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How to Fail at HR Analytics in 7 Easy Steps

A 'leading loser' shares what he learned the hard way—so you won't have to.

A man in a suit leans against a wall.
​Mark Berry

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We all make mistakes. I try to learn from mine and, on occasion, I’ve even been known to share the lessons with others. But acknowledging my blunders to a few close confidantes is not the same as disclosing them to several hundred thousand HR professionals.

So imagine my ambivalence when HR Magazine approached me with the idea of describing my greatest mistakes leading the build-out of a talent analytics initiative at ConAgra Foods, a Fortune 200 company. I was mortified … and, at the same time, intrigued.

Anyone who knows me is aware that I hate to lose. But I have to admit it: In 2014, the same year I received several national commendations for my work in talent analytics, I was also (in my estimation) one of the “leading losers” in the field. That’s because I failed to ensure that my vision, strategies and initiatives were aligned with those of my organization.

Where, specifically, did I miss the mark? In reflecting on that, I categorized my pitfalls as seven key actions. So, if you also want to be a loser—or to avoid being one—consider the following recipe for failure.

1. Position your program as strategic even if you’ve done nothing that qualifies it as such

In the interest of securing resources, HR analytics leaders often seek to position what they are doing as strategic when it’s not—or at least, not yet. You see, strategic is not realized by decree.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s good to aspire to be strategic. Just don’t allow your aspirations to outpace your capabilities. In other words, don’t be like the person who decides to run a marathon simply because he was able to finish a 5K. While it’s not impossible to reach your goal, it certainly isn’t likely.

Having said that, any good HR analytics leader should have a realistic strategy outlined and key initiatives identified. Start by looking to leverage analytics to address critical business issues, particularly those of great concern to senior leadership.

In my current role, the challenge is retention, especially with more-junior talent. Fortunately, this is a problem that analytics can play a real role in solving—by providing benchmarks to show how we compare to competitors, identifying reasons for attrition and using our metrics to measure the impact of appropriate interventions.

2. Focus on the solution before defining the problem. 

In many cases, HR analytics programs arise out of an effort to replace legacy HR scorecards or dashboards. In other instances, the “business case” for analytics is prompted by something else, such as the need to internalize an employee survey, evaluate the impact of existing HR programs, or use data to reduce costs, bolster productivity or improve safety.

While these are all good goals, they take HR analytics leaders away from a more important task—providing evidence-based answers to the most compelling questions facing business leaders.

Previously, I made the mistake of investing time and money in analytics before thoroughly probing which business problems we should be solving. Why did I do this? Because leaders seemed to be more comfortable with replacing existing tools than focusing on critical issues—and I was a co-conspirator in the process.

In my current role, I’ve taken a different tack: I no longer view using analytics as a strategic initiative in itself. Rather, it is an important enabling technology for our organization to leverage as we seek to address key challenges. If you want to maximize the impact of your program, you’ll do the same.

3. Invest most of your resources in technology rather than partnering with the right vendor. 

“Build vs. buy” is always a complex path for businesses to navigate, and I believe too many organizations fail to weigh their options carefully. Instead, they put blind faith in the notion that the answer will come in the form of building out their own technology infrastructure—in other words, spending a lot of money.

The truth is that many of today’s tech vendors want to help their clients address the challenges they face. Rightly positioned and properly executed, partnerships with vendors will pay a multiplier several times greater than the return on investment in your own technology.

By taking this approach, you’ll also minimize the likelihood that HR analytics will get flagged as a major expense that winds up on the budgetary chopping block. I wish I had understood that better in my previous roles.

4. Hire experts before they demonstrate any expertise

Who hasn’t at one point or another been persuaded that all of their problems will be solved with the magical help of just the right professional authority? Through trial and error, I’ve come to realize that so-called experts often don’t provide any special insight or answers that I couldn’t have figured out myself in collaboration with my team and the right partners.

In my current position, my plan is to leverage existing HR and IT team members first, along with a small group of vendors that have already demonstrated their capability. In time, our vendors will become invaluable “shadow partners” of our organization’s effort to drive fact-based decision-making in human resources.

Meanwhile, if it turns out that we can truly benefit from retaining a Ph.D. in statistics, organizational or industrial psychology, or some other field, so be it. But I’m going into the process with the understanding that I don’t need experts to provide relevant, results-focused analytics—and, most likely, neither do you.

5. Accept a role and reporting relationship that compromises your impact and integrity

One of the biggest mistakes I see is when HR analytics are reported to someone other than the CHRO of the company. The organizations that do this have, in my humble opinion, missed the boat.

A CHRO needs to be able to see—without filtering—what the analytics reveal about key measures directly related to his or her expertise, including recruitment, retention and engagement.

When these metrics go to someone else on the organizational chart, the CHRO cannot ensure that HR’s analytics efforts are understood and supported by the company’s senior leadership team, aligned with the business issues facing the organization, and positioned to provide maximum impact.

If the company claims to be committed to HR analytics, challenge your leaders to demonstrate that commitment by showing their confidence in HR. I failed to do this. It was a mistake.

I could never understand why a CHRO would oversee benefits, compensation, staffing, talent management and a host of other vital functions, but cede analytics to someone else. You shouldn’t either.

6. Delude yourself into believing that others value what you are doing as much as you do. 

Be realistic about your role in the organization. Your peers may say they’re behind you but, at the same time, they’re fighting for their own programs to be the top priority and hoping that business leaders look to them (not you) for answers to their challenges. That may sound cynical, and it may not reflect the organization in which you work, but it is a common dynamic. Be aware of the undercurrents swirling around you. “Losers” lack that savvy.

7. Believe your own press. 

During my stint as an HR analytics leader, I was privileged to garner a great deal of attention from peers and the press. Unfortunately, I came to believe what I was reading—that I was a pioneer in a quickly growing field.

But despite the hype, the fact remains that very few Fortune 500 companies have dedicated HR analytics resources. While the impact of using metrics may be significant, their value in the market is still limited. Believing otherwise virtually guarantees that you will lose—just like I did.

Mark Berry is vice president of human resources at CGB Enterprises Inc. in Covington, La. He is former vice president of people insights at ConAgra Foods.


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