What Your Browser Says about You That Your GPA Doesn't

Innovation Can't Be Choreographed (From Foundation of Economic Education)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

If you want to hire creative, independent, and innovative people, should you look at candidates' school transcripts, or would it be better to know which web browsers they prefer?

In an interview with the New York Times, Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, said, "One of the things we’ve seen from all our data crunching is that GPAs are worthless" as a criterion for hiring, "and test scores are worthless — no correlation at all."

Google's top HR exec may in fact be understating the problem with grade point averages. Matthew Mayhew, an associate professor of higher education at New York University, studies the relationship between formal education and innovation, and the news isn't good for the A students.

"One of our most interesting findings," Mayhew writes, "was that as GPAs went down, innovation tended to go up." In other words, a student's GPA isn't exactly worthless information: high grades may be a good reason to be wary of a job applicant.

Mayhew, however, is focused on future entrepreneurs — people who, by definition, need to look outside the status quo for opportunities. Shouldn't we still expect academic achievement to correlate with job success in more traditional and well-defined careers?

Customer service and telephone sales reps, for example, are given specific, externally determined goals and even have set scripts to guide them through the moment-to-moment decisions on the phone. These are not jobs we associate with innovation or creativity. They are also jobs with infamously high turnover rates — about 45 percent annually — and each time a phone rep quits, the company needs to pay to recruit and train a replacement.

Cornerstone OnDemand Inc. helps those employers to recruit new workers — and to retain them. Analyzing data on some 50,000 customer service and sales reps who had taken an online assessment as part of their job applications, Cornerstone's researchers failed to find correlations where they were expecting them, including number of jobs in the past five years or the time spent at the last job.

The company's chief analytics officer, Michael Housman, noticed that among the data collected were the web browsers that applicants had used when applying for their jobs. Housman found that people who took the test on a non-default browser, such as Firefox or Chrome, ended up staying at their jobs about 15 percent longer than those who stuck with whatever browser had come preinstalled on their computers. They were also 19 percent less likely to miss work than were the users of default web browsers. They had higher sales, their call times were shorter, and their customers were happier, according to Cornerstone's data crunching.

How could years of hard-earned grades be worthless while the browser used in a short online test turns out to be meaningful?

"Academic environments are artificial environments," Google's Bock told theTimes.

People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, [and] they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. One of my own frustrations when I was in college and grad school is that you knew the professor was looking for a specific answer. …

You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.

But call centers are also artificial environments, as are most workplaces. Shouldn't school grades indicate, if nothing else, an applicant's ability to learn the relevant skills for employment?

When he learned of Cornerstone's research results, Wharton business professor Adam Grant suspected that choosing to install and use a non-default web browser might indicate a greater degree of technical learning. He asked Housman to revisit the data to look into successful workers' tech savvy. But proficiency with computers wasn't the answer either.

What made the difference was not the choice of browser or the technical acumen needed to override your computer's default apps. Rather, it's what overriding the defaults says about your personality.

"Instead of accepting the default," Grant writes in his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, "you take a bit of initiative to seek out an option that might be better. And that act of initiative, however tiny, is a window into what you do at work."

Almost two thirds of the customer service agents used the pre-installed browsers, and they accepted the default conditions at work, too: "They stayed on script in sales calls and followed standard operating procedures for handling customer complaints. They saw their job descriptions as fixed, so when they were unhappy with their work, they started missing days, and eventually just quit."

In contrast, Firefox and Chrome users regularly went off-script and, through trial and error, found better ways to do their jobs. "Having taken the initiative to improve their circumstances, they had little reason to leave," Grant writes.

"Innovation is now recognized as being key to economic growth strategies," writes NYU's Mayhew, and "innovation demands innovators." But Cornerstone's research shows that an innovative personality is the key to success even in jobs that we don't typically think of as creative.

Even though Mayhew found an inverse correlation between GPA and innovation, however, he still thinks higher education "might be uniquely positioned to cultivate a new generation of diverse innovators.… Our work supports efforts by colleges and universities to combine classroom learning with entrepreneurial opportunities and to integrate education with innovation."

In fact, because venture capitalists disproportionately fund white men, Mayhew considers it vital "for higher education to intervene and actively introduce the broadest range of individuals to educational experiences and environments that spur the generation and implementation of new ideas."

This is laudable, but the irony of Mayhew's position is that anything such a broad range of individuals would do to succeed in college or graduate school would, according to his own research, work against their openness to future innovation. Indeed, as Mayhew mentions, innovators are intrinsically motivated— "that is, they are interested in engaging pursuits that are personally meaningful, but might not be immediately rewarded by others." Whereas "grades, by their very nature, tend to reflect the abilities of individuals motivated by receiving external validation for the quality of their efforts."

So for higher education to promote greater creativity and inventiveness, its new mission would be to teach the habits of success to people who shouldn't be aiming for success within higher education, to motivate the sort of individualists who aren't externally motivated, and to somehow make it standard practice to reject standard practices.

Mayhew identifies the teaching philosophies and classroom structures that have the greatest success in cultivating independent thinkers within the current system — focus on problem solving, for example, and closer relationships between students and faculty — but it's hard to see how such strategies can ever become the institutional standard in university education. And if they did become standard, wouldn't that work against their effectiveness in identifying and promoting the habits of innovation, which seem so essentially tied to rejecting established standards?

Once you tell everyone to use Chrome or Firefox, then those browsers become the new default and their use can no longer identify the mavericks.

Formal education, whatever its other benefits, won't produce a new generation of creative thinkers, because the more formal the system of education, the less appeal it will have for the productive nonconformists who drive progress.

Despite what may be educators' best intentions, schools have a built-in disadvantage if the goal is to produce originality. Individualism can't be choreographed.

B.K. Marcus