Data-based decision-making gone awry

The Yahoo case shows it’s vitally important to ensure you’re reviewing the right information before making a decision

By now you must have heard of the decision by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, to prohibit her employees from working from home. In fact, you’ve probably heard a number of high-profile executives (e.g., even Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group) weigh in on what they thought of banning telecommuting. Some thought it was the right decision; others thought it will mean the end of Yahoo.

It seems everybody has an opinion, and there are many important considerations on both sides. However, all the reviews and comments I’ve read seem to miss what I’d call the central argument.

According to several reports, Ms. Mayer, who is well known for her use of data to guide her decisions, reviewed Yahoo’s VPN (virtual private network) logs to determine how much work people were actually doing. Apparently they weren’t doing enough, according to the logs, hence the ban. No dilly-dallying there.

Having worked a lot of years in high-tech, something just doesn’t sound right to me. Certainly there were sluggards, but for the most part, the problem was not getting people to work eight hours a day. A lot of these folks enjoyed their work. The problem was often getting them to stop after 10 or 12 hours.

Now it would seem to me that a VPN log that could summarize these data collectively would also have them individually. Wouldn’t it make sense to review who was and who wasn’t? One-size-fits-all-management decisions scare the heck out of me.

If you’ve ever been out to Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, you know they have legendary traffic problems. A 20-mile commute can take an hour or more each way. Forcing people to come to the office, just to make sure they’re working, is no trivial demand.

What Mayer is really doing is treating the superstars (there are always some!) like the sluggards. They are not likely to complain, at least not loudly. Nobody wants to look like a troublemaker. Rather, they’ll probably just leave quietly for “better opportunities,” which will include telecommuting.

I can’t help but wonder if the word has gone out at such companies as Google, Intel and others for their employees to approach “good people” they know at Yahoo. There won’t be any job postings or requisitions, but jobs will quietly open for the right people.

The job of thinking

The real issue goes a lot deeper. I wholeheartedly applaud data-based decision making, but it’s vitally important to ensure you’re reviewing the right information.

Not all work is done on a computer! Even programmers may do some of their most valuable work without clicking any keys. There is wonderful software for mind-mapping and storyboarding, but some of the tech giants like to do it with a pencil and paper.

If Pablo Picasso were still alive, would anyone tell him his paintings were worth less because they weren’t done on a computer?

Regardless of the job, thinking is the most important and valuable work anyone does. A programmer can spend days conceptually developing a solution without even turning on a computer. Does that mean he or she is not working?

I get some of my best ideas, including the idea for this article, swimming laps in a pool at 5:30 in the morning. I’ve told people who worked for me and were struggling with a problem to take a nice long walk outside the building. It never fails. Somehow they come back with a fresh idea, which usually proves to work.

Which finally brings me to the heart of the matter: I would be far less concerned with how long people seem to be working than with what they are producing. Isn’t that what we really want? Where are the best and most innovative solutions coming from? Did anyone discuss or review those data, or was it just the VPN logs?

I have no idea how much Yahoo pays Ms. Mayer to make such decisions, but I know a number of people who might be able to consider more variables for a lot less.

Ronald J. Bourque, a consultant and speaker from Windham, has had engagements throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He can be reached at 603-898-1871 or