Sometimes, Opinion Is Better Than Data

One common mistake of HR analytics professionals is to overplay the idea that only objective data has value. To balance the scales, here are some situations where objective data may be less useful than informed opinion:

When the objective data isn’t particularly relevant: We may have lots of data about employees, but none of it may be relevant to the question we are trying to answer. For example, why do people keep quitting our call center jobs? The main reason may be that the facility is too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. The department’s manager may suspect that and be right; but that data isn’t going to show up in our HR systems. Until we get relevant objective data, acting on the manager’s insight may be the best bet for reducing turnover.

When the opinion comes from a true expert: Humans can have very accurate opinions (which we should probably call ‘judgements’) if they have repeated experience with a situation and get good feedback on the outcome. For example, if a sales manager has seen many different sales reps deal with a client over the years, then they may well be able to accurately predict who will be a good fit for that client — and their predictions will outperform any prediction based on objective data.

When we can accumulate a lot of opinions: An opinion survey goes from being “just an opinion” to “important data” when it has been completed by a lot of people.

When the objective data isn’t what it seems: Finance will be happy to give us the book value of equipment down to the nearest penny. That seems like objective data. However, if the issue is “What can we sell this equipment for?” then book value is just a formal way of making a wild guess. It’s better than nothing, but it may not be better than an informed opinion.

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Objective data is great and we should certainly use it whenever we can; but let’s not think for a moment that analytics should be limited to objective data and that it is somehow illegitimate to make judicious use of subjective data and well-informed opinion.

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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 more effective approach to people analytics, then email me at

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.



1 Comment on “Sometimes, Opinion Is Better Than Data

  1. Great summary. Of course it’s not an either-or decision to use perception data – it’s invaluable to combine it with data from HR systems in predictive models. We believe that it makes models much easier to action.

    I’ll be giving a presentation called ‘The joy of text. Building actionable models with perceptions’ at Predictive Analytics World for Workforce in May –

    I’ve written about this on numerous occasions. For starters look at

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