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Critical Evaluation: Put Your Analytics into Action

Metrics and “big data” have transformed many business functions, from marketing to operations. As a result, business leaders have high (but thus far largely unmet) expectations for how analytics should revolutionize HR as well. In 2016 and beyond, rising to the challenge will require HR professionals to develop their own quantitative skills and to work collaboratively with data scientists, IT staff and technology vendors. Indeed, forging strong partnerships will be key to adopting a data-driven approach to HR management.

Many HR departments have taken small steps in the right direction by buying more data, purchasing software, hiring quantitative analysts, incorporating social media into recruiting efforts, piloting big-data projects or sending a few people to seminars. While those actions can be a good start, they are just that—a beginning from which HR professionals must build in order to truly develop their analytic capability. “Analytics is a muscle we build,” says Elpida Ormanidou, vice president of global people analytics at Walmart. “You cannot buy yourself into an analytics capability.”

Of course, the companies that lead in HR analytics, including Google and Walmart, do make healthy investments in analytical technology and hire teams that have the specialized skills required to understand it. But they’ve also invested the time and effort required to craft sound long-term strategies around their data. Here’s what HR should do in 2016 to help their organizations get real value from HR analytics:

Develop your company’s analytical literacy. Hiring for specialized skills can help bridge a short-term need. But HR practitioners and business decision-makers need training to become both data-literate—that is, able to find, manipulate, manage and interpret relevant data—and numerate, or conversant in a range of quantitative disciplines. These skills are the prerequisite to asking smart questions and evaluating possible answers.

Use diverse teams to solve major talent challenges. Analysts love an audacious challenge, so charge them with attaining bold outcomes rather than posing narrow questions—and encourage them to work with others to realize those outcomes. Contrary to the stereotype of an analyst working alone, leaders at British Airways, Monster, Walmart and other enterprises have found that teams with diverse skills and backgrounds tend to generate better, more-innovative solutions. Bringing together analysts from several quantitative disciplines with business decision-makers and HR practitioners has the added benefit of generating useful knowledge transfer for both analysts and HR.

Focus on big results, not analysis. Reports and even new insights don’t solve problems. “HR needs to go more than halfway to bring insights, ideas and solutions to the business,” Ormanidou advises. “Getting the insights is the easy part. Our biggest challenges are how to communicate and operationalize those insights.” HR professionals must be accountable for outcomes, working alongside business managers to craft innovative strategies that put insights into action.

Buying a new software solution is easy, but it is time for HR to forget about quick fixes. Only by building a real analytic capability can HR professionals become the proactive, data-driven critical thinkers and business leaders that their organizations need.

Jeanne G. Harris is on the faculty of Columbia University and co-author of Analytics at Work (Harvard Business School Press, 2010) and Competing on Analytics (Harvard Business School Press, 2007). She is former global managing director of IT and analytics research at the Accenture Institute for High Performance.


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