People analytics could “radically change” HR

Randy Knaflic of Jawbone takes an on-stage selfie at the People Analytics conference
Randy Knaflic of Jawbone takes an on-stage selfie at the People Analytics conference.

Will people analytics be an essential part of the skillset for future HR professionals? Michael Carty reports from the Tucana People Analytics conference in London.

“Data and analytics are what’s needed to keep HR ahead of the pack.” This is according to David Green, director at Cielo, who chaired April’s conference in Canary Wharf, London.

While HR analytics may not “go mainstream” in 2015, it will do so over the next few years, argued Green, and the importance of analytics skills for future HR professionals was a key theme throughout the event.

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“The momentum for HR analytics could radically change the skillset of HR and the HR profession of the future,” said Unilever HR director Ben Hawley.

A multi-disciplinary skillset will be essential for future HR professionals, he added. Alongside traditional “domain expertise”, HR professionals will need to demonstrate or develop capabilities in programming, statistics and data visualisation.

Hawley’s objective is to foster a “data-obsessed culture” at Unilever with analytics used to drive business decisions, rather than back them up. He is already looking for candidates with this multi-disciplinary mix of skills for his HR analytics team.

Don’t just do analytics because it’s a big catchphrase. It has to be done with a sense of purpose” – Ben Hawley, Unilever

HR analytics capabilities must complement the profession’s people insights, rather than replace them. “HR needs to get closer to data,” said Neal Barnes from Tullow Oil. “But that doesn’t mean HR people need to become programmers.”

“Everyone in HR should have analysis skills,” agreed Neil Parkinson, senior HR analytics specialist at Diageo. “Everyone can understand and analyse data if they know what they’re looking at. If not, a number’s just a number – it doesn’t tell a story,” he added.

Parkinson sees a need for common ground between HR and data scientists: “We need to enhance the people skills of the analysts and enhance the analysis skills of the ‘people people’.”

HR analytics with purpose

“Don’t just do analytics because it’s a big catchphrase; it has to be done with a sense of purpose,” said Hawley. Successful HR analytics projects tend to be closely aligned to the organisation’s strategic objectives, which produce clear, concise, targeted outputs. “If you don’t land a clear, simple message, you’ll lose the leaders straight away,” he added.

Effective data visualisation can help create HR analytics with purpose. HR analytics reports should “favour simple, elegant design,” advises Randy Knaflic, VP of HR at Silicon Valley tech company Jawbone.

He recommends using simplified chart outputs showing clear “headline” messages in board-level reports, with the full data in the appendix for those who want to delve deeper. Knaflic asks: “Why lose half your audience due to your decision to make it overly complicated?”

Data cleansing is key

A key factor in building an HR analytics culture is ensuring that all departments – not just HR – understand the importance of having clean, high-quality people data.

With HR data, you’re relying on people. And people inherently do dumb stuff” – Randy Knaflic, Jawbone

This can be an uphill struggle for most organisations. “With HR data, you’re relying on people,” said Knaflic, “and people inherently do dumb stuff.” Common stumbling blocks for HR analytics projects include data spread across disparate, incompatible systems, historically inaccurate data and inefficient data processes, in Knaflic’s experience. Data cleansing is needed to ensure information is up-to-date, accurate and accessibly formatted.

Communicating the importance of data cleansing is a “chicken-and-egg” situation, says Parkinson. He has encountered recruiters who could not see the point of inputting clean data as what they were getting out was of no use to them.

To overcome this, Parkinson recommends booking a meeting with the department in question, and using data report templates to show the outputs generated by uncleaned data. “Bad data’s great” in this context, he says, as it immediately shows the consequences of poor data management. “Once you can see the impact of data cleansing on you, you start to take ownership of it.”

Once data has been cleaned and used effectively in HR analytics reports, then “implicitly you’ve built credibility for HR,” said Oliver Britnell, global head of workforce analytics at Experian. HR can then build on this credibility by altering its fundamental approach to HR analytics: “Move from a ‘you say, we do’ mindset to one that is challenging, proactive and disruptive,” he added.

Wearable technology and HR analytics

The conference also looked at cutting-edge practice in HR analytics and the insights it can reveal.

Knaflic described how Jawbone has taken a lead from elite US sports teams in exploring how wearable technology can help identify and promote the behaviours associated with top performance. Jawbone issues staff participating in its wellness initiative with the wristband devices that it manufactures to track their lives around the clock, including data on movement and sleep quality and quantity.

Participants can also update a digital “mood board” that tracks how they are feeling throughout the day. Knaflic emphasises that the wellness initiative is opt-in, and that all data outputs are anonymised. No reports are generated on groups of fewer than five employees.

Upcoming conference
HR Change & Transformation
13-14 October 2015, London

Jawbone’s wellness initiative is already generating useful data on the behavioural patterns of its teams. For example, if productivity is found to drop at specific times of the day when physical activity is low, staff may be encouraged to reinvigorate themselves by undertaking light physical exercise at these times.

The speakers at the People Analytics conference have no doubt that HR analytics will continue to evolve, and that its value to the organisation can only increase. As Unilever’s Ben Hawley puts it: “The job of HR analytics will never be finished.”

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