HR’s relationship with big data


Emily Moore, People Director for Purple Cubed, discusses the need for HR to embrace big data, and where businesses should focus their data efforts

First Google made an infamous prediction of where flu outbreaks would occur, based upon where and when people were searching for flu-related terms.

Then the algorithms of American retail store, Target, discovered a teenage girl was pregnant; sending her maternity coupons, which her dad was less than impressed with, until he realised Target’s promotional mailing was right…

Big Data has been navigating the news and business agenda without us even realising it. And, while traditionally associated with marketing, it is rapidly becoming a priority for HR departments.

In fact, according to a 2013 SAS study, 6,400 organisations with 100 employees or more will have implemented big data analytics by 2018. And last year, Towers Watson found that HR data and analytics will be among the top three areas for HR spend in 2015.

But what is ‘big data’?

The Webopedia definition tells us that ‘big data is a buzzword, or catchphrase, used to describe a massive volume of both structured and unstructured data that is so large it is difficult to process using traditional databases and software techniques’.

Essentially, it just means understanding large volumes of data.

In the past many people referred to ‘big data’ as business intelligence or analytics; however the difference now is that there is a lot more volume, velocity, variety, variability and complexity of data and, as such, businesses need to connect and understand what the myriad of statistics are showing in order to maintain a competitive edge.

For HR departments, big data is a big deal. Some might go as far as to say it’s the game changer; moving HR from the perceived ‘Historical Remains’ into a valued component of business success. Used appropriately big data can cast aside the ‘fluffy’ image HR has been tarred with over the years and ensure people strategy is recognised as the profit centre it can be.

So why should we embrace it?

As HR professionals, big data opens a door to our employees’ professional lives like never before. As a result, according to Rob Briner, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Bath, “by making conscientious, explicit and judicious use of difference sources of information”, HR professionals can make well-informed decisions and the correct choices.

The key to achieving this, of course, is how we decipher the matrix-like data accessible in the modern workplace. As Neal Patel, technical programme lead on Advanced Technology Projects at Google warns, big data is a scientific guide which must be carefully analysed, and without rigor in measuring its findings, the results may well be meaningless.

He says: “For the individuals who work with big data every day, the challenge is ultimately ours… Each of us must decide whether to embrace computational methods as true scientists, to pursue an engagement with ‘why’, or gorge ourselves with the golden goose of pseudo ‘data science’.”

The danger with big data, therefore, is that in an effort to measure the right outcomes it can easily result in ‘analysis paralysis’. To help you avoid this stalemate, we’ve outlined four areas where businesses should focus their data efforts

1. Gaining in-depth information

Data provides quality insight on the employees within your workforce and by reviewing, collating and sharing this information, HR is able to not only understand what’s happening now, but predict what may occur in the future. One prominent area of big data growth is within talent management systems, such as our own Talent Toolbox™; applying analytics to performance in order to evaluate individual activities and identify top performance, future leaders and those at risk of leaving. By doing so HR are always one foot ahead, able to succession plan effectively and minimise any unexpected change.

2. Attracting the very best

With access to big data, HR has the ability to be clever with their recruitment from the off; helping reduced the number of ‘bad hires’ appointed over time. While good old ‘gut feeling’ has a place in business, when it comes to recruiting, HR professionals should take advantage of analytics around cultural fit, psychometric testing and performance in order to identify the right person for the right role.

Winner of this year’s HR Excellence Award for Talent Management, Dorchester Collection, successfully draws on big data in this way – using online talent forms to sort information into trends, review against the organisational values and pinpointing leadership behaviours in order to support their managers with the recruitment decision making process.

3. Avoid ‘sheep-dip’ learning

In the past we’ve written many a blog post about the importance of tailored learning; big data can support this, making it a viable reality. First you can pinpoint exactly where the learning need is – avoiding costly sheep-dipping learning. Second, you can then measure the effectiveness of the specific learning ensuring a tangible return on the investment is generated.

4. Improve employee retention

With access to lots of different data streams, HR can better understand the factors which contribute to low employee engagement, and those which increase it. Things like engagement surveys, performance reviews, social media and exit interviews can combine to create a unique picture of the workforce and help HR professionals predict employee turnover.

The wealth of data available to businesses, and thus HR professionals is vast. Though with 90% of the world’s digital data created in the last two years; we’re just starting to figure out the possibilities with big data. How we, as HR professionals, take it forward is very much in our human hands – the answers don’t lie in any graphs or spreadsheets.

This article was featured at PurpleCubed – Wednesday July 22, 2015