The “How To” of HR, People and Talent Analytics: We Need to Start with Strategically Relevant Questions

Questions. Not the traditional existential questions – What is the meaning of life? What activities provide a sense of purpose? Or which way should I have my toast cut? (This is a significant question for the under 7’s). But rather “questions” about purpose, strategy and impact.

  • What is the purpose of our business?
  • What are our current and future strategies?
  • How can HR professionals make a meaningful impact?

A key takeaway from Tucana’s People Analytics World 18 Conference is the salient interrelationship between strategy, business impact and analytics. To make use of #HRanalytics, #PeopleAnalytics, #WorkforceAnalytics, #bigdata we need to start with business-related (not HR-related) “questions”. All questions need to be connected to, and informed by, strategy.

The concise answer to the “How To” of HR, People and Talent Analytics; is to start your journey with strategically relevant questions.

I am all for conversations about #strategy and proactively advocate for these within both industry and academia. I encourage all stakeholders to deliberately reflect on the inherent connection between talent-based resources and the “who”, “what”, and “where” of #talent management. But, and there’s always a but. It’s the “why” that matters most. All conversations about talent and talent-based data must commence with numerous questions about the “why”.

How do people, human resources and talent help us achieve our “why”? It is then, and only after articulation of the “why” that we should have conversations about the data and analytics required.

A month has passed since travelling to London (from Sydney) to attend #PAWorld18, and I am still thoroughly impressed by the prestigious speakers assembled. Rather than be privy to conversations about how HR uses data to help HR (these happen all too frequently), speakers talked about how they, and their organisations, used data to generate actionable insights to positively impact the business.

The shared key to success?

You guessed it – starting with a strategically relevant business-related question.

Do you want to initiate or participate in conversations about effective data use? Then consider using some of the critical points raised by world-leading analytics practitioners to transition beyond all the talk about the use of data for data’s sake.

David Green (@david_green_uk) – Founder & CEO Zandel (previously Global Director, People Analytics IBM Watson Talent):

Opened the event with some (worrying) figures produced by Bersin Deloitte that contextualised the current state of play. While the number of organisations with people analytics team is rising, we questioned whether these teams collected data or collected and analysed useful and relevant data.

Dr Alec Levenson (@aleclevenson) – Economist & Senior Research Scientist at the Centre for Effective Organizations (USA):

Alec’s keynote address encouraged organisations to employ a “systems” perspective. To generate deep insights into the relationship between organisations and strategy execution, we need to look at multiple levels (the individual, business unit and the organisation). Without an understanding of the “big picture”, the collection and use of data are by no means “strategic”. Alec wants us not to get distracted by the shiny things (incremental improvement) – but rather focus on strategy, the bigger picture, and the whole organisational system. HR should endeavour to deliver long-term competitive advantage. This involves consideration of organisational “processes” and how work is designed (not the individual and the team). Learn more about Alec’s Systems Perspective here.

alec and systems

Bernard Marr (@BernardMarr) – Founder and CEO Bernard Marr & Co:

Bernard’s keynote corresponded with the launch of his new book about Data-Driven HR, so he was keen to share 9 lessons from the sporting world about the potential transformational role of data. While the examples from Formula One excited me personally (my third child is named after Jenson Button), one theme particularly resonated with my experiences – the focus on right data. Bernard suggested that organisations and HR functions should have a data strategy to encourage the collection of relevant data, not just any data.

Bernard marr and too much data

But to know that you are collecting the right data, you need to pose relevant questions. Questions, which arise from conversations about strategy, inform collection of relevant data.

Brydie Lear – Global Head HR Intelligence & Analytics ING Bank:

Employing a matchmaking analogy (which I’ve used also), Brydie and colleague Eva Oudemans shared ING’s four-year analytics journey which focuses on building analytical capabilities to drive forward the organisation’s strategic priorities. Transitioning from data to information to actionable insights to solve strategic talent issues does not occur overnight. But focusing on what matters strategically and addressing strategically relevant questions. they argue, is critical.

Subhadra Dutta (@Subhadradutta) – Head of People Science & Analytics Twitter:

Although heralding from different backgrounds (Subhadra from I/O Psychology and I from Social Science) we agree that there’s a great need to invest in articulating the competencies (or from my perspective the skills and capabilities) required for both operational and strategic impact. We must, however, also pay attention to the “meanings” that underpin high-performing competencies as trouble arises if individual’s talk the same way, but mean different things. Coherence in meaning is key. But meaning is also malleable. If your strategy is updated, then revise your high-performing competencies. To impact business outcomes, we need to measure what matters and ask the right questions. Collect data that informs the right questions.

I especially loved this presentation. My PhD dissertation examined how stakeholders attributed meaning to the concept of “talent” and how those meanings play out in various policies and processes. I also currently teach MBA students about the need to reflect on the meanings that underpin their talk (or absence of talk) about talent.

Peter Cheese (@Cheese_Peter) – CEO of CIPD:

Given the vast exposure to all things HR in the UK, Peter’s engaging and insightful keynote focused on the opportunities and challenges for HR. Notably, and of course, promoted by one of the “Head advocates of HR”, was statistics that noted that 5 of the 11 major workplace challenges involve people and talent – yes, you’re right again – it’s all about Talent!

major workplace challenges

Key challenges are two-fold: HR conversations tend to focus on “risk” rather than “value” and in Peter’s own words – “the problem with HR is that they bring too many PowerPoints and not enough Excels”, thus flagging the notable absence of HR’s ability to ask the “right” questions and offer senior executives an array of actionable data. Again, solutions come from asking the right questions. So please HR, invest in asking the right questions!

It was refreshing to hear Peter talk about the role of language. I study the influence of language (discourse) within organisations and agree that HR needs to ensure they can communicate the salient connection between people and business (aka revenue and money). People drive the money part. Every business decision has a people element, but there is still a propensity to talk about people after decisions are made.

It is also imperative that we pay attention to how we talk, because although we may talk the same way, we may mean different things. Do you always know what you mean when talking about analytics and business decisions?

Peter was also one of a handful of speakers that advocated for academics and their ability to foster evidence-based thinking. Yay! I advocate strongly for academic-industry collaborations, hence my “prac-ademic” status. But I concede that while academic journal papers are great at creating knowledge, they rarely communicate useful and practical stories and insights (notwithstanding access and pay-wall issues).   There is much that academics and practitioners can learn from each other, and it’s essential that we foster real-time conversations rather than work in isolation.

Jordan Pettman (@j_lp) – Global Head People Data, Analytics and Planning Nestle & Michael Cox – Nestle Business Excellence Project Manager (Global):

Jordan and  Michael shared insights about Nestle’s analytics journey and garnered the audience’s attention by talking about sex. Via a novel and engaging “Solution Sexiness”, they noted the ability work on the sexy stuff because the Analytics team worked cross-functionally to offer evidence-based data to address business-related problems. Again, a key takeaway was to focus on aligning the business with the analytics: start with a business problem. Learn more about Nestle and Jordan here.

Carol Cohen – Global Head, Executive Talent and Leadership Development Cognizant: 

Wanting to achieve maximum business impact, Carol’s presentation included everything that one could have asked for: Discussion of Cognizant and it’s Global Talent Board which utilises the power of collegiate conversations to talk about talent for at least one hour each and every month; reflections about the role of their talent strategy which not only exists (they don’t always) but that is also dynamic and able to respond to changes in business models; the need to manage with a data-driven system, because anecdotal, gut feel and intuitive decisions are unscalable; the inherent relationship between technology and effective talent management and the value investing in proprietary, rather than vendor-designed systems; and an organisational culture which asserts that identifying and developing future leaders is everybody’s responsibility.

Kudos to Carol and the Cognizant team for talking about talent management, technology and analytics as interrelated, rather than siloed, topics. How do you and your organisation talk about these three topics?

Panel Discussion on Building a Data-Driven Culture featuring Steve Bianchi (@mediamgl) – Vice President, People Operations Improbable & Swati Chawla –  Global Head, HR Analytics, Strategy and Planning Syngenta & Carol Cohen – Global Head, Executive Talent and Leadership Development Cognizant & David Green – CEO Zandel: 

  • David: Creating a data-driven culture is critical. David asks the panel- How do you drive a data-driven culture?
  • Carol: We train all junior HR people in analytics to develop skills that enable HR to be able to talk the language of business processes and statistics. Analytics skills at all levels of seniority and business functions are essential.
  • Steve: Noting that you can’t run HR analytics projects is isolation anymore, Steve uses a FOG framework to guide conversations about data and business impact – Are we talking about Facts (F), Opinions (O) or Guesses (G)?
  • Swati: We need to recognise that not all stakeholders want to make data-driven decisions.

Katie Minton & Neera Ridler-Mayor – Management and Human Capital Consultants Deloitte:

Setting off alarm bells with scary statistics from Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2018 Report, where although 71% of companies see People Analytics as a priority, only 9% have a grasp on how talent drives performance (WOW!) their presentation encouraged HR professionals to adopt a Hero role within their organisation. Rather than position themselves as a victim or a villain, HR professionals need to adopt a holistic perspective and garner feedback from colleagues to learn about business challenges. Four tips to becoming an HR Hero: think big; start small; act fast and stay human.

Nicky Clement (@NickyClementUL) – Vice President HR, Organisation and People Analytics Unilever: 

Nicky expertly personified the power of storytelling, both as an individual and organisational communication strategy, when sharing practical advice post 20 (successful) years at Unilever.  The ability to engage with emotions, be concise, compelling and relevant creates opportunities to use data to meaningful impact the business. Nicky describes the combination of conversations, listening and more specifically – experience with data – as “magical”. An open mindset, whereby there is a willingness to experiment with data and “take risks”, facilitates further opportunities to make a difference. It is the role of the People Analytics team to get to the question behind the question when business leaders ask for data because “analytics has no intrinsic value if it doesn’t lead to action”.

In other words, what’s the data needed to address the real and relevant question?

Tom Lamberty – Consultant Leadership & Team Digitalisation Cisco: 

Tom reflected on the nature of work- (theoretically) we can work from anywhere, we can work anytime. As ideas about “work” evolve so too should the use of technologically-enabled “tools”. Requesting that organisations focus less on the next big technology roll-out, Tom noted various opportunities to deliver real-world value. To achieve impact, however, HR needs to recognise that the way individual’s “work” and collaborate is changing. HR and the ways HR manages requires change also. Talent management and ideas about what’s valuable is a starting place for change, with Tom suggesting that we transition away from “skills” when talking about talent. Rather, conversations and questions about the required “contributions” of an individual or a role may enable HR to make an immediate (and relevant) impact.

Max Blumberg (@Max_Blumberg) – Founder Blumberg Partnership & Visiting Professor Leeds University Business School: 

All my interactions with Max are insightful and thought-provoking and this presentation was no different. Cutting straight to the heart of the debate, Max noted that while many roles (and projects) keep people busy, they don’t address nor solve business problems. If an existing process is appropriate (or even good enough) and that specific process has no connection to “dollars” then there’s little to no point investing significant time and monetary resources to devise and enact change. The absence of a relationship between data, process and financial outcomes bears little benefit as data needs to tackle a business problem.

Max paworld18

In sum:

Start your analytics journey with a strategically relevant business question, for when HR looks to contribute beyond its functional boundaries, business impact is within reach.

I would like to thank Alec Levenson – a wonderful and insightful collaborator – and Barry Swailes and the Tucana team – for facilitating my participation in the event. I’m #grateful.

NB: Numerous other presenters and presentations do not feature in this post. See #PAWorld18 for some of the best parts.


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