“Some HR people are deliberately undermining analytics initiatives, politically. Not in a passive, but in an active way, they setting themselves up to fail.” Nick Holley
Strong words from Nick Holley, co-director of Henley Centre for HR Excellence, but HR analytics and big data are provoking strong reactions among HR professionals. The quick march towards analytics and big data has left some HR professionals worried that they lack the skills and experience to hack it in this new-look HR department. As Holley explains:
Too many HR people have based their careers on having gut instinct, experience and relationships and they are worried that this will disintermediate them and the profession will be based on things they are not good at.
Their fears are “total rubbish” maintains Holley. Rather than robbing them of using their chance to use their instincts, he believes it will actually make their intuition more important. Keen instincts are needed to ask the right questions of the data and to interpret it correctly. Far from being a threat, Holley points out that:
Analysis is the greatest opportunity HR has ever had to be relevant. It’s game changing with enormous potential.
It’s game changing because it offers up HR the opportunity to become a strategic player in the boardroom, to contribute commercially and ultimately to drive profits.
Don’t do HR
Holley is quite clear that the role of HR is not to do HR, but to help their organization reach its strategic objectives. Talking to CEO’s about what they would like from HR, Holley has found:
What they want HR to do is be a corporate director and someone who is contributing not just from HR but the broader perspective. Exploiting technology seems a really easy way to do that, but they are a bit intimidated by technology.
Alongside a general fear of technology in some HR quarters, there are other barriers to the uptake of analytics by HR professionals, in particular, that HR can be too inward-facing, focusing on gaining insights into data with little relevance to those beyond HR’s walls. Holley elaborates:
The problem is that all the data is internal to HR. What business wants to hear about are things that will improve productivity and performance.
All too often, HR people will produce dashboards of information for the board, but not necessarily the kind of insights that chief executives can directly apply to improving business profits or present to shareholders. Holley illustrates this idea with the story of a guy found scrabbling under a street light at night, looking for his car keys. Asked if this was where he dropped his car keys, the guy says no, they are over in the dark, but this is where the light is, so I’ll look here.
HR people will shine the light on areas such as absence or diversity levels, simply because that data is easy to come by. Research from Bersin by Deloitte finds that only 4% of large organizations can predict or model their workforce, yet more than 90% can model and predict their budgets or financial results. Too often, HR analysis is historically based rather than helping the business look forward. The result, says Holley, is that:
People end up looking in the data they have for insights that simply aren’t there or people don’t care about.
Crossing the continuum
Holley sees analytics in a continuum. On one side is data; on far side is the business problem. Information, analysis, insight and action link the two extremes.
The organizations that do well are those that begin with the business problem and then search for the data they need to solve that problem. All too often, HR starts at other end of the continuum. And as Holley points out:
If you start with the data you lose connection with the business.
Exploiting analytics and big data doesn’t mean HR need to become technologists or statisticians, they just need a broad understanding of what they can do. Like many HR professionals, analytics experts may not be commercially minded, so it’s up to HR people to ask the right questions and have the confidence to challenge assumptions. Holley suggests that HR’s role is to act as a “broker” and make the commercial connection between the analytics experts and what the business needs.
Even those convinced of the power of analytics may be daunted by the size of the task. Holley advises against falling down the big data hole and spending millions on data cleansing. Boiling the ocean will just get you the sack. Instead, he charges:
Start small. Don’t even think about the concept of big data. Think about small data. Come up with a hypothesis, engage analytics people – often found in finance and marketing. Generate some insight. Present it the company in the manner: here’s the issue and here’s the solution. Don’t present the issue without a solution.
Analytics presents HR with its best opportunity to impact the business and break free from its silo mentality. But, ironically, for a self-professed people business, it’s the people aspect that could potentially derail early analytics efforts. But the bottom line is that HR people need to wake up and smell the coffee if they want to survive.