Industry Trends

Data Alone Won’t Help HR Professionals Do Their Jobs Better

data-people analyticsWith the perpetual influx of technology and automation, it feels as if human resources, like many other professions, is at an impasse between the way we used to make decisions — the art of our profession — and technology-enabled decision making (IBM Watson or Workday predictive or cognitive analytics, for example).

Some in the profession likely fear that “robots” will take over, and that automation will result in obsolescence. To that end, we’re now seeing the use of advanced technology in the medical field, but care and treatment has never been better. Have all medical professionals embraced this? No. But are the ones that have embraced it excelling? Certainly. Closer to home, refrigerators now know when we’re out of milk and other foods, and can order those items for us. There are even self-driving cars on the road right now, and some are saying they’re safer than humans drivers are. (Really.)

My views on self-driving cars are still to be determined, but what I do know is that we in HR have to embrace technology in our own way. Automation solutions exist that can let us do our jobs better. We can harness data to help inform our decisions, and let the tools handle manual tasks that bog us down so we’re free to retain our innate human perspective and provide strategic guidance.

To be sure, data and automation has its place. We’ve come a very long way from using soft, anecdotal metrics to make “gut” decisions. For example, in making hiring decisions, there are tools such as trusted interview techniques and methodologies, comprehensive psychometric testing, and historical data on experience and performance.

On a more basic level, there’s also candidate flow: Where do potential employees come from? What lead sources work the best? Which ones aren’t delivering the talent you want? Knowing those answers help you predict where to invest money. If you’re not getting enough candidates from certain sources and you’d like more, you invest more. If the candidates coming from other sources aren’t up to snuff, you cut back. Focusing your time and attention on the sources and activities that matter decreases the time it takes to fill positions and the cost of each hire.

Regarding current employees, data helps you identify high performers and what their development plan is, make investments in those areas and create a perpetuity plan so there’s a “bench” of talent, and so on. You can do predictive analysis using data to gauge tenure and advancement opportunities. Reviewing teams’ overall performance and attrition metrics, trends and themes may reveal themselves, making it easier to predict and, by extension, prevent issues in the future.

And data can also help with operational efficiency: Where is your team spending their time now? This time of year it’s likely on benefits enrollment. An important, but administrative burden. Leveraging automation tools frees up valuable headcount to do more impactful work to benefit the business. Many of the HCM tools available are very user friendly and accessible via the cloud.

Yes, data has its place. But the key to success is a mix of art/trade and science/technology. Data and information is the key, but HR professionals remain the “secret sauce.” We have the insights. We know the organization. We know the culture. We understand the macro issues at the heart of our organizations. We are the ones who build business cases to make informed, data-driven decisions. Or, as Meghan M. Biro wrote on, “People hire people. People work with people. People learn from people. People care about people. This will always be the long game.” So true.

Here’s an analogy: A little over a decade ago, the Red Sox organization used a computer system called Carmine to predict and assess multiple scenarios to identify situations and players, and this helped owners build a team that would go on to win the World Series after an 86-year drought. Sure, knowing the right stats on these players — who got on base more often, who walked vs hitting home runs, etc. — was important. But so was dugout chemistry. The combination of metrics and a perfect mix of personalities (and those beards!) is what pushed the Sox over the top. Without the right people using data to make decisions — or the right coaches to manage — they likely would not have won it all that year, or three years later. (By the way, Carmine later suggested that the Red Sox not execute a landmark trade involving multiple marquee players — a move that helped them secure another World Series title in 2013.)

The time is now for HR to make serious investments in leveraging data to make better people decisions. People analytics is a strategy that has been evolving over the last several years, and it has the potential to change the way HR works. However, many HR organizations appear to be slow in developing the capabilities to take advantage of analytics’ potential.

As we’ve seen time and again, data won’t do the job all by itself. We need people — skilled people — to take information, analyze it and use it to make smarter decisions. That’s how we’ll begin to rethink our role in the business (as Harvard Business Review issue discussed) and make more significant contributions.

The time is now. HR must evolve. We must be informed. We need to make smarter decisions. We need to influence the business. The tools are available. We just need to harness them.

Human Resources Leader, IBM Workday Consulting Services

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