at the start of this blog to understand and take the correct action.
Knowledge, not information
Information is worth the cost of the paper it’s written on or the disk space it’s stored on. Knowledge, on the other hand, enables a firm to generate profits and is priceless.
So back the main question: does the Internet make us smarter? Does the Internet allow us to generate more profits?
The simple answer is, yes. But that comes with conditions: those processing the information from the Internet must have the intelligence to process if from information to knowledge without error. They must be able to assimilate the information, sifting the useful from the useless and the just-plain-wrong. It must mean something to them in the context of the problem they are addressing.
The higher a person’s abstract reasoning ability and the higher their ability to deal with numbers and language, the greater meaning the Internet information will have.
Recruiting quality staff
So it’s a circular argument. Does the Internet make us smarter? Yes, but only if we’re smart in the first place!
For managers to maximise their competitive advantage they should therefore seek to recruit high aptitude staff. In recruiting quality staff, managers should select people with high abstract, numerical and verbal abilities. Again, this does not mean a rocket scientist in every role. But it does mean that recruits’ intelligence should be in the upper end of the distribution for the job to be done.