HR and Big Data

In recent times, I’ve been starting to wonder what is it that makes HR good at what they do. There’s a lot that we’re expected to do which many of us take the time and effort to understand and become skilled at. I’m addressing all of what HR involves here – the generalist activities, learning and development, organisational development, recruitment, employee relations, and whatever else I’ve missed. Many working in one or across those disciplines will have a fair understanding of the broad HR remit. It’s a fascinating world, a complicated world, and a much needed world.

But what things are we missing? What trends or technologies or developments are we dismissing because we’ve not taken the time to understand what they offer us? I’m going to write a short series on some current trends happening in the workplace which HR just aren’t considering. There are three things in particular I want to throw out there as being big trends which we’re just not giving enough thought to: big data, user experience (aka UX), and analytics. Each of these are elements of organisations which are becoming increasingly important and increasingly complex. Also, each of these areas overlaps very closely, so I’m going to try my best to not create too much confusion.

Big data then. Well where do we start with this? First let’s be sure we know what it is. As my good friend Wikipedia states:

…big data is a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using on-hand database management tools. The challenges include capture, curation, storage, search, sharing, analysis, and visualization.

and it continues:

Big data is difficult to work with using relational databases and desktop statistics and visualization packages, requiring instead “massively parallel software running on tens, hundreds, or even thousands of servers”. What is considered “big data” varies depending on the capabilities of the organization managing the set.

Right. That’s a useful start. So big data is so big that it’s ambitious to think any one company/organisation will be able to make full use of all the data available to them. The everyday tools and software many of us are used to (Excel, SAP and the likes) are useless in the context of big data because they’re just not designed to manage that level of information.

How much data are we thinking we’re talking about? Well this report from McKinsey helps. They took big data from five domains: “healthcare in the United States, the public sector in Europe, retail in the United States, and manufacturing and personal-location data globally”. That’s how big we’re talking. Let’s put that into perspective. This is all driven because of the proliferation of digital services entering our lives from years ago to the present day and moving into tomorrow. Because of the level of interaction we have with every service we ever come across, and the way we access that either from our smartphones or our PCs or information boards or telephone services, we’re giving data about our behaviour and that data is just stupidly important. Although companies are responsible for helping us to interact more digitally, it’s our everyday usage which creates the data being talked about. The McKinsey report highlights seven key insights, and you should go read that. I’ll highlight this one point from the article:

Access to data is critical—companies will increasingly need to integrate information from multiple data sources, often from third parties, and the incentives have to be in place to enable this.

So how is big data being used? This recent article in the Guardian helps give a sense of where it is being used – fraud detection, healthcare and medicine, humanitarian efforts and privacy. Ok, now we’re getting a sense of how organisations need to understand big data to help them with their efforts, and how businesses can create solutions that meet these needs.

So, where does HR fit into all of this? Well, I’m not entirely sure. What we know is that big data is pervasive and it will only continue to penetrate more aspects of our lives. What we also know is that currently there is a skill shortage in this developing arena. HR at some point will need to learn how to become number crunchers on some level in order that the service they provide the organisation meets the new ways of managing and being smart with data. Not the regular data we think is important such as recruitment churn, number of delegates on learning events, ROI of the HRIS, or sickness figures, but bigger more important data. Things like:
– Who’s searching for the company online and how do we target them with information?
– What information is readily available so that we have a responsive L&D agenda as opposed to a calendar based approach?
– Which teams have consistently been better producers of work/generators of income over the last five year period?
– What percentage of leavers are talking about us in the social space, and how can we be part of that conversation?
– What is the brand perception of us in the marketplace, and how do we improve that?
– Are our employees involved in projects that produce community and societal benefits as part of their scope?

Some of these questions we can answer to some extent now. Some extent isn’t going to be good enough in the future.

I don’t have an answer to the challenge I’ve laid out here. Big data is here and it’s going everywhere fast. Now you know, what are you going to do about it?