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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.