Elaine Mahon: People analytics as a basis for workplace decision making

HR Analytics Special Edition articles“If we always do what we always did, we will always get what we always got….” words of advice I received some years ago which now chime with poignancy given the changing ask of any HR department.

HR professionals are being called to action, and more and more are being asked to deliver insightful contributions and influence business decisions. With senior leaders demonstrating an increased appreciation of people as enablers of organisational effectiveness, the seat at the top table is being made available for the experts that can help leaders leverage this asset. One exciting way this is in demand, is through the use of people analytics, where predictive, empirically based evidence provides a firm foundation for decision-making.

But what is People Analytics? A plethora of definitions exist which attempt to describe it, but it is probably best understood in terms of its impact. People Analytics delivers actionable and relevant insight that, when acted upon, elicits positive change in an organisation and its people. Understanding the attitudes and behaviours of the people that deliver your business will dictate how that business could be led in a tailored way that elicits, nurtures and maintains a happier and more productive workforce, thus delivering higher organisational performance. It requires a range of skills, from stakeholder management and robust data governance, to business intel and business focused outcomes, achieved through strong data science and statistical techniques coupled with an understanding of the psychology of human behaviour. This unique set of skills prepares a People Analytics function to enable senior leaders to leverage human capital and social capital.

Findings in a recent CIPD report – People Analytics: Driving business performance with people data –  suggest that getting this right is not as simple as it sounds. It found that in the UK, confidence in delivering such a service in HR is far lower than in other countries. This is in part due to the lack of confidence in data quality but also a possible reticence to take a leap of faith and invest fully in the right skills. In an area which is already relatively infant, in a country which lacks confidence in executing it, the journey to successful people analytics may seem too hard to climb. Here are a number of hurdles shared by HR departments which must be overcome to deliver effective insight:

Navigating the unknown

For many this will either be a relatively new space in which to be operating. Although data, facts and figures are cited by CIPD – HR Outlook Winter 2017- as being used regularly as a form of evidence in many organisations, analysis and insights into people and organisational connectivity are a different matter. Past patterns and trends act as the foundation for workforce reporting, but the real value comes when carrying out analysis that investigates root causes of issues, statistically draws inferences and highlights where targeted activity is required. Identifying and tracking talented individuals is a must for any organisation who wishes to excel, but predicting this group’s likely performance levels in a person-centred manner, taking individual differences and environmental influences into account will propel them forward and ensure real opportunity for organisational excellence. Make the unknown known, by aligning all analytical projects to strategic business outcomes. Deliver value by being curious, asking questions and testing links.

Attracting the right talent

Aligning analysis to business strategy alone will not deliver value. HR faces the challenge of finding and applying the skills necessary to deliver analytical insights. Although a People Analytics module is becoming increasingly commonplace on Business Management and HR university courses, we must question the degree to which this will deliver people with the right skills into the profession. Is the focus on human and social capital, or is it on strong data science and statistical capability? The answer is: it must rely on both. However, rhetoric on the people analytics conference scene more recently suggests that organisations face difficulty in attracting this latter skill partly due to a perceived reliance on intuition and judgement in HR decision making, and less emphasis on analytical integrity. By working in partnership, this can be overcome. If you are lucky enough to possess this skill inside your organisation, partner internally or externally to deliver a small but provocative insight. Fix your project to something that keeps senior leaders awake at night. Perhaps the CEO has been struggling to measure whether the right calibre of people are being recruited. Test this, dis/prove it, and provide recommendations for action. Alter the reputation of HR insights in your organisation to attract analysts with the right skills that will deliver sustainable, mature analytical findings.

Unstructured analysis-limiting data sets

So you have identified what is important to you, sourced the skill to investigate it, only to find unstructured or incomplete data sets put blockers in your way. A large challenge faced relates to the quality of data held on central HR systems and data warehouses, and the confidence a user can have in it. At times, organisations have no data to work with. However, this is less common and instead, it is often only parts of data sets or topic areas that lack. For example, there could be a myriad of data sources that could be analysed to determine employee inclusivity and well-being, ranging from absence records to flexible working arrangements, attitudinal employee satisfaction surveys to line manager capability assessments, organisational culture surveys to data from corporate communications systems. But data on provision, take-up and effectiveness of learning interventions that enhance career development is vacant. Identify those gaps, and prioritise according to their importance in delivering strategic decision making. Then design data collection methods that will provide this information in the future. Robust statistical skill is essential when dealing with unstructured data sets, such as free text comments from employee engagement surveys. Being able to apply statistical rigour to analysis of attitudes from employees in a person-centred manner will deliver the highest maturity of insight, and when put into action, sustainably better organisational outcomes because the action is based on what really matters to the people.

The world of People Analytics is ever expanding, and without doubt technology and skills will continue to enable it. HR practitioners need to stay ahead of the game, and grasp every opportunity to enable organisational effectiveness. If statistical rigour and data science are fast becoming staple skills in HR departments worldwide presently, imagine the future power HR could have with machine learning and artificial intelligence. HR needs to do things differently. People Analytics is that difference. Analytical capability in HR is the pivotal skill that will influence to deliver success in business through the people.

Elaine will be presenting on her analytics journey at the ONS at the Mission Critical HR Analytics Conference in London on 5 September 2018, alongside other analytics leaders from NHS England, McKinsey & Company, Citi Group and more. Please see the conference website for a full programme and how to book tickets.

 

Mission Critical HR Analytics

About Elaine Mahon

Having completed a Masters in Occupational Psychology, and gaining CIPD accreditation, Elaine is passionate about the development of people within organisations. In both the healthcare sector and in the capacity of an HR professional, she has spent seven years applying psychological theory to practice, while more recently her focus has been on the use of data analytics to drive initiatives forward and enable a high performing organisational culture.

In her current role, Elaine leads a team that conducts advanced analysis of internal people data which is paving the road to enhanced decision making. The team undertakes predictive analysis on a range of people factors, such as employee engagement, performance, attendance and more to inform prescriptive interventions that enable more focussed leadership, particularly during times of change.

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