HR Data Won’t Make You Less Human

With all the talk and rush toward people analytics (or talent analytics), there is some justifiable angst today that the H just might be taken away from HR – numbers will make everyone less human.

Everywhere we look, there’s a new article, webinar, conference or seminar imploring us to get with the program, that program being big HR data and the use of analytics in managing HR and the workforce. Analytics is being used across the board in HR, including talent acquisition, performance management, succession planning and more.

Is there a downside? By using data and analytics across HR functions, will HR and the people that make up HR become just machines, with no humanity, no compassion and no common sense?


Not that there isn’t an opposing view to accompany the angst. Writing in Forbes, Liz Ryan goes all in on the inhumanity of analytics:

“A typical ridiculous, unquestioned business adage is “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” That’s BS on the face of it, because the vast majority of important things we manage at work aren’t measurable, from the quality of our new hires to the confidence we instill in a fledgling manager.”

Whoa – relax, Liz.

People are the backbone of any organization, and the most successful ones recognize that. It’s the reason talent management is such a hot topic and high priority now. Especially coming off the global recession, with top talent at a premium…the best organizations get this!

Liz goes on:

“Measurement requires stopping the action, getting outside of it and holding it up against a yardstick, exactly the opposite of the activity that would create products or ship them, make customers happy or move our business forward in any way…Measurement is our favorite CYA activity.”

That’s simply not true at successful organizations.

At successful organizations, the action doesn’t stop, the creativity doesn’t stop and the innovation doesn’t stop – the people in these organizations are on fire and they stay on fire, from top to bottom. The measurement is all about improving the business, and making the business better for its people…which will make the business better.

That’s a never-ending, iterative cycle that makes the organization better.

When leading HR industry analyst Josh Bersin claims that, through the use of analytics, “high tech companies now know why top engineers quit and how to build compensation and work environments to get people to stay,” he’s not saying numbers magically appear in some algorithm, get crunched and then get spit out. He’s saying that as part of an ongoing evaluation of an organization and the quest for improvement, this is an area that analytics can shine a spotlight on to improve how the organization betters its people management.

And the HR data comes from people. It comes from employees talking to and engaging with their managers, which comes about from smart executives working closely with and engaging their people managers. In successful organizations, it’s not about CYA and finger pointing – it’s about making everyone better – and making the organization better as a result.

Here’s another real-world example of a large, complex organization that has used people analytics to improve its operations, in conjunction with making its people happier, more productive and more fulfilled. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employs many people to assist in the hiring of tens of thousands of applicants in it 29 agencies. People analytics was used to improve a wide range of talent acquisition functions – it led to a better allocation of resources, better candidates and improved communication between HR and hiring managers.  Analytics improved the morale of the people in HR and the people hiring candidates. And oh, by the way, the people applying for jobs now have a much better experience based on data provided by analytics. All this happened without stopping the wheel.

CYA? No. Organizational improvements? Yes.

As Bersin says, the geeks have arrived. But don’t let that scare you.

Most topics are not black and white. With all numbers and no people, HR can’t function. With just people and no data, HR is a lot less effective in doing the people part of its jobs.

While noted data scientist W. Edwards Deming is often credited with saying “you can’t manage what you can’t measure,” he also said “the most important things cannot be measured.”

Embrace analytics, even just a little bit. You’ll see how it can help the people side of your job.


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