A Discussion with Declan Dagger: CEO and President of EmpowerTheUser

The past two months, I’ve been on a "content generation bender", trying to get both ChangeAgent LLC and up and running. Being an entrepreneur looks glamorous, but there are a lot of 24-hour days, sleepless nights and doubt you have to fight against. Questions like “what if I fail” and “is it worth it” have popped into my head more than once.

The answers to those questions are clear to me. I won’t fail. And absolutely, yes, dedicating myself to this path is worth it. Unapologetic optimism is key, and having an amazing support group to keep you focused is imperative. There have been highs and lows, but one thing that has reassured me that I’m on the right track has been the discussions I’ve had with fellow entrepreneurs and the conversations that I’ve had with members of the Talent Management community at different conferences and events.

On May 30th, I’ll be attending #BehaviorConf19. This is an invite-only event for leaders working in and for Learning, Talent Management, and Human Resources. At BehaviorConf19, we’ll be looking at ways to optimize behavior and maximize performance while taking a 360 degree look at how this goes wrong and the insights and best practices needed to get it right the first time. There will be an incredible cast of characters in attendance, including Marie Casarella, Patricia Equaro, Brenda Sugrue, Detlef Hold, Rayellen Smith, Eric Mingorance, David DeFilippo and Dan Lovely.

I’m very much looking forward to meeting everyone in attendance. The amount of knowledge and experience between the participants at this conference is very impressive. But there is one person in particular that I’m looking forward to meeting the most. A fellow entrepreneur, who recently took the time out of his day to speak with me over the phone and reassured me that the ups and downs that come with this choice are worth it: Declan Dagger.

My story of entrepreneurship begins at the University of Pennsylvania where I’ve been working with some of the brightest minds in Organizational Dynamics. Declan’s journey (and that of EmpowerTheUser) started in a very similar way; with some of the brightest minds in Adaptive Learning on the beautiful campus of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

ETU started as a joint research partnership with Intel. Co-founders Dr. Declan Dagger and Professor Vincent Wade began researching and developing the first Adaptive eLearning systems in the world; shifting from one-size fits all didactic teaching to adapt the pace, content and style of teaching to the preferences of the individual learner.

Early studies demonstrated significant increases in learner engagement and satisfaction, however Declan and his co-founders wanted to demonstrate performance improvement. For that they needed something more immersive, more active; they needed simulation.

Partnering with co-founders, Professor Michael Gill and Dr. Brian Fitzmaurice, the four colleagues pivoted into adaptive simulations. Their longitudinal impact studies showcased that they had created immersive environments that supported “learning by doing” and provided a unique capability of accurately measuring and predicting performance. From there, EmpowerTheUser was born and today they continue their mission to transform how organizations select, manage, and develop their talent.

During my talk with Declan, he mentioned that at Behaviorconf19, he’s hoping to really dive into the details about the problems that HR professionals are facing today around meaningful metrics. Which ones don’t really matter, and which ones are truly important? He mentioned that the fallout of decisions made from inaccurate or misinformed data is costly at best and apocalyptic at their worst.   He wants this event to be an active engagement between all the participants so that we can come together and draft a white paper on how to move the needle moving forward. There will be some strong debate and discussion around this topic, and I for one, am looking forward to it.

I spent 17 years in corporate as a stakeholder to Human Resources and I have questions around behaviors that I believe are a direct result of paying attention to the wrong metrics. I’m also not sure if this is on the agenda, but I’d really like to get into a philosophical discussion on the pros and cons of having resume screening systems that may save time and effort, but may also block hiring managers from having access to game-changing talent from backgrounds that don’t necessarily fit a set of non-critical job qualifications. I often like to pose the following scenario to people who are in favor of using these types of systems:

Imagine it’s 1992 and Jeff Bezos just realized that he wasn’t convinced about a career in finance. This new e-commerce thing seemed like the future and he wants to explore it. He sees a job posting on for a position at a new e-commerce company. He applies, but this particular company is using a system that screens resumes and rejects candidates who don’t fit the job qualifications 100%. Jeff gets a rejection letter. He then goes on to found in 1994. The company that he applied at now has lost billions in potential revenue due to the creation of a mega-competitor, can’t compete, and files for bankruptcy in 2008.

Was the system that rejected Jeff Bezos’s application put in place to improve time-to-hire? Was it put in place to improve on the New Hire Failure Rate? Was the job posted on-line because of corporate policy when they already had an internal candidate in mind? What was the metric or policy that fueled that change, and was it worth it in the long run? Now, I know this is an extreme example, not every person is Jeff Bezos, and that it’s incredibly difficult for people to personally review and have 1:1 discussions with every candidate. I pose this scenario to you so that we can take a moment to pause and think about our behaviors and the metrics/policies that motivate them.

Declan’s hope is that we can have these types of hard discussions and come up with some new ideas that might lead to long-term positive changes. The plan is to learn from each other, identify best practices, or even innovate in real-time and identify a new solution where we can collectively share our group findings outside of the conference. From there, should any new programs or processes be born, we'll have to find ways to justify them with the appropriate metrics to help us determine a level of success or failure.

I see this as a fantastic opportunity for the "people" who are responsible for “people” to come together. Maybe we can fuel a shift towards looking at the metrics that we’re using from the human perspective, and find out which ones truly matter.

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