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HR Analytics: Useful insight or data fishing trips?

By Dr Richard MacKinnon, Insight Director

I was delighted to share the Future Work Centre perspective on HR Analytics at this year’s CIPD HR Analytics conference in London earlier this week. My thanks again to the CIPD for the invitation to speak. The day was a game of two halves, with a presentation in the morning with our client from University Hospital of North Midlands NHS Trust and an afternoon session musing on the future of analytics and technology.

In the morning, Kaine Davidson and I outlined the work we’ve done to help his colleagues gain additional insight from their employee opinion survey, taking the analysis from being purely descriptive to reports which delve much deeper into the data, helping to shape data-led action. We’re particularly excited about what the future holds, in terms of bringing together relevant disparate data sets (e.g. performance data) to help provide a joined-up picture of the staff experience.

In the afternoon, I shared our perspective on what the future may hold for HR Analytics and cautioned delegates on the risks of over-zealous data gathering and analysis. Technology provides organisations with a plethora of data sources (e.g. how frequently we use our email, where we physically are in a building, how much physical activity we engage in daily), but without a clear purpose and rationale, there’s a risk that this data gathering will turn into a bit of a fishing trip.

This comes back to two key points I’ve made consistently at conferences and workshops over the last two years:

  • Firstly, before taking action, we really need clarity on the problem we’re trying to solve. In the absence of this, we risk taking unhelpful action, buying into fads or myths and causing disruption and needless costs.
  • Secondly, just because we can measure something, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should. The HR Analytics movement sometimes emphasizes looking for meaning in large data set. There is a risk that organisations will find statistical relationships between variables that lead to uncomfortable decisions and very real ethical challenges. With a clear focus on problem formulation, we’ll be clearer on the data we actually need to examine and avoid the tendency to go fishing for ‘interesting’ information.

On a final note, I suggested to my audience that all HR Analytics really represents is the appliance of the scientific method. Formulating a hypothesis, gathering and analyzing relevant data and taking appropriate action on the results.

Contemporary technology allows us to gather and analyse workplace data faster and easier than ever. This shouldn’t encourage us to sidestep the need to consider what we’re trying to do in the first place.

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Predicting the future of work

By Dr Richard MacKinnon

Introduction

Businessman holding a glass ballI was delighted to be invited to speak at this year’s CIPD Annual Conference in Manchester, taking part in two panel discussions about the future of work and technology’s role in that future. In fact, the topic was a popular one at the conference and it got me thinking about how useful it is to have an eye on the future. That’s not surprising, as looking to the future allows us to look beyond today’s problems and limitations and imagine a new world. That’s exciting, right?

Actually, quite a bit of the discussion on both panel discussions focused on the downside of future technology, including the risks of excluding less skilled employees and the various unintended consequences arising from increased automation. Examples ranged from unmanned military drones through to supermarket scanning devices.

As a practitioner who emphasises the benefits of an evidence-based perspective when it comes to the world of work, I find myself strangely attracted to futurology and predictions about how the technology of tomorrow will change our lives. Such predictions often paint an exciting future, where technology solves our problems, leaving us to enjoy more leisure time.

And yet, I also find myself arguing that we really should be quite sceptical where it comes to predictions about the future workplace, for some very good reasons:

  1. We’re not very good at predictions

Consider the predictions made in the various popular science TV shows in the 1980’s. They were exciting, presenting compelling visions of a highly automated future, based on the fledgling technology they had access to. As I look around me in 2016, few if any of the predictions about how we would be living are lives have come to pass. At the same time, most of us carry around super-computers in our pockets and frequently use cheap or free video-conferencing to speak to colleagues on the other side of the world. Some of this technology would seem magical to our ancestors. But we use it daily without a thought. The speed of technological advancement and its adoption are so difficult to predict, is it worthwhile making such predictions in the first place? Given our past predictions have been so off the mark, who’s to say predictions made today will be any better? They might be better viewed as entertainment, rather than as the basis for organisational planning.

  1. We haven’t learnt many lessons from the past

The science of psychology has been making the same points about employee wellbeing for a few decades now and they’ve yet to be fully addressed across most workplaces. We know so much about the limitations of human performance under a variety of workplace conditions, we know so much about personality and we know what leads to unwanted pressure and stress. Even so, we continue to deploy new technology in the workplace that flies in the face of this evidence, leading to all kinds of unintended consequences. If you consider how email has morphed from a valuable communication tool to a frequent source of stress, conflict and anxiety, are you really so keen on introducing yet another replacement that promises to solve all its problems?

  1. The ‘fads and fashions’ trap

The future, by its very nature, represents opportunities to do new things, in new ways and with new technology. This novelty can be seductive and allow us to believe that we must prepare for these inevitable changes with new products, processes and beliefs. Suppliers of these products and services will be only too happy to meet these needs! And thus, we fall victim to organisational fads and fashions which can be incredibly costly and disruptive.

  1. Simple answers to complex problems

When we over-generalise (“Millennials”, anyone?) we can lose sight of the complexity of a problem. If you imagine the workplace of the future, are you picturing an office? Or an operating theatre? Or the street. Or the battlefront. The workplace takes many forms, yet predictions tend to be strangely uniform. New technology may solve a problem, but may only for some people, in some roles, in some organisational contexts.

So what’s the alternative?

From an evidence-based, scientific perspective, I’d recommend bearing the following in mind when thinking about technology and the future of work:

If someone is making predictions about the future workplace with certainty, challenge them to provide you with the evidence that underpins their thinking. Especially if their predictions relate to their product or service!

From a top-down perspective in your organisation, consider what you can and will do to make the introduction of new technology easier and justified by a rounded business case; one that includes the impact on employees alongside predicted productivity gains and cost reduction. From a bottom-up perspective, consider how technology will impact and be used by individual employees. Consider also who the winners and losers will be when the technology is introduced and how you can minimise the latter.

Ask yourself whether, just because the technology exists, should it be introduced now? Or ever? And if you think technology is going to be beneficial, make sure you have clarity on the problems you think it’s going to solve. Much technology is frankly a solution in search of a problem.
Consider the unintended consequences of introducing new technology to your workplace. I’m not a luddite, but new technology represents change and the impact of change can take time to manifest. Think beyond the point of implementation, and consider the impact on individuals, interpersonal relationships, the organisation and its place in society.

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