The War For Data Talent Invades The HR Department

I attended an event recently where the topic was The Power of Data. A moderated panel provided a lively and very informative discussion about how data drives a vision of economic and technical innovation in their organizations; how data can be a true game changer. I came away from that meeting with a lot of information, numbers, predictions and even warnings. One of the panelists said something that stuck with me, and as I recall she said it several times during that discussion: “Done is better than perfect.” What she meant was that companies have to do something; they cannot wait until everyone is comfortable with big data because by then it will be too late. Plenty of data is coming in. But collecting it and storing it is just a step. The data has to be analyzed so that it can be used in an actionable way that drives desired business outcomes. “Done is better than perfect.” It reminded me of the classic response to someone who says she or he isn’t ready to have a baby yet: “Oh, but if you wait until you are ready, you’ll never have one…”

Other nuggets I heard that day: 80% of companies analyze their data, but only 25% of that 80% derive any strategic value from it. Thirty-three percent say they need to develop a strategic plan for it — policies, procedures and infrastructure. Governance. This is when people get hesitant about moving forward.

Chances are that you, the HR executive, have already had conversations with other business leaders in your company about the need for data talent, either immediate or in the near term. Are you looking for a data scientist? Will that person be reporting up to a senior IT leader or marketing? The competition is fierce for this talent. The Googles and Facebooks of the world are offering whatever it takes to get them on board. Last year, the Harvard Business Review named data scientist as the “Sexiest Job of the 21st Century.” Accenture’s research says there is a critical mismatch between supply and demand for analytics talent—the people with the ability to use statistics, quantitative analysis and information modeling techniques to make business decisions.” And the HR department needs this talent, too.

This new type of human resource, a data-savvy, analytic leader, is a hybrid, combining four types of professionals into one: business-person, people-person, statistics-person and an information technology person. Finding someone with all four of these traits is very challenging. This hybrid leader is not only able to solve problems, but just as importantly, find the unsolved problems. HR professionals have been collecting data for a long time, keeping records of employees’ personal information, compensation histories, performance reviews and retirements; but that data needs interpretation. This is not the analytics manager who is benchmarking and tracking efficiency metrics, like time-to-hire. Scorecard metrics and benchmarks are important, but these activities are not the same as analyzing data and showing its business value: connecting process and outcomes.

What are the goals in HR leveraging big data?

  • To understand the past and present, and then to predict the future, basing all of these insights on facts and data
  • To conclusively articulate the direct impact and value of HR processes and initiatives (the people data) on important business outcomes.

In the article “Moneyball & The HR Department,” The Wall Street Journal reported: “The Human Resources department is known for being touch-feely, but in the age of big data, it’s becoming a bit more cold and analytical. From figuring out what schools to recruit from, to what employees should be offered flexible work arrangements, data analytics are helping HR professionals make more informed decisions.”

Josh Bersin, Principal and Founder of Bersin by Deloitte, says that the big data revolution is now penetrating the HR industry, and while some companies have a progressive view of how data analytics can help HR departments, most don’t. Other sources report that fewer than 18% of business leaders trust talent data and insights coming out of HR, and 80% of those leaders believe their HR staff does not have the skills to improve their analytic capabilities.

This critical need for talent was further validated by a panel discussion hosted by Georgetown University’s Human Resource Management program. The panel members agreed about the disparity between what is needed and the skills that currently exist in a typical HR organization. The program’s Senior Associate Dean Christopher Meltzer, Ph.D., talked about how HR personnel need to be as “competent in discussing data as they are in addressing typical HR topics like recruitment and retention.” Another panel member Lee Webster, Director of HR Standards at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), stated, “The HR professionals of the future have to recognize that the only way we can make compelling, lasting change in organizations is not only that we’re very good with the qualitative part of our roles [but] we have to be able to speak in terms that are compelling on the quantitative part of our roles.”

What skills do effective HR analytic leaders need?

  • To be constantly curious
  • To be highly capable of discovering patterns and finding relationships in complex data
  • To know the difference between correlation and causality
  • To be able to tell stories with the data
  • To be able to connect their work directly to boardroom priorities
  • To possess a combination of business acumen and understanding of models along with analytical skills to interpret the information
  • To be able to envision what might be, with the ability to build scenarios and queries to investigate that hypothesis, and to communicate this to the company leadership in language that makes sense to them, i.e., business language, not “HR” language.

How do you attract this talent into HR analytics?

Get competitive! Start talking about it. “Done is better than perfect.” It won’t transform overnight into the dream job, but momentum can begin. Start small. Start with the position description and the title. The compensation structures need attention. HR organizations don’t typically pay as much as marketing or finance organizations for their analytic talent. Candidates aren’t exactly lined up at the door for these positions. Further, companies do not do a great job of selling this opportunity. Prospective candidates need to become aware of the exciting nature of the work and the participation in formulating key elements of a company’s strategy.

Some research suggests that giving HR analytics team members a seat in the corporate boardroom will increase a company’s chances of recruiting high-level analytics talent. Christopher Collins, Professor and Director of Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, stated, “It says a lot about a company when [it has] an analytics person who is a direct report to the Chief HR Officer. That sends a strong signal as to the value and importance of analytics as opposed to just embedding it deeper in another function.” Key stakeholders need to understand the value of HR analytics and how using science in the selection, management and alignment of people can be applied to specific lines of business, ultimately enabling executives to make better decisions.