These days data is front-page news. It’s use—and misuse—has precipitated a host of corporate crises. In many of these stories, data is being demonized. But data, per se, isn’t bad or good; it’s what people do with it that matters.
We live in an era of digital technology, in which more and more of what we do generates data. A few years ago, IBM estimated that we were creating 2.5 quintillion bytes of data daily, and that something like 90 percent of all the data in the world created in the prior two years alone. The data we generate is collected, analyzed, and served back to us constantly, whether we realize it or not.
Companies and individuals must become masters of data or they may risk being mastered by it. And to master data, companies and individuals need to be mindful. What data will be collected? How can they ensure its accuracy? Who will collect it? Where, when, why, how, and for what purpose will it be used? Where will the data go? Who will have access to it? What privacy and security controls will protect it?
If that seems like a lot of questions, well, it is. We need to be active stewards of our data. We need to actively seek insights from it. We need to use those insights in positive, productive ways that drive organizational and personal value. The headlines tell us that these tasks shouldn’t be left unaddressed—especially when it comes to our people.
The HR Function Needs to Build Data Muscle
One finding rings out clearly in Bersin’s High-Impact People Analytics study: Companies that are proactively building an organizational muscle around people data and analytics are getting ahead.
Some corporate functions, like marketing, are already well along in the data and analytics race. But the typical HR department is not nearly as evolved. Our study revealed that only two percent of companies surveyed have a fully mature (Level Four) people analytics capability; meanwhile 83 percent of companies are operating at Levels One and Two.
The people side of business must become more data-driven and evidence-based. Data can and should inform decisions around performance, people, and talent, if for no other reason than the fact that relying on tradition and prior experience are neither sufficient nor prudent in today’s digital world.
When we explore how the HR departments in high-performing companies are gaining the most leverage from data and analytics, we find that they tend to focus on:
- Monitoring, not measuring: High-performing companies tap many data channels to better understand how employees are performing—on a continuous basis. As a result, they can intervene and support employees far faster than companies that compile data, measure results, and then, react after the fact.
- Business outcomes, not “busy” metrics: High-performing companies are accessing and interweaving data from disparate sources to address real-world business challenges—challenges that often span organizational silos. They are using data and analytics to enhance overall employee performance and business objectives, as opposed to narrowly focusing their efforts on functional goals, such as learning program enrollments and completions.
- Building data muscle, as well as exercising it: Finally, high-performing companies are continually building their data and analytics capability. Indeed, ongoing advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are enabling predictive modeling and always-on telemetry that helps HR enhance performance, engagement, and wellness at the individual, team, and organizational levels.
HR Practitioners Need Data Skills, Too
As HR departments seek to develop their data and analytics capabilities, they usually create core people analytics teams staffed with data scientists. But a team of experts isn’t enough to surface and apply the insights derived from data across a large company. To be able to achieve that, the ability to use data and analytics to drive performance must be distributed across the HR organization (and eventually, across the company as a whole).
The problem is that most HR professionals are not fully familiar with data and analytics yet. Our research reveals that the HR practitioners in nearly 60 percent of companies do not have basic data literacy skills.
HR practitioners need to know how to manipulate and interpret data, to dig out the insights hidden within it, and perhaps most importantly of all, explain the insights in ways that compel people to put them to work. To help HR practitioners develop this ability, companies can take these five actions:
- Keep their eyes on the prize. Ensure that practitioners shift their focus from learning and development goals to business goals, such as employee performance improvement and the creation of business value.
- Start now with the resources at hand. Most companies already have a host of educational materials designed to help employees improve their data literacy. Use what’s at hand, but distill it into a form that matches the needs and contexts of HR.
- Make data and analytics education interesting and accessible: To help make data and analytics education engaging, explain how it links to the current roles and future prospects of HR practitioners, and deliver it in easy-to-grasp, entertaining ways.
- Enlist the core analytics team: The experts on the core data and analytics team come from varied backgrounds and their skills complement each other, but often do not overlap. So, first, ensure that they all fully understand the big picture, and then, enlist their help in upskilling the rest of the HR staff.
- Link learning to real challenges: Look for opportunities to integrate data and analytics education with actual business problems and opportunities. HR practitioners cannot improve their skills without actually using them.
It’s clear that the ways and means of data warrent careful consideration. But we are already using data and analytics to make decisions in Finance, Marketing, Logistics, and other corporate functions, and we should also use them to make better, more timely decisions in the people side of business, as well. Companies that do will find the effort well worth it.
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