Big Data: Just Another Big Fad For HR

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Nothing excites organizations like another fad. The latest one happens to be a thing called “Big Data.”

Big Data refers to collecting so many performance numbers that understanding them becomes difficult.

Some people suggest Big Data be applied to HR, which brings me to my point. While Big Data might work for managing things and numbers, how can it apply to something few understand, let alone manage and measure — like human performance?

Making data actionable

Human performance is A + B = C. That is, something stimulates the employee/manager (A), he/she does X or says Y (B), and the result is either good or bad (C).

For example, a manager might have two problem employees (A), he/she talks to them (B), and later, everything is all better (C).

Sound simple? Sure, we can often record results (C), and sometimes we can even record the problem (A), but what the heck happened in the middle? Shouting? Warning? Exploring differences? Coffee chats? Bribery? Threats? Blackmail? Extortion? Something else?

Human performance is ALL about B, not A or C. That is, we need to know the specific employee skills used. Pile all the before or after-the-fact performance data you can collect into one big database and it still won’t be actionable until you include links to employee skills.

Skills are the things people bring to work. It’s the thing(s) they use to get the job done.

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A fuzzy sense of confidence?

It might be the ability to learn new skills, acquire specific technical knowledge, analyze data, make good decisions, be organized and able to plan, be motivated to act in a specific way, be skilled communicating with people, or any one of dozens of other job-related KSA’s (knowledge, skills and abilities). If you promote an individual contributor to manager and the person fails, it’s probably because the “B’s” for the old job did not match the “B’s” for the new one.

Organizations are great soothsayers. They think reading the tea leaves of results leads directly to employee skills.

I’ve known salesmen, managers, and business owners who were rewarded for performance, but the unethical practices used to get them there almost destroyed the company and workforce. You see, if you only have performance data, you never know the full story: did the employee lie, cheat, and steal; be at the right place at the right time; take credit for someone else’s work; or, were the results influenced by something else?

Big Data analysis might give you a fuzzy sense of confidence, but unless you understand your ABC’s and include them in your data files, Big Data will be just another short-term HR fad.


9 Comments on “Big Data: Just Another Big Fad For HR

  1. I agree- so much buzz around big data and HR and the focus should be on the people aspect. However, it is important to look at every angle of insight “big data” or any data can provide to the HR process and experience. This can only happen if professionals are asking the right questions and understand when and how to utilize the information and when to take a step back and assess the human components. In what situations do you think “big data” can be most effective with HR?

    1. It can be used to test/challenge basic assumptions, e.g. are workers who are young and single more likely to switch employers than those who are older and married? Is absenteeism a leading indicator of attrition? What role does the duration/distance of commute play in attrition? Are workers with college degrees more likely to succeed than those without? Does the GPA matter? Does the school “ranking” matter, e.g. is someone with a degree from Harvard going to be more successful than someone with a degree from a community college?

  2. You may think it’s a fad, I say it’s a tool. If I read you correctly, you’re arguing as if people are ignoring everything else and solely relying on big data. Organizations that adopt big data as a tool for their tool belt while continuing to use other best practices will win out. Baseball GMs ignored (some sill do) Sabermetrics, but those GMs that know how to use it as part of a strategy are proving to be the leaders in their field.

    1. Matt…Please share with us the names of those “leaders in the field” who used Big Data to manage their human resources without knowing which specific human skills were used to achieve specific results?

      1. Wendell…..I think Matt was making the point that adopting Big Data as a tool will allow HR functions to support their organisations to become “leaders in their field”.

        For example, BP are already applying HR Analytics to inform their strategy on things like Diversity, Maternity leave and Talent. I’m sure these baby steps will evolve into Big Data analytics globally for them.

        I don’t agree that it is a “fad”. The application of Big Data to HR is just unclear at the moment since it is a new concept.

        1. Thanks, Jordan. Wendell, yes, that is exactly what I’m talking about. I’m saying that I think it’s shortsighted to ignore it altogether. But, as one part of your overall strategy, the insight you can gain from big data are truly unique. I’m not saying drop everything else, I’m saying it should be looked at a one piece of the puzzle.

  3. Wendell – I wholeheartedly agree that there always has to be a component of HR analysis that is purely focused on the individual – both when the person is a candidate considering employment and for the individuals who comprise the workforce. Where we disagree, though, is on the opportunity and the value that Big Data analytics provides to HR in terms of HR’s other responsibility – i.e. being a strategic partner in guiding and running the business.

    If your position is that embracing Big Data analytics is an either/or decision for HR, then I think you are presenting a false dichotomy. It’s not about choosing between individualized performance measurement vs. Big Data analytics. As Matt and Jordan have also stated, Big Data needs to be another tool in the portfolio that HR can tap into to inform the recommendations and decisions the profession is responsible for.

    Big Data enables HR to ask new and different kinds of questions. Big Data analytics allow HR to get a read on the bigger picture. It provides HR with the kind of insights that enable the function be more proactive and accurate in its forecasting, and to see blind-spots and under-performing areas before cycle completion. There are numerous stories in the recent press that point out the insights and successes being achieved through Big Data analysis. I also see this daily in my work with my customers here at eQuest.

    I see the challenge for HR as one of being able to continue to maintain its role as the champion of the individual while at the same time strongly stepping into the role that the Executive Team is needing from HR. A recent PwC CEO study highlighted the fact that 79% of CEO’s have their most senior HR leader reporting to them for purpose of needing to be able to integrate people strategies into the highest levels of the business planning process. While being in this role requires HR to have a keen understanding of what impacts and drives business growth, it doesn’t mean the profession abandons its duty to study and know how to nurture and grow the individuals.

    The HR profession has a long established reputation for being intuition-based in its decision making. I believe it is critical that we all converge on a message that HR needs to embrace a “data everywhere” strategy which requires the profession to learn how to utilize all data and tools available.

    1. “Big Data needs to be another tool in the portfolio that HR can tap into to inform the recommendations and decisions the profession is responsible for.”


  4. I’m not sure this is really “new” it’s just gotten easier to crunch tons of info. Sears did a mash up of various data to analyze the employee-customer-profit chain in 1998. It’s just that we’ve got more data now, it’s ubiquitous and more easily accessible than ever before, and will likely continue to be so. Criteria such as performance ratings are prone to subjectivism and situational vagaries. However there are many pieces of data that are observable, valid and reliable. Age, education, gender, length of service, marital status, military service, number and age of dependents, home address and proximity to work location, attendance/absence data, compensation – the list goes on. These factors might help determine the likelihood of a person’s success at the company, or the risk of their leaving. Given the cost of bad hires and the cost of attrition, I think that any organization would be well served to gather analyze, and ensure the accuracy of their data in order to make strategic decisions around workforce planning.

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