Use Data to Transform Your Organization

By Kathy Gurchiek April 22, 2015
CORAL GABLES, Fla.—Transformation was the underlying message from keynote speakers Eva Sage-Gavin and Michael Arena during the morning general sessions of the 2015 HR People + Strategy Annual Conference on April 20​, 2015. Sage-Gavin is the former executive vice president of global HR and corporate affairs at Gap Inc., and Arena is the chief talent officer at General Motors Corp.

Trend forecasting—knowing how to read data and extract pertinent information—is an important skill HR leaders need to embrace and elevates HR from simply possessing business acumen to being business leaders, Sage-Gavin noted.

Forecasting allows HR to make recommendations to leadership and explain, “‘These are the risks and challenges; [these are] the scenarios required to address” those risks and challenges. The skill requires more than simply mining the data, she said: Make sense of it by providing insights into trends and making a few simple recommendations for change.

Cultivating “culture activism” also can be transformative to an organization, Sage-Gavin said. One summer, Gap asked its 62 interns to reimagine the company’s engagement strategies. They examined how to make the company’s website more attractive to job seekers, and they became involved in mentor training.

“It was the most shocking activism of my career,” Sage-Gavin recalled. “One of the things we learned is you’ve got to stay fresh ... with those you are serving. It changed us forever.”

Sage-Gavin, vice chair of the Aspen Institute’s Skills for America’s Future Advisory Board, encouraged organizations to transform their culture by investing in social capital. In her advisory board role, she works with the White House, community colleges and corporations to build skilled workforces. She pointed to Gap as an example of a company that goes beyond selling clothing to reinvesting in the workforce by aligning with adult students at community colleges to teach them skills they need.

Using Data for Success

Arena drew on his work at General Motors for his talk on “Transforming the World of Work Through Data Analytics.”

“We need responsive solutions to a shifting landscape. We need to experiment, we need to innovate. … Data can truly help us do that,” he said, while cautioning that HR is often guilty of seeking a one-size-fits-all solution.

“We as a profession need to become far more ambidextrous in the way we think about HR ... and the data can better inform us.” It can be used, for example, to determine hidden talent—people serving as bridges to silos within the organization.

Noting that the average life cycle of companies on Standard & Poor’s 500 index has gone from 75 years in 1957 to 15 years today, Arena said that General Motors is using predictive analytics to reinvent itself.

Companies fall into the “success trap,” he said, when they “ignore data, ignore the facts, even when they’re obvious.”

Information can be teased out from historical data, Arena pointed out—such as the dynamics that exist for an emerging market or for a mature market, how a company has performed in an up cycle, and how it has performed in a down cycle.

He cautioned HR not to wait for the data to be perfect before studying it; it will never be perfect.

“Test something, try something,” he said. “Leverage the data sources you have.”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.

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