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Interview With John Boudreau: Analyze This — and That and That

A USC professor, John Boudreau has written books on the business impact of HR and the use of HR analytics. Workforce spoke with him about the state of talent management.

November 10, 2013

John Boudreau, a leading expert in the field of talent management, was recognized for his pioneering work in October with the 2013 Michael R. Losey Human Resource Research Award. Among the profession’s highest honors, the award is presented by the Society for Human Resource Management and comes with a $50,000 prize. A professor at the University of Southern California, Boudreau has written books on the business impact of HR and the use of HR analytics. Workforce spoke with him shortly after his win about the state of talent management.

Workforce: Much has been written about the importance of attracting top talent given the improving job market. What is the state of talent managemeJohn Boudreaunt today?
Boudreau: There’s been a paradox for quite a few years that we have some pretty significant talent shortages in particular spots while at the same time there are global record levels of unemployment. The thing that’s causing this is that the nature of the skills that organizations need are becoming more and more specific and they change more and more quickly. When you’re looking for niche players and those niches are constantly changing, it means that you’re perennially going to be in a situation where you’re constantly racing to find the best of a very specific talent pool.

WF: What is HR analytics and how is it being used?
Boudreau: That’s a really good question. I like to step back and ask what analytics are intended to produce. It’s always been the case that we look to our data and our analysis and technology to support the kind of organizational change that we hope will happen, whether it’s reporting a simple turnover rate or something more sophisticated. The end question is, to what degree is having, analyzing and reporting this information creating actions that does the organization the most good.

WF: You talk about the importance of storytelling in helping leaders understand data. Can you give me an example?
Boudreau: I was talking to a CHRO about this. For years she had gone to her executive leadership team and presented them with statistics of the representation of leadership from different countries. They would look at the numbers and agree that leadership wasn’t diverse enough. But they never really dug in and made the hard decisions that would have gotten the job done. So she came in one year and showed them the pictures of three of their global leaders who had been passed over for several years running. That was genius on her part to take all this data and discover that the storyline was that people like this weren’t being chosen for leadership positions.

WF: Where is HR in the evolution of HR analytics today?
Boudreau: There’s clearly a lot of activity in the world of data and measurement. That said, the results that my colleague Ed Lawler and I get when we survey a broad spectrum of organizations is that for most it’s still a pretty early stage thing. It’s relatively rare to see measures of the effectiveness of HR programs and still rarer to see the use of data to really drive decisions outside of HR.

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce’s senior editor. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Pyrillis on Twitter at @RitaPyrillis.