An Imperative For Today’s HR: A Sharp Focus on Data and Analytics

This past week I participated as conference chair for the first ever workforce analytics conference in the Middle East — the Workforce Analytics Forum that was held in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

It was amazing to see the various industries from telecom to health care, privately owned to multi-nationals, presenting their analytics and wrapping it into a business case.

I remarked in my closing statement that this level of rigor and alignment would not have been possible even a few years back. But now, to have a conference dedicated to this new level of HR was astounding.

Welcome to the club

Every major discipline has been using metrics and analytics for so many years that it is an accepted part of business. However when it comes to HR, there seems to be this level of distrust, or shall we say trepidation, about entering this wonderful area of opportunity for OUR discipline.

To give you a quick overview, here are some common analytics practices that are being used in various sectors of business:

  • Financial Services — credit scoring, fraud detection, and underwriting;
  • Retail — marketing promotions, inventory, demand forecasting;
  • Manufacturing — supply chain optimization;
  • Hospitality — pricing, customer loyalty, and yield management;
  • Transportation — scheduling, routing, and yield optimization

We own all the people data

As a senior faculty member of the Human Capital Institute, I have noticed over the years that our classes in the analytics area are now being inhabited by more than just HR folks. The classes are now populated by people with backgrounds in marketing, data mining, statisticians, and even mathematicians.

I, for one, welcome this. Smart HR professionals will realize that they do not have the right skill set and will not try and force feed this on someone in the department regardless of their willingness.

While they could probably ramp up to it, this role is far too important and needs someone who understands data and can hit the ground running.

Data is very important, with HR being the repository of all relevant data concerning people within the organization. This people data task has taken on more importance in the past few years given that just about every survey points to how senior leadership is not comfortable with the level of support in running the business that HR is providing.

A must have for the new era of HR

Workforce analytics and big data are now “must have” capabilities in HR.

The reasons are numerous. The business world is being transformed by the amount, speed and availability of data. As organizations search for a competitive advantage, the data around people and performance will become ever more critical.

There will always be naysayers as it relates to this new approach but the rut that the HR profession is in is directly related to our predecessors in HR not moving past the process, policy, and procedure stage. Holding on for life and not being willing to bulge or move forward is NOT a strategic decision.

Stuck in a rut

I get a lot of emails from generalists who are eager to learn more about this new approach but are “stuck” in HR departments that are being run as if it were 1995.

I had one of my former direct reports call me up a few years back, and she was excited to tell me that she had been promoted to “HR Business Partner.” As we talked about the enjoyable moment, I asked her to tell me what her new role entailed.

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She mentioned that she would now sit in marketing and be connected to that department. My response was OK, so now you sit in marketing — what else?

She then said that she would be marketing’s personal HR rep. My response was OK, so now you are marketing’s HR person. What else?

As we continued our conversation, it became apparent that this new organizational design was not thought through. She had, through no fault of her own, a clue as to the strategic role that this “Business Partner” would play in the new design outside of geography.

This was going to be the “new flavor of the month” from HR. Yes, it’s a new business model, but no one could explain how this is the “new approach” for strategic HR.

Become self-taught

My advice for my former direct report was for her to not wait for direction but to delve into this marketing person’s head to try and get a sense of the challenges she is facing, as well as the organizational goals. She must begin to eat, breath and sleep marketing as that will become her area of expertise. At every touch point in her new department, she must show value, not from an HR vantage point, but from a business vantage point.

We must use every opportunity to raise this profession from a back office department to a level of expertise around people within the organization.

This will not be accomplished by an org. design that was done to mask partnering. We have to move this profession forward even if it is one step at a time.

There’s no more time for excuses. The time for HR is NOW. 

Ron Thomas is Managing Director, Strategy Focused Group DWC LLC, based in Dubai. He is also a senior faculty member and representative of the Human Capital Institute covering the MENA/Asia Pacific region.

He was formerly CEO of Great Place to Work-Gulf and former CHRO based in Riyadh. He holds certifications from the Human Capital Institute as Global Human Capital Strategist, Master Human Capital Strategist, and Strategic Workforce Planner.

He's been cited by CIPD as one of the top 5 HR Thinkers in the Middle East. He received the Outstanding Leadership Award for Global HR Excellence at the World Human Resources Development Congress in Mumbai, and was named as one of the 50 Most Talented Global HR Leaders in Asia

Ron's prior roles included senior HR positions with Xerox HR services, IBM, and Martha Stewart Living.

Board memberships include the Harvard Business Review Advisory Council, McKinsey Quarterly's Executive Online Panel, and HCI's Expert Advisory Council on Talent Management Strategy.

His work has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, Inc. Magazine, Workforce Management and numerous international HR magazines covering Africa, India and the Middle East.

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