Research: It’s Not a Four-Letter Word

By Joe Jones, Ph.D. Mar 11, 2016
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A consultant attending an HR conference found himself chatting with another consultant when he claimed, “We have this new research service we want to showcase that we think the HR leaders here will love.” The other consultant, a veteran of HR consulting for many years with a successful record of marketing products and services to HR leaders, replied, “That is great, but don’t use the term ‘research.’ HR leaders hate to hear the word ‘research!’ ”

If you ask HR professionals about research, their reaction may very well be, “Research? Why do research?” Research in this day and age of instant information, when anyone can quickly gather data and pose as an expert on Twitter and LinkedIn, has certainly gotten a bad rap. Many believe research to be a costly endeavor resulting in nothing more than a hefty paperweight designed to collect dust. But if you can get past the initial reaction to research, you realize you are already doing research. Whether interviewing workers on employee relations issues, conducting organizational surveys or simply watching what is going on out on the shop floor, research is at the heart of HR functioning. Research is the key lever for making better decisions for the organization.

HR is no longer a simple art form. It is more science than art, rooted in well-planned, well-executed and actionable HR research that results in an improved organization, not a dusty report on a shelf that no one reads. There is both an art and a science to HR, and the better you are at the science part, the better you are at HR.

Thanks to the trends of “big data” and “constant information,” the ability to access data to help answer critical questions and to put some teeth behind business decisions is greater than ever before. But a key challenge for HR is to learn how to pick the right data, methods of analysis and ways to communicate findings that will provide the greatest return on investment for making decisions. For example, employee engagement, turnover, sales and brand satisfaction data may all be available with a few clicks of the mouse, but is this the most important data needed to answer questions you have about training effectiveness? If it’s not the right data, what is and how do you gather it? And do you really need a complex statistical software package to answer your questions, or can you use something simpler?

So what do we need to do differently? We need to embrace research as a value-added tool. That might mean slowing down and taking a moment before beginning an interview process. Or it might mean looking into whether you need more-complex analysis software than your current spreadsheets. With advances in technology and analytic tools, we can better take advantage of the opportunity to conduct research efficiently.

We also need to develop ourselves in the HR competency of critical evaluation. Critical evaluation is the ability to interpret information to make business decisions and recommendations. In a recent article in HR Magazine, Jeanne Harris, a professor at Columbia University and co-author of Analytics at Work (Harvard Business School Press, 2007) and Competing on Analytics (Harvard Business School Press, 2010), stated, “Only by building a real analytic capability can HR professionals become the proactive, data-driven critical thinkers and business leaders that their organizations need.”

People skilled at critical evaluation will pause and determine the most important questions to ask in order to solve problems. They are also good at knowing what data and data sources are the best for answering those questions. A third proficiency is determining appropriate analyses for critical questions using key data.

To become more proficient in critical evaluation:

The more proficient we become in critical evaluation, the more strategic we become in conducting research, the more we embrace applied research as a value-added tool (and not a waste of money better used elsewhere), the more credible we become as a profession, and the more confident we can be in our HR and business decisions. And if you still think “research” is a four-letter word, call it something else. But remember, it is still research.

Joe Jones, Ph.D., is director of HR Competencies for SHRM.

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