Don’t Start Crunching Numbers Until You Know What Numbers to Crunch

I was helping a manager with the company’s analytics; the problem was framed as “falling engagement in front-line staff.” Now that is a good start because at this organization the link between the measure of employee engagement and customer satisfaction is well established, making this a business problem, not just an HR one. Furthermore it’s, at least potentially, an important problem. A problem worth devoting resources to addressing.

So what do we do next? Multiple regression? Create a data warehouse? Look for patterns in the engagement data? Maybe eventually, but before that we needed a discussion of where the business was going, how roles were changing, and what a new generation of customers wanted. The manager already knows why engagement is falling —  it’s a byproduct of changing strategy. We need to do some hard thinking about the future role of front-line staff before we even know what data to collect.

We are so keen to do analytics that we may seek to dive into data before we have debated what the issue really in.

The single most important skill in analytics is developing a clear understanding of the business issue. You normally get that clear understanding through discussion and reflection. Pushing for this discussion may feel uncomfortable if your job is analytics and the person is coming to you expecting an analytics answer. But no matter how powerful your analytics, you’re setting yourself up to fail if you tackle the wrong question.

It may be even worse if it’s an issue the person doesn’t want to deal with. They may hope you will take it off their hands with some mathematical magic. Still, diving into an analysis too soon is a waste of effort and will ultimately be judged as evidence that analytics doesn’t add value.

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When a leader presents an issue, make sure you engage them until you get to the stage where there is (as we always say in evidence-based practice) an answerable question. And for some issues, through discussion and reflection, you’ll find not just the answerable question, but the answer itself.

Special thanks to our community of practice for these insights. The community is a group of leading organizations that meets monthly to discuss analytics and evidence-based decision making in the real world.  If you’re interested in moving down the path towards a Google-like approach, then treat yourself to my short program on analytics here.

David Creelman, CEO of Creelman Research, is a globally recognized thinker on people analytics and talent management. Some of his more interesting projects included:

  • Conducted workshops around the world on the practical aspects of people analytics
  • Took business leaders from Japan’s Recruit Co. on a tour of US tech companies (Recruit eventually bought for $1 billion)
  • Studied the relationship between Boards and HR (won Walker Award)
  • Spoke at the World Bank in Paris on HR reporting
  • Co-authored Lead the Work: Navigating a world beyond employment with John Boudreau and Ravin Jesuthasan. The book was endorsed by the CHROs of IBM, LinkedIn and Starbucks.
  • Worked with Dr. Wanda Wallace on “Leading when you are not the expert” which topped the “Most Popular List” on the Harvard Business Review’s blog.
  • Worked with Dr. Henry Mintzberg on peer coaching, David’s learning modules are among the most popular topics.

Currently David is helping organizations to get on-track with people analytics.

This work led to him being made a Fellow for the Centre of Evidence-based Management (Netherlands) for his contributions to the field.



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