What is a graph database and how can it benefit human capital management? Amy Hodler examines recent predictions that graph databases will be the basis for a new wave of more human-centric HR systems.
Used in everything from search engines, GPS navigation, to powering social media and in contact tracing applications, graph technology is everywhere. Every time you use a search engine, knowledge graphs are used to enhance the accuracy of your results.
Graph technology became better known when The Panama Papers used the technology to expose financial wrongdoing and misdirection. And graph technology is becoming more useful to business, as data modeled in the form of graph data structures encodes interconnectivity, making it a powerful way to reason about large volumes of highly connected data.
Graph databases efficiently model complex networks of entities and their interrelationships, which is why they are increasingly being employed to make sense of HR relationships. After all, HR teams rely on clear structures to manage reporting processes, authorisations and tasks, and role allocation across an organisation. Having an overview of complex org charts and a flexible framework to respond to change is indispensable.
Insight into personnel structures
The pace of graph technology adoption in HR is set to step up significantly. Global HR analyst Josh Bersin recently singled out graph databases as the basis for a new wave of HCM (human capital management) solutions technology over the next 5-10 years. His latest annual report on HR technology explains why:
“Every individual in the company is no longer a node on the hierarchy. We are each nodes in a network, connected to many other people, projects, information, and history. [Graph databases] are vastly more powerful for modeling how people work in networks, how people search for data and objects, how people communicate and build different types of relationships (peers, team-mates, bosses, subordinates). These products essentially store this information into a graph of the company, which can evolve over time.”
Josh Bersin went on to identify people analytics as the fastest-growing sub-domain of the HR profession – he says 25% of companies are hiring into this role. People analytics means creating an HR database that reflects relationships and roles, not just an org chart, and graph technology is a promising way to achieve that.
New HR tool
The evidence suggests that graph databases are gaining traction. Car maker Daimler uses graph databases to manage its 250,000 employees in multiple locations and across interdisciplinary teams all over the world. The company has built a graph-powered HR platform to provide insight into its personnel structures to diarise and schedule time for project availability.
The graph-based solution manages regular changes in a user-friendly and transparent way. It is able to map personnel structures to provide an overall view or new and deeper perspectives on data as well as to uncover new connections. As Bersin suggests, users can move from node to node in the graph database and quickly traverse the hierarchy network.
This new style of HR graph application also gives the Daimler management deeper insight into the firm’s structure. Often, interesting aspects are visible only through the analysis of relationships at the second and third levels. In the graph database, Daimler reports that users can go deeper into the data structure, gaining new insights into data relationships that are not obvious at first glance.
Understanding skills needs
Another example is from the field of space exploration. NASA needed to build a skills analysis system to cater to the organisation’s fast-changing occupations and work roles. Its HR function wanted to create a database that covered core and adjacent skills, cross-functional skills, training certifications, educational credentials, and career path information. The database also needed to capture where skills are located geographically, and within which programmes and projects.
Acting branch chief of people analytics and senior data scientist David Meza explains more: “As we are trying to get back to the moon and onto Mars, we’ve to not only regenerate the skills we used to get to the Moon before but look at new skills and new programmes and projects and the new technology we have to incorporate to do that. We need to have a good understanding of our workforce to achieve that.”
Using a graph database, NASA project managers and HR specialists can move from node to node, such as ‘employee’ or ‘expertise’, to traverse the skills matrices. The nodes themselves can easily be moved and reoriented without having to change the entire data model, while graph data science algorithms can be applied to extract insight about skills and learning and development trends. As a result, complex data about employees, departments, programmes, locations, skills, career paths can be queried by project managers in real time. The technology contributes to effective succession planning and a strategic alignment model for any project to meet strategic targets.
Summing up, graph technology, whose sine qua non is managing relationships, fits very well with the complex needs of today’s HR. This new wave of HCM applications is one that HR leaders should investigate.