Big Data and HR, can they mean Us?


In her recent FT article, Lucy Kellaway wrote that business should be able to pass the 10 year old questioning test. This means if a 10 year old asks you a question you should be able to explain in simple terms the purpose of a business or operation. Her examples pointedly included, ‘Mummy what are banks for’? If the 10 year old asked ‘What does HR do’? I might be hard pushed to give a simple answer in terms she could understand.

In the 21st Century HR is facing the same dilemma that the advertising industry faced (and still hasnt quite faced up to) of digital marketing. ten years ago the 10 year old may have asked the same question about HR and Marketing (marketing may have been more creative in answering but would not have been able to answer the supplement,how)? No longer can naive clients be seduced by the romance of tv/radio or outdoor campaigns that could not be measured and certainly no real scientific value could be derived. This was only really served to stroke the egos of the Marketing Directors and agency chiefs where biggest was best and the actual customer outcome was secondary to the size of the budget and how ‘cool’ the campaign was. Then along came the age of the geek – the algorithm, data and analysis changed everything…

However, the business models and behaviours of the advertising industry did not change immediately and its true to say a decade on the industry still struggles with how they shape and inform the debate. A few years passed before the crowd followed the pioneers and shifted direction.The new kids on the block are no longer the flamboyant, ‘suits or creatives’. The real leaders are now those that wish to understand data, analytics and ultimately the customer.

Is HR facing the same crossroads? How would most HR departments answer the 10 year old question? Would ‘Well we keep the company out of trouble’ suffice? How many activities that HR carries out do we really measure, analyse and link it to improved employee and business performance? How do we really demonstrate a focus on our own internal customers and ultimately the end user? The people who pay our wages? Ulrich and others have written about the power of data and analytics. Notwithstanding it is still rare to see HR leaders fated for use of analytics and impact on the customer and bottom line. A recent CIPD survey suggested that Britain’s CEO’s and HR Directors are at odds on direction and thinking, meaning CEOs beginning to question the value of HR for a business. It may be that the HR community’s opinion is right about continuing to invest in the long term and in skills and training but unless this is backed up, the efficacy and effectiveness of this opinion will always be disregarded.

The world of digital marketing has created roles and demands skill sets that didnt exist 10 years ago. Will HR begin to grasp the mantle and start to use these new skills? After all if we look at our employees from the perspective of a Marketeer or an Ecnonomist, aren’t our employees driven by certain incentives, rewards, stimulus, and recognition in the same way a customer is – and the sum of all these behaviours will lead to group behaviours that we can observe, measure and test? If HR is willing and able to harness this potential, it becomes a truly strategic player and a must have for any organisation.

Where are the HR functions that are changing the focus or promoting the skills to affect this change? Currently, it seems the focus is still on traditional roles that fill gaps but don’t advance the agenda. The phrase ‘If do what you’ve always done, you get what you always got’ is very relevant for the current status quo. In recruitment terms it seems the debate is about the role of the HR Business partner not how do we get a grip on the core issues.

HR has to shift its mindset. As businesses become ever more focussed on data and deriving value from every function, questions will rightly be posed? And it won’t be the 10 year old asking the question, it will be the CEO? What is at the core of an HR function if it is not either shaping or helping execute the strategy? If we cannot or refuse to try and measure our effectiveness perhaps our days are numbered? And rightly so…

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