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The Trap of Big Data in HR

Big data can thrive in human resources, but only if your HR pros understand and develop the necessary skills.

As it happens with so many things in life, big data has not only come to human resources, but it’s also rapidly making its way from the HR executive suite to the HR trenches.

What could go wrong?

Whether you call it “big data,” “small data” or “HR analytics,” odds are that HR pros in your organization all the way down to the manager level are actively being pitched on the benefits of making data-driven decisions.

If you’re an HR leader contemplating big data in the world of HR, I’ve got good news and bad news for you.

First the good news. If you’ve got control over the systems used in your HR practice, you’ve got a unique opportunity to train your minions and make big data work for you — companywide.

To make sure you give your HR pros data and analytics that don’t blow up in their face, let’s talk about what’s real and what’s not.

But with every silver lining comes a thunderstorm. Even if you control the analytical solution set across your HR practice, you’ve still got the challenge of making sure your teams can accurately engage the operations side of the business related to what the data mean and what adjustments are necessary to maximize the effect of talent on the business.

Did you just gulp? 

Your HR pros in the trenches are all good people. To make sure you give them data and analytics that don’t blow up in their face, let’s talk about what’s real and what’s not.

One of the biggest lies the data devil ever told was that we can base talent analytics on our performance management process. Don’t get me wrong; I’m pro performance management. It’s just that we all struggle with rater bias, calibration issues on ratings, etc.

Big data based on performance ratings is a dumpster fire outside a two-star restaurant in the bad part of town. The only exception is for lower-level positions that have clear production metrics. If that’s you, shine on you crazy diamond. The rest of us need to look elsewhere for analytics that matter.

And what about quality of hire? I know, you really want to talk about it. You’re right about one thing: It’s the holy grail. But it’s too linked to performance data for you to pull off across the enterprise. 

At this point, I’m the world’s biggest data buzz kill. But wait! I do have good news. 

There are two keys to launching HR analytics. To succeed, you need to focus on how the data are sliced for reporting purposes, then you need to train your HR pros in the field about how to be consultative with the operations leaders they support.

Let’s focus on data slices first. To truly maximize the effect of any data sets you report, you need to be brave. Courage with big data in HR means that you set up reporting to establish scoreboards designed to put pressure on managers in your organization. Key choices in this regard include the development of reports that compare locations, functional areas and, yes, even managers against each other across your company.

Need an example? Here’s a favorite analytical track of mine: hiring manager batting average. This average assumes any employee who leaves before their one-year anniversary is a hiring miss. Regardless of what caused the bad selection process, it’s all embedded in the calculation.

Calculating the hit-miss percentage on this data point across the past 12 months at your company is easy. Develop scoreboards that show which department or hiring manager is the best at this and you’ve got a shot at having meaningful conversations about how to improve.

But the big data secret sauce in HR is the negotiation and consultative skills of your HR pros in the field. If your trench-level HR team can’t perform in these areas, any analytical platform you’re trying to develop will be dead on arrival.

The skill set needed by your HR pros in the field isn’t complicated, but it requires confrontation. First, they need to be able to review the data for the groups they support and identify underperforming units using analytics.

The next step is more complex. Your line HR pros have to be confrontational with the operations side of the house, tell them where they have a problem, and then offer consulting services to help the underperforming manager or unit improve.

Big data in HR can thrive, but only if you understand and develop the consultative skills necessary for your field HR pros.  

Without these skills and a willingness to engage or confront, big data is just a fancy phrase for another report that no one is going to use.