HR data

Want to Improve HR? Ask Better Questions First

Boston got hit with its third snowstorm in two weeks recently, and more than a few work initiatives overseen by nearby colleagues got lost in the blizzard — including a high-level meeting on workforce planning. Today was supposed to be a big roundtable where senior HR people set their crystal ball on the table to discuss new hiring initiatives and succession strategies.

The organization (I’ll call them Company X) is scaling up rapidly, and has meanwhile been hit with a nasty wave of voluntary departures. It’s a common one-two punch that can knock the wind out of the sturdiest HR teams. So how can HR leaders react?

Use Tech Tools to Get the Big Picture

No, people aren’t leaving because of the snow — necessarily. Actually, no one knows why they’re leaving: there are no exit surveys to help find out why. Work is different from love: when a relationship ends, no matter how you unpack it, the love is gone. But debriefing matters at work. It’s worth getting the data on why someone leaves. To get that data, you have to ask for it.

That means that every organization needs a powerful, easy to use feedback tool and well-constructed analytics to shape the answers.

Make Data Accessible

Back to the big meeting: Company X employs some 1,800 people in the Boston area — and most of those couldn’t come to work in the blizzard, so the meeting was postponed. The HR summit depended on looking at spreadsheets, the rationale went, which we can’t really do remotely. So instead of spreadsheets, they’re looking at snow banks. It’s a textbook lesson in the need for better tools — including talent analytics. If they already had the data they needed, they’d be able to push ahead with a plan, weather or not.

Build an Analytics-Focused Culture

My colleague is a silver lining type. He used the snow day to do what he’s wanted to do for months: Analyze the available data to create a better hiring plan. We’ve been talking about the power of analytics for some time now, but it’s not yet part of universal work culture, and it’s certainly not part of Company X. The company views itself as a legacy firm with a rather buttoned-up HR approach (which may also be something to look at in terms of losing talent). Its top people are beset with that “he/she went to a good school” bias. True, Boston has as many college students around as it does snow these days, and we all like smart coworkers. But the theory that brains and education equals great work ethic and potential for growth has been long disproved.

Consider the Competition

We’re also working with a labor market that’s tighter than it has been in decades. Most of us can’t compete with big tech companies like Google and Facebook. Google famously offered a staff engineer $3.5 million of restricted stock to turn down an offer by Facebook; carrot accepted. Frontrunner organizations are leveraging great candidate and employee experiences into better engagement and a stronger employer brand. A global IBM survey of more than 1,700 CEOs found that 71 percent see their people as critical to their competitive advantage.

Use the Data to Make a Case

The good news: We’re committed to putting data to work. In 2013, only 5 percent of big-data investments were in human resources, according to a global study by a tech consultancy. Five years later, 63 percent of companies are investing in tech to boost hiring and retention.

Yet in that same survey, 60 percent of respondents saw turnover rates of 20 percent, and 25 percent were losing up to half their people.

We’re not using the new technology that’s available to actually fix our HR woes. Only 35 percent were using tech tools for hiring. The data is there — but not the tools to drill into it and craft a vision for the future. And there’s the irony. If we’re not yet asking the right questions, we’re not going to get the answers we need — which is going to give the old guard at Company X more ammunition to argue that data doesn’t work.

Insist on Asking Better Questions

Once the snow is gone, my colleague has decided he’s going to suggest a trip away from the stuffy office to revisit their non-use of data — and chart a way to get the data they need. To power his case, he’ll ask:

  1. How many people are we going to need to hire in the next year? And in the next five years?
  2. How much is it going to cost to hire them?
  3. How many of those open positions are new?
  4. Is there anything in common with the talent we lost in the past 12 months?
  5. How do candidates feel about the hiring process now?
  6. Which locations and which departments are experiencing the lowest retention?
  7. Is there a point on each employee journey when disengagement sets in, and if so, why?
  8. How long does it take to onboard a new hire? Is that process effective, and can we shorten that period?

The only way to find these answers is leveraging the data — and everyone knows that. The trick, if you can call it that, is to insist on asking the questions. Can’t wait to see what they find out.