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Jun 9, 2014

Big Data interest rising in HR

Lots of interest doesn't necessarily translate into useful action.

By Dave Crisp

Judging by the number of conferences and seminars targeting HR execs and others, you have to believe Big Data and analytics may be making inroads in HR areas.

Or do you? Is it all talk?

Another sign, showing it’s real for some — at least one major HR ad appeared widely online in the past weeks for a “Senior Data Quality Partner” for a school board near Washington, D.C.. The position offered “the responsibility for transforming Human Resources capacity as a data-driven organization.” It "provides oversight, managerial leadership and support to the data quality team and sets the vision and priorities around data quality and data management programs, data collection, analyses, and reporting. The Senior Partner leads the effort to build the use of data as an integral and embedded component of the overall Human Resources culture.”

Not many such ads have been common, so far as I know. Does your organization have such a role?

The reference to managing a “data quality team” certainly suggests an emphasis on overall HR analytics on a broad scale, something few organizations seem to have embraced so far. It’s likely Big Data will take big co-ordination and big teamwork to truly deliver value across whole organizations. At least in the short term someone will need to do (and pay for) significant R&D. Of course when 98 per cent of businesses aren’t big, we will hear a lot of concern that such techniques can’t be implemented except where major resources are dedicated, but I think that will prove false in the long run once the basic ingredients are well understood and can be either copied or adapted.

Right now everyone is starting to puzzle over how and where to apply Big Data approaches. The good news is some findings will be widely applicable without every organization reinventing the math. We know from brain research, for instance, that people can’t multitask in the true sense of actually doing multiple things simultaneously (we can switch back and forth quickly, but we miss things and overall efficiency on any of the tasks drops by as much as half or more). We don’t have to test every brain and every type of task to know this is true of virtually all of us, in all organizations. Though, yes, there always is a possibility of exceptions, just as we may find an odd person here or there with a truly photographic memory.

In the HR Big Data realm, Google’s basic statistical proofs of what makes effective leaders and how to train people to wield those skills are pretty universal (try googling Project Oxygen). There may be details worth discovering within each skill set that can be tailored to specific organizations, but most could probably be worked out knowing the overall principles that the research confirmed.

Google’s leadership study is, of course, only one of potentially millions of possible projects or questions we hope Big Data can eventually answer. Every organization will have some unique questions and, even though quite a few will be similar, there will be requirements to test some items via data on a regular basis specific to your own operations. Hence the skills for this are increasingly necessary and still somewhat a critical puzzle.

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) offered some insights from their experiences advising in this area. It’s important to note their high level "must haves" deal more with people issues than math:

1. identifying opportunities
2. building trust (for information sharing)
3. laying the technical foundation
4. shaping the organization (since much of the capability will be outside or beyond single business units)
5. participating in a Big Data ecosystem
6. making relationships work.

Of all six, only number three is technical more than people oriented. Unfortunately the technical skills involved often scare people away from tackling big data projects when, in fact, the people issues are far more challenging. Even when senior executives realize they can hire numbers analysts, many seem afraid to do so — perhaps fearing they will not understand and won’t be able to guide, set objectives and manage such tech experts.

As with all leadership tasks, developing the skills for analyzing Big Data in useful ways is a leap into the unknown. Facing down the unknown is the core of leadership — managing risk, but taking it nonetheless — or nothing will advance beyond what we already know how to do. While all executives think they have leadership skills, many don’t — especially missing are those that enable leaps into uncertain, mistake-prone territory.

Until the path to effective analytics is well-paved and proven, with numerous examples to copy in each industry, it is likely this challenge will remain beyond most operations and organizations. It requires integrating the work of teams from many different disciplines and areas... and that is the new leadership challenge in a nutshell.

So don’t expect big results from Big Data to be widespread. But recognize this does represent an area in which organizations that lead in mastering it can gain significant competitive advantages in better results, lower costs and more accurate forecasting with every stakeholder group.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit
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First Things First
Tuesday, June 10, 2014 11:48:00 PM by Dave Crisp
Thanks Ian - and that's just one route toward applications. There are others equally challenging.
First Things First
Tuesday, June 10, 2014 10:22:00 PM by Ian Turnbull
Big Data is way down the road for almost all HR groups. First you need an integrated HR/Payroll/Time system for your own organization.

Then you need a reliable source of comparable metrics that will be available for the foreseeable future.

THEN you need need comparable data, which means that you have to make sure that you can mirror the data from the source of the metrics.

Then you have to do the analysis, communicate it, and develop a plan to act on it.

Along that long and tortuous path you should create data owners and data management guidelines that are rigorously followed (and audited).

NOW you're ready for big data. Good luck!