Experts: HR Dashboards Must Tell Stories with Data

By Dave Zielinski Dec 6, 2011
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When Christine Buss suspected that few line managers in her organization were using the performance dashboards her team was creating, she knew that some changes were in order.

Buss, manager of HR workforce analytics for Health Care Services Corp. in Chicago, devoted time to interviewing those leaders to ensure key metrics on the dashboard were relevant and actionable to them, rather than only of interest to HR.

She made the quarterly dashboard reports short and sweet—three hard-copy pages with easy-to-interpret charts and a cover sheet highlighting “standout” metrics: good and bad. She decided, in initial distributions, to hand-deliver dashboard reports to managers to help them interpret the data and provide meaningful context.

In making these changes, Buss addressed one of the biggest challenges HR leaders face in their growing use of dashboard technologies: persuading line executives to see them as “must read” reports that can help them manage their businesses better.

“We spend a lot of time figuring out the metrics that leaders of our various business divisions care most about, then customize our dashboards to those areas,” Buss said. For call center managers, those measures might be voluntary turnover of high performers or unscheduled time off. For information technology leaders it might be progress against staff development plans. For managers of growing divisions it could be the time it takes to fill open jobs.

Relevancy Is Key

Although HR dashboard technology has evolved—allowing users to view, drill down and slice-and-dice workforce and compliance statistics in ways never before possible—the difficulty remains making the data behind the technology useful for non-HR managers.

“The reality is that most initial attempts at an HR dashboard meet with a delete key,” said Jason Averbook, CEO of Knowledge Infusion, a Minneapolis-based human resource consulting firm. “Line managers often don’t understand how to interpret or apply what is sent to them, or there is too much HR jargon in the reporting.”

People tend to be dazzled by technology when viewing dashboard demos, Averbook said, but impressive visual representations of data and drag-and-drop reporting are the least important parts of the equation. “The majority of dashboards don’t work, either because people don’t store the appropriate data behind them or they aren’t measuring things that people outside of HR care about,” he said.

Katherine Jones, principal analyst and research director at Bersin & Associates, an HR research and consulting firm in Oakland, Calif., said the encouraging news is that HR dashboards are moving from “counting things” like the number of employees hired or trained to featuring analytics tied to business results.

“It’s an important step to move HR dashboards from collectors and displayers of things you can count to actual business intelligence,” Jones said. “This goes beyond time-to-hire type statistics to things like measuring preventable turnover of high performers in key roles and how that affects the business.”

Telework Dashboards

At the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) in Washington, D.C., dashboards are used regularly by managers to track levels of staff telework in their departments. Telework supports the agency’s strategic goals of creating a more-flexible workplace, reducing unneeded building space and limiting its carbon footprint, said Sharon Wall, a GSA telework program management officer.

Each month a measurement team extracts and aggregates telework hours coded in a payroll system, said Kruti Vora, a GSA business analyst, making the data available across divisions in an interactive dashboard tool. (For a look at a GSA telework dashboard click here.)

“Each divisional manager can use the dashboard to track their group’s telework participation and see how they stack up against other divisions,” Vora said.

The dashboard creates new accountability for meeting telework goals, said Wall. “If you’re a manager and you say ‘I support mobility’ but I drill down through the dashboard and look at your unit and see very low participation in telework, it gives me the opportunity to ask some probing questions about that,” Wall said.

The dashboards track employee engagement levels, because managers believe that engagement has a strong influence on productivity and customer service performance. One of the questions on an employee survey—Does my manager support mobility? —has a direct connection to engagement, Wall said.

“We found employees who answered ‘yes’ to that question … were more highly engaged than employees who answered ‘no’,” she said.

Storytelling with Data

Capturing relevant data is only one part of the battle with dashboards. Experts say one of the best ways to get line leaders to pay attention to HR dashboards is to become proficient at telling stories with the statistics.

“One of the biggest competencies missing from HR is storytelling,” said Averbook. “If the data you present to line executives isn’t immediately seen as actionable, meaning people don’t know what the story means and what to do with it, dashboards become viewed as a throwaway process and technology pretty quickly.”

Buss strives to create narratives with dashboard reports. “If one of our call centers is hiring a lot of people and the first few performance reviews of those hires are good and they are staying for long periods—that’s a good story,” said Buss. “On the other hand, if centers are hiring a lot but the first reviews don’t look good and there’s too much early turnover, that tells a story too. The point is these stories are more compelling than presenting stats by themselves.”

Presenting data in comparative ways can tell an engaging story and move managers to action. Buss often reports a constellation of measures on more than 20 call centers, side by side, that are likely to be associated with employee engagement issues. Metrics might include turnover within 90 days of hire, “preventable” terminations, survey results on overall engagement and exit survey complaint data.

“We highlight call centers with the best scores overall, and worst overall, and it’s proven a useful chart,” Buss said. “To me that is exactly what dashboards are for. They don’t give managers the answers, but they point them to critical issues that likely deserve further investigation.”

Patience is a virtue when using dashboards, said Wendy Hirsch, a principal in the workforce strategies group of Mercer, a human resources consulting firm, because first attempts aren’t always met with a warm embrace by those outside of HR.

“It can take years to build this capability, so don’t assume your first pass at creating useful metrics will be your last one,” Hirsch said. “Use the data you have on hand to get started, and keep building on it.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.

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