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Laszlo Bock: The Future of HR Lies with Data Science

There are better ways for companies to improve culture and productivity, says the former leader of HR at Google

A smiling man in a blue shirt.
​Laszlo Bock

Laszlo Bock recently left his job as the top HR executive at Google, saying he plans to create a company that will offer a new kind of employment platform. He spoke with SHRM Online about his plans—which include keynoting the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition in New Orleans—and the state of HR.

SHRM Online: What will make your startup different from what's already out there?

Bock: There are a couple things that we're pushing on where organizations [are missing] an opportunity. One is: Everyone talks about culture and how it's important and how they've got a great culture. But the way organizations and people assess culture and shape and drive is wrong. There are all kinds of surveys around about how people are feeling and different ways of measuring it. For the most part, those aren't really tied to something that will predict performance or happiness or attention.

The second big area is that if you want to make work better and you want to improve productivity, there are ways to do it that don't require massive change projects or consultants or tons of training dollars. There are small interventions you can make that have a profound impact on how people feel and how people work.

SHRM Online: Are those interventions not being recognized or utilized properly?

Bock: I think both. The challenge is there's not a tight enough conversation between academics who do really interesting work and practitioners who are in the HR field and could actually do interesting experiments of scale. We all do HR kind of by our gut instead of relying on science. And by the time you've been doing it for 20 or 30 years you know what works and what doesn't. But what if you could shortcut that and actually say: "Here's a brand-new employee or a new company or a new HR person; here are the things that we know work and are proven to work; and we will do them, and then we will measure whether or not they are working"?

That really doesn't happen today. There's this huge opportunity to look across every people [program] that happens in companies and to actually improve them by focusing on what we know works and constantly iterating [this] in a way that doesn't place any tax on the company, that doesn't require you to have lots of consultants.

SHRM Online: Do you have some secret sauce that will be part of this startup that will differentiate it from other employment sites?

Bock: Yes. Obviously there will be a website associated with it, but it's an application. You can have it on your phone; you can plug it into your corporate network. We're very, very early in building this out. We know what it's going to look like and what it's going to be. We have the science behind it. But we're just starting the actual building. If you have a team, you can use it; if you have a large company, you can use it; if you're a nonprofit, you can use it. Fundamentally, people have similar needs and similar wants, and if you can figure out what those are and bring those to the surface you can address them.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Introduction to HR Technology]

SHRM Online: How can we improve the preparation of young people and midcareer people for the jobs of the coming decades?

Bock: There are a few things that would be helpful in that regard. I think they also apply to people of any generation, because one of the big challenges in the economy today is that a lot of jobs have gone away and a lot of jobs are going to go away, and this happens at every age cohort.

No. 1: I'm a big fan of Carol Dweck's work on growth mindset—that actually believing you can learn and change is a fundamental step in being able to learn and change, and that every human being is capable of that.

No. 2: Organizations are kind of just OK at assessing who to hire, but organizations in general are quite bad at assessing people based on potential. Even the training that happens tends to be done based on answers to the questions "What did you do at your last company, and can you do that here?" They don't really focus on what this person is capable of. So there's a gap there that needs to be filled.

No. 3:When you think about learning and skills, a lot of what people wonder about is classes, whether they are online or in person, or if the company provides the training. It kind of misses the point. The way to get the most learning out of an experience, to make it the most effective, is through learning that tends to be narrowly focused, that is tied to a specific activity or need, and that creates an opportunity for rapid reinforcement.

SHRM Online: What do you see as the next stage in the evolution of HR?

Bock: There will be HR teams that really dig in to analytical questions. Is performance management really working? Is compensation really fair? Do we have a wage gap? We think our people are the best; how do we really know if they're the best, and how do we make them better? People will bring more science to that.

[There] will be a set of companies that are fast followers. Not everybody has Google's resources. But you can just take what's in my book [Work Rules!, (Twelve, 2015)], or what other companies have done, or what you read on the SHRM website or in HR Magazine, or what WorldatWork has done. And you can just implement that. Some organizations are going to do that very, very quickly. And they'll be successful.

Many will just say, "Oh, I can't do that; it's too hard; my manager doesn't support it; the company doesn't want to do it; we don't have the head count; it's too risky." A lot of companies, I fear, will be left behind.

There's an opportunity for people in the HR profession to really distinguish themselves by bringing the kind of insight that they couldn't bring 10 years ago because the systems weren't there. As a society and a nation, there are conversations we weren't able to have 10 years ago that people are starting to be able to have today. That's a huge opportunity for the profession. There's not a better time to be in it if you care about change and improvement.

Steve Bates is a freelance news and feature writer and a former writer and editor for SHRM.

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