Counting on human resources (Roundtable)

Are executives actually asking for big data – and is HR marketing the ROI?
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/18/2016

When it comes to numbers, is there still a demand for big data — and are executives actually asking for it or is HR marketing the return on investment? Those were the questions asked by Ian Hendry, president of the Strategic Capability Network and vice-president of HR and administration at Interac in Toronto, at a roundtable of senior HR leaders hosted by the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) in Toronto.

It’s a good question when it comes to the C-suite, said Norm Sabapathy, executive vice-president of people at Cadillac Fairview in Toronto.

“I can generate all kinds of people data and insights but if they don’t need it, they don’t care about it and they don’t see how it fits their context, then I think HR can make itself look foolish by trying to demonstrate HR can measure things,” he said. “I try to figure out ‘What is the root cause problem we’re solving? And what specific data will I bring to support a higher quality solution?’”

Cadillac Fairview trains people around being better coaches, for example, and to measure success, rather than evaluating training attendance and satisfaction, it evaluates a cross-section of 100 people every quarter to gauge the frequency and quality of the coaching, from the perspective of the coachee, to see practical results and manage the consequence side of the behaviour they’re seeking, he said.

“The executives are very interested to see this data because it’s actually one of our six company-wide objectives and we’re measuring results in a disciplined and consistent way... and it’s simple, it wasn’t a complex big data exercise… but it was something meaningful in the context of the business outcome we’re looking to achieve.”

HR provides data at Cadillac Fairview to help make better decisions, said Sabapathy. For example, in measuring performance calibration, HR was able to demonstrate a normally distributed pay-performance link, including areas where performance was skewed and where top performers should have been receiving more versus clustering people’s performance around the mean, he said.

“It’s about helping business leaders make better decisions and learn how to self-correct through better data, versus controlling and micro-managing. HR plays an important role here and generates real value for the business.”

Executives are interested in large investments, so they want to see the value they get out of that investment, said Heather Briant, senior vice-president of human resources at Cineplex Entertainment in Toronto.

“They’re also very interested i n data to demonstrate the effectiveness of the leadership pipeline capability.”

Data is part and parcel of critical thinking, said Suanne Nielsen, chief talent officer and corporate secretary at Foresters in Toronto.

“You have to bring data to say, ‘This is going to help the business achieve x by increasing productivity, by doing this, by doing this…’ You have to bring evidence to make proposals.”

Data can be brought to bear to identify problems, said Nielsen. For example, in the old days, an HR consultant would say, “You have a bad leader here” and while intuitively they know that leader is not a good leader, they couldn’t bring evidence to bear, she said. But now they look at issues such as turnover or absenteeism to paint a picture and provide proof.

At RSA Group, HR is having to up its game in terms of its ability to produce business cases and numbers to support its decisions, said Mark Edgar, senior vice-president of HR at RSA Group in Toronto.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘It’s the right thing to do’ or ‘Other people are doing it.’”

But some employers may want to go further, he said, citing as an example one expert who created a monitor employees can wear to track all sorts of things including their body movements and the people they spoke to.

“This guy had all this data to crunch and to correlate it to performance and wellness, and it was pretty out there. He told us it was ‘the next big thing’ and I know some organizations are into that but you need to be pragmatic. At times, I still struggle to get an FTE report — so, like many organizations, we’re not quite ready for that level of insight.”

Data is the equalizer of conversations, said Kim Carter, head of HR at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) in Toronto. 

“(It’s) evidence-based and numbers-driven — you’re not arguing a point, you’re just showing the facts. So I find that my team has been incredibly receptive to it and so when you open the door, they want more … they are just constantly looking for more insightful and meaningful data, not just spinning your wheels, but to improve understanding.”

It’s great if HR is initiating the charge for big data, said Hendry. 

“With HR maturing in terms of its relevancy and importance and bringing to bear evidence of the contribution we’re making, which I think is critical for us… we’ve got to be astute.”

Strategic HR

And when it comes to HR and strategy, do we understand our strengths? asked Hendry.

“How much are we actually providing value from a strategic thinking component? When thinking about talent strategy, how does that link to strategy vis-a-vis refining to different business lines? Can you, for example, present ideas on how your measured organizational competencies can build strategy, leverage strategy?”

It sounds cliché but HR has to be a business person first, said Edgar.

“From there, you can be part of that conversation, regardless of what the topic is, and provide input, and then you’re able to use that to leverage the people element,” he said. “It’s important to have that breadth and that perspective and then you use that to inform what the plans are in terms of people strategy, and that gets into more detail on talent and capability and those sorts of things.”

HR needs to become more agile to respond to the changing needs of the world, said Edgar.

“In reality, it’s quite hard to do because it’s not a burning platform, you can’t show the business the return on investment to do these things and it’s taking too long, whereas if I close this office over here, then I see the benefits of that immediately, which again isn’t a new problem but I think organizations, we and others, are going to have to adapt our culture. Where you don’t get that same level of immediate buy-in from leaders, that can be really hard and it’s probably... the most important thing we should be shifting. If you don’t shift up, then the rest isn’t going to sustain itself anyway.”

It’s hard to marshal resources around shifting a culture, he said.

“That’s often driven when you have a much closer relationship to an end customer who’s going to be demanding different things. In our world, we are on the journey to become more customer-centric and we hope to use that as an enabler to change our culture.”

Sabapathy often reminds business leaders about the value of organizational culture, and while almost all acknowledge it, they don’t always internalize it, he said. So it’s important to educate about how culture enables results and execution.

In looking at customer experience, whether that’s in shopping malls or office buildings, the environment is changing in many ways, such as incorporating concepts around health and wellness in buildings, he said, along with the omni-channel retail experience, with more people shopping online.

“There are many business imperatives but nothing material happens to address them unless you have people with capabilities and behaviours that enable people to address them,” said Sabapathy.

“You can put marketing people in a room and they’ll come up with ideas about the customer experience but it won’t make a difference unless you know how to execute and make things consistently stick. That’s a key area where HR can contribute and I find once I frame it that way, people are all over it and say they need that support. So then HR is front and centre in helping solve a critical business issue; it’s very gratifying.”

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