What’s the Big Deal with Big Data?

HR professionals encouraged to define problems before seeking solutions

By Aliah D. Wright Nov 17, 2014
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Big data. It’s a buzzword that can seem daunting for the HR professional tasked with incorporating it into recruiting or workforce planning.

How do you get started with big data?

By asking the right questions.

“The data doesn’t mean anything,” Mike Harmer, director, HR Analytics and Technology at Intermountain Healthcare, told attendees at a Workforce Analytics Forum sponsored by the International Association for Human Resource Information Management (IHRIM) on Nov. 12 in Arlington, Va.

“What’s really important is the question that we’re asking,” he said. “You have to ask the right question and then start working backwards.”

The panelists said there has been a shift in how data is being used to make workforce decisions. Saying “’I think, I feel’ doesn’t cut it anymore,” one presenter said. More and more frequently, organizations are asking for companies to back up their decisions with data.

“You really need to know what business problem you’re going after,” said Chris Moore, CEO of ZeroedIn Technologies. “Then you go out and get the data to support finding the answer.”

“Asking the right question first will make a huge difference,” Harmer said. “There’s so much out there and everything sounds cool, but be really clear: Get a couple of use cases of problems you can’t solve now and then start digging into this.”

For example, years ago, call center managers may not have known the right time of day to get the right people to answer the right calls. Today, analyzing data can help companies answer those and other questions.

The experts at the forum encouraged HR professionals to turn to their organization’s mission, goals and strategies to figure out what to measure, in addition to supporting HR-related goals.

For example, Burning Glass Technologies uses an artificial intelligence engine to learn from career patterns in order to deliver intuitive, real-time awareness of how and when people move from job to job, and the kinds of skills and experiences that lead to successful placement.

“We’re using real big data,” said Steve Lynch, director of Workforce and Economic Development Services for Burning Glass. “We’re focused on labor market information, supply and demand data, and tools that help you make this stuff useful.”

The panelists suggested HR professionals figure out how to adjust outcomes based on data. Burning Glass, for example, analyzed the length of time that job ads were posted in different areas of the country—among other data points—to determine how long it would take to fill in-demand positions such as business analyst, cybersecurity professional and network administrator.

Harmer encouraged attendees to embrace the principle of “skunk works,” a term coined by engineers at Lockheed Martin in the 1960s who were tasked with building a special plane in 180 days on a shoestring budget. Today, the term refers to any attempt involving a special team or department that separates from the larger company to work collaboratively and autonomously on a special project under time constraints. Get approval to set aside time and resources to figure out and start to use big data.

Harmer suggested HR professionals consider the following tools to help them in their quest to use big data:

Weka is “a great analytics tool that is scalable and runs on your desktop,” he said.

The company’s website describes it as “a collection of machine learning algorithms for data mining tasks.”

Neo4j describes itself as “the world's leading graph database, powering numerous organizations worldwide, including more than 50 Global 2000 customers.” One such company is Wal-Mart. “Neo4j helps us to understand our online shoppers’ behavior and the relationship between our customers and products, providing a perfect tool for real-time product recommendations,” Wal-Mart software developer Marcos Wada stated in a testimonial on Neo4j’s site.

Hadoop is “an open source software project that enables the distributed processing of large data sets across clusters of commodity servers,” according to IBM.

Harmer said a hospital for children in Atlanta used Hadoop to examine its neonatal units. Doctors discovered that conducting a certain test on the newborn babies for longer than 20 minutes at a time caused the infants significant stress. As a result, the hospital shortened the length of time permitted for testing the babies.

“They’re changing the protocol for how they treat babies in neonatal units. These people had no budget, and used a couple hundred dollars in hard drives, and now it’s something that makes a huge difference in the lives of neonatal babies,” Harmer said.

Lastly, Harmer suggested attendees partner with vendors.

“As you come up with use cases, call your software vendors and tell them what you’re doing. Brainstorm with them; they want ideas.” Those ideas can ultimately help HR professionals use big data to solve big problems.

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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