HR Insights, HR Management

The Future of HR: It’s All About Making It a True Decision Science

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“It is important for communities to educate our children for their future, not our past.”

In a recent interview, Romain Dallemand, the superintendent of schools in Bibb County, Georgia,  talked about how he came into the job last year with a bag of changes he calls “The Macon Miracle.”

One of the tools in that tool kit was adding Chinese as a language requirement in his school district.

“This is HR’s future”

This school year, Superintendent Dallemand is rolling out Mandarin in stages, a few sessions a week, with the youngest kids starting first. In three years, it will be at every grade level. He is looking into the future, and with the changing dynamics of the global marketplace, he feels that Chinese will be the global language of the future.

When I was in high school, the language of my generation was French. My kids were taught Spanish.

This thought brought me back to a conversation that I had with a young man that was just accepted into the masters program at Fordham University. He was working toward a Masters in HR with a focus in finance. In years past, that pairing would not have been available — that is, this major and focus would have been there for someone wanting it.

One of our recent interns send me a note the other day and mentioned one of the undergrad classes that he was taking: HR Analytics. I conducted a Strategic Workforce Planning seminar a while back, and I met someone who works in HR in New York’s financial district and was hired out of NYU’s masters program. She had a master’s degree in Statistics. I also met some folks in another session in Pittsburgh who had marketing degrees.

If you have not been paying attention, this is HR’s future. Analytics, Marketing, Math, and Statistics will all be desired skills.

In their book Beyond HR, authors John Boudreau and Peter Ramstad have asserted that human resources is at a critical inflection point, poised between the administrative focus of support services and its potential role as a true decision science.

This is the future of human resources, and not our past HR.

The roadblock for this new era is, in a lot of cases, ourselves. That is, we are blocked by people who came up in a different era and felt more comfortable on the other side.

Making decisions based on data

This past style of HR was not a competitive advantage, but instead, a roadblock. This style totally enveloped HR and has caused much angst within both organizations and throughout our profession. Because of that, it will be years (in a lot of cases) before the new HR will be born. Our profession is in its gestation period.

The future of our field is to become more focused on the use of sophisticated measurement techniques and statistical processes to access talent and link organizational goals. In other words, it is about making human capital decisions based on data and not gut instincts. This transition is almost like the transition to social media; it is not going away, so you might as well get on board. There is no turning back.

With the number of calamities that are buffeting organizations today, the focus has to be on solving them — and not by simply using anecdotal evidence.

Anecdotal evidence” is simply evidence based on anecdotes. Because of the small sample most people use when judging anecdotal evidence, there is a big chance that it may be unreliable — so unreliable that nobody will take you seriously if you have nothing beyond anecdotes to back it up. IT’s another reminder that the past techniques of problem solving are obsolete.

Imagine marketing or finance sitting in a planning meeting, or making a presentation, where their findings were based on anecdotes or gut instinct. It could happen, but very rarely.

In most cases, their presentation and thought processes would be based on data. To change the relationship, HR needs to understand the finance and marketing mindset.

Basically, finance people are risk averse. Finance is focused on revenue, expenses, profit and shareholder value. Marketing is responsible for helping the organization acquire and keep profitable customers and therefore relate its functions directly to cash flow. In the same way, human capital measurement can enhance how well organizations understand the logic that connects organization success to decisions about their own talent, and the talent of those whom they lead or work with.

Towards an HR Decision Science

For HR to become a true decision science, we must do more than just incorporate facts and numbers. More specifically, a decision science for talent should draw from the vast array of research about human behavior at work, labor markets, and how organizations can better compete with (and for) talent, and how it is organized. This is why we must use every opportunity to read white papers, Labor Department pronouncements or any other workplace research that is available.

Every day I take a few minutes to compile my reading material for my commute home. There are articles from a cross section of disciplines: Psychology Today, Advertising Age, PR Week, Harvard Business Review, etc. They all contain articles that can educate and link human behavior, customer behavior and organizational behavior to talent. I am always on the lookout for that nugget of information that expands my insight into this new framework of HR.

A scientific approach reveals how decisions and decision-based measures can bring the insights from these fields to bear on the practical issues confronting organization leaders and employees in the workplace.

We are headed into HR’s future, and not its past. May old-style HR rest in peace.

Ron Thomas is a human resources officer currently based in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. He formerly was director, talent and human resources solutions at Buck Consultants (a Xerox Company) and is certified by the Human Capital Institute as a Master Human Capital Strategist (MHCS) and Strategic Workforce Planner (SWP). He's also worked in senior HR roles with Martha Stewart Living and IBM. Ron serves on the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy. He also serves as a faculty partner and executive facilitator at the Human Capital Institute. He has received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence by the World Human Resource Development Congress in Mumbai. Contact him at ronaldtthomas@gmail.com or on Twitter.
  • John A Bushfield

    Ron – I don’t disagree that using data and sophisticated instruments are a requirement for the HR leader, now as well as in the future.  So is understanding what skills will be required, how to best organize those skills, and how to nurture and develop them.  But you cannot look at these things in isolation; analysis is fine as far as it goes, but being able to execute against that data is where the rubber hits the road.  My experience is that, like Finance, HR is also risk averse (maybe because they have been aligned for too long!), and the real future of HR is the ability to develop, manage and promote a work culture that will attract and retain high quality workers, an inherently risky endeavor.  The rapid advancement in technology is a major contributor to the change we are seeing in the workplace, and waiting for data points to support an action will likely keep you behind the curve.  Data can be tricky, and sometimes the right answer may seem  to fly in the face of the data at hand.  HR needs to have the versatility and the sand to help it’s organization capture the next opportunity, for which data may not yet exist. 

  • http://twitter.com/TexasTwittHR Seth McColley

    Great post, Ron! Reminds me of the session in Austin (that you facilitated) with Billy Beane at the Transform event. There’s a place for “big data” in HR. It will be interesting to see how it continues to evolve, but it’s definitely present and not going anywhere!