Alistair Shepherd: Stop looking at individuals and start looking at teams

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Stop looking at individuals and start looking at teamsHR analytics – the collection and analysis of data on employees – offers a genuine opportunity to understand our workforces better. Not only trends and sentiment but also a better understanding of how work actually gets done and where productivity comes from in the messy day to day. That makes HR more effective than ever at improving the way work gets done, and hopefully making HR more important to business rather than ‘just a cost function’.

I believe that the biggest promise of HR analytics is that it means we can stop looking only at individuals and start looking at teams – it’s the interactions between people that determine productivity gains or losses. In many workplaces, objectives are not only more easily achieved by teams but they actually require teams in order to be achieved. HR analytics, if applied correctly, can help us understand teamwork in ways we’ve never been able to before.

Effective collaboration is at the core of business and economies but our systems are designed for individuals. Technology is increasingly designed to automate away meaningful human interaction rather than promote it. To quote MIT professor Edgar Schein: “We have built our system on individual performance. The result of the cultural bias is that most leaders are shockingly incompetent in running meetings or creating teams. Yet they depend on teamwork.” As a consequence, organisational change initiatives rarely succeed and traditional performance management systems fail to improve performance.

Teamwork wins Nobel Prizes

A good example of teams becoming more important in solving today’s challenges is the Nobel Prize. In almost every category the prize is being increasingly awarded to teams rather than individuals and the size of the team is increasing. For businesses to out compete their competition teams are going to become an increasingly important unit of performance. Teams are interesting for two key reasons. Firstly because the dynamics of teams have a huge impact on performance outcomes and, secondly, because social dynamics have a huge impact on the health and wellbeing or individuals. Alex Pentland of MIT has published compelling research showing that communication patterns between individuals in a team – that is who you talk to, how often and your body language or how you speak to them – accounts for more than 50 per cent of the variance in team performance. That is to say that team dynamics are more important than all other factors combined. A synthesised summary of Pentlands findings is that the more communication that happens and the more evenly it is distributed across the network the better. Put simply, the more people talk and the more everyone gets an equal share of the conversation the better. If this is so important it’s understandable that the temptation for the HR analytics community is to want to capture communication pattern data and analyse it. The problem with this is twofold. First, it’s invasive. Employees increasingly mistrust systems designed to monitor them. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it’s very difficult to directly influence communication patterns within teams.

Making conversations happen

When designing interventions intended to change employee behaviour it’s important to have the right goal in mind. In the case of communication patterns, it’s not a particular pattern that we should be aiming for – we should instead focus our efforts on how easy it is for good patterns to emerge. In this case HR analytics should focus on making it easy for people to talk to each other. Success here would be helping conversations that would otherwise not have happened, happen. At Saberr we used CoachBot, a piece of technology designed to help managers improve conversations in their team in the flow of work. We piloted with a global bank, an international consultancy and a global technology company. The teams used CoachBot for approximately 1.3 hours per month and, after six months, they found that on average, performance increased by 22 per cent, employee engagement increased by 12 per cent and psychological safety increased by over 43 per cent. In these cases the HR function becomes most useful when it uses the data to help people have better conversations. Rather than measuring the content of conversations, HR was able to measure themes. Themes like, were conversations mostly focused around celebrations, learnings or improvements. Were conversations happening on a regular cadence or in response to events. This allowed HR to support specific managers who were struggling to make good conversation patterns a reality in their team.

When applied correctly HR analytics holds great promise. It’s more than just unparalleled business performance. It is about giving people the skills needed for productive social dynamics. Skills that transcend the workplace into home and community life. When new technologies like AI are used to aid human interaction rather than replace it. When technology is used to encourage and develop social skills, rather than automate away the need to exercise them then the future of the workplace is bright.

Interested in HR Analytics? We recommend Mission Critical HR Analytics Summit 2019.

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About Alistair Shepherd

An aerospace engineer turned entrepreneur, Alistair Shepherd founded Saberr following his research at Harvard University looking at why relationships were at the heard of many start-up failures. Shepherd founded Saberr on the belief that systems thinking in engineering could also be applied to human systems. Saberr creates software to help managers improve teamwork. Combining cutting edge technology with the best of human expertise it helps managers design and coach teams to perform at their best.

Shepherd is also a global scholar of the Ewing Marion Kauffman foundation and a visiting lecturer at the Universities of Bristol, Southampton and Turin. He is a regular speaker at people analytics and HR events.

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