Modern society is driven by data, writes Alex Graves. In fact, people create about 1.7 MB of it every second! Used wisely, it has colossal power.

This was recognised by the management theorist, Peter Drucker, who reportedly said, “What gets measured gets improved.” The trick is to understand the value of data, measure the right things and then make sense of it all to inform decisions.

Sadly, HR is lagging in this area. This is a fact recognised by the CIPD. It says too few organisations use HR data and analytics to help inform strategic decisions about how they invest in, manage and develop their workforce to deliver on their business strategyii.

This must change if the profession wants to be taken seriously at a board-level, rather than being seen as a tactical role that hires and fires.

Knowing where to start

The challenge can be knowing where to begin. Especially, if as pointed out, the profession lacks capability. With this in mind, rather than jumping in at the deep end, it’s better to consider what’s at your fingertips.

In terms of where to look, there’s one thing that is nearly ubiquitous in modern businesses: the Microsoft suite of tools. Even the smallest of businesses often have access to it. And the program to focus on is Viva Insights.

It works in three ways. The first is an individual level. It tracks how people use their time: in meetings, on focussed activity, answering emails or communicating in other ways. With this, it can make suggestions directly to employees about the best use of time.

The second is at a managerial level. It collects data for team leaders, offering vital insight into work patterns that might lead to burnout and stress, such as regular after-hours work, meeting overload,or too little focus time. Managers can use this to help teams strike a balance between productivity and wellbeing.

Where it can really help HR teams is the third level, which considers the whole organisation. It can answer critical questions about organisational resilience and work culture. Importantly, it doesn’t just present raw data, it benchmarks it against other businesses in similar industries and gives scores and suggested actions. This is vital as it takes away the need to become an expert in data analysis, overcoming the skills gap in HR.

In short, Viva Insights gathers the data, makes sense of it, and offers solutions to problems. For example, it can see how many staff are getting stuck in meetings, then suggest ways to reduce this. Or how many are getting the right amount of one-to-one time with managers – or not. And how many people experience meeting clashes or even whether employees are experiencing enough cohesion across teams. All with actionable advice on how to improve.

Suddenly, with this data available to HR teams, and the accompanying advice on action to take, HR can step up and help leaders make a tangible difference to the operation of the organisation and support its strategic goals.

Supporting the business

For example, let’s imagine that a business goal is to grow in a market that is booming. The strategy to achieve this might be greater customer-centricity, offering special attention to clients to expand existing accounts. Data can be collected by the HR team to see how much time is allocated to external collaboration with those customers. It might find that only 10 per cent of employees spend 8 or more hours each week doing so.

HR could then find ways to reduce less important meetings – perhaps those longer, larger ones where fewer decisions are made – and provide ways to boost customer interactions. This might include creating VIP lists of key external contacts so when they email, it’s flagged to staff as something to respond to first. Or it could be reminders to schedule time to connect with clients.

When considered like this, it’s easy to see how data, insight and action can help HR teams make a tangible difference to the way the business runs.

Of course, once the floodgates are open, there are a thousand more data sets that can be measured, understood and managed. They can be as simple as headcount and demographics or cost per hire and new-hire turnover. Or employee satisfaction, retention rates, absenteeism and overtime.

HR has a huge opportunity to catch up with other business functions and make use of the huge pools of data available to them. Whether it’s on a small scale, helping certain groups of employees, or an enterprise level, helping entire departments and business units change operations for the better.

Whatever HR chooses to do, one thing is certain: it needs to involve data.

Alex Graves is CEO of Silicon Reef, a collaboration, productivity and wellbeing solutions consultancy