In Analytics, the Questions Come First

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Aug 27, 2018

Note: Don’t miss the resources listed at the end of this article.


Last June, I had the pleasure of delivering two mega sessions on people analytics at the annual SHRM 2018 conference in Chicago. Being invited to speak at SHRM 2018 was a definite bucket list item. It’s a pretty awesome experience talking analytics in front of over 1,500 interested people.

After my talks, I usually stay behind to answer questions and talk to people about the specific challenges and opportunities they face in their organizations. Surprisingly, despite the focus these days on predictive analytics, natural language processing and other cool new machine learning or AI-driven analytics capabilities, most practitioners really struggle with some of the very basic steps to get started on their journey.

There are already a lot of good people writing, speaking, vlogging or podcasting about the more advanced stages of HR analytics. I’ve been exposed to what the future holds through my work with the founders of Qlearsite, a people analytics and natural language processing focused startup based in London. There is some truly groundbreaking, exciting and cool stuff being developed within the analytics space, which will enable HR to deliver more and more strategic value to their businesses.

This article however, is meant for people looking at the entry point of the journey towards building a people analytics capability. If you were handed a vague mandate by your leadership team to “come up with some analytics,” or “do some of that predictive stuff,” if you are struggling to understand what to do or where to start, if you are overwhelmed with all the cool futuristic and predictive stuff being advertised when you are just trying to figure out how to do some of the basic reporting –  this article is for you.

3 steps to get started

Based on my personal experience and the experiences shared by others, I’ve identified 3 critical steps to help you get started.

Step 1: It’s all about the questions

Any analytics capability lives or dies with the quality and relevance of the strategic questions it aims to answer. Without relevant, strategic questions, analytics is a means to no end. While you could still get some level of basic insight without first defining your questions, it would barely qualify as actionable. It’s sort of like having GPS without knowing where you want to go. I’m sure you’ll end up somewhere interesting if you just start walking, but I doubt it’s where you need to be.

You need strategic questions and you need them at the outset. These need to be questions that not just HR but the organization’s leadership team wants answered. It is absolutely critical that at least key members of the leadership team are actively involved in defining the questions, not just to gain buy-in (more about that later) but to ensure relevance to mission, vision, strategy and business goals. People analytics is much less about solving HR problems as it is to solve business problems using HR data and subsequent HR interventions.

Step 2: Small data vs. big data

Whenever I do my talks I invariably hear: “We just don’t have any data in HR.” Sounds plausible right? False. You have plenty of data, no matter who you are or in what sector, industry or geography you work. The problem is one of quality rather than quantity. Having reams of data is of little help if that data is a) Unavailable b) Unstructured, c) Incorrect, d) Incomplete or e) all of the above.

Big data is great. It really is. What most people at the start of the journey really need however is “Small Data.” What I mean by small data is a manageable subset of data that you are fairly confident about in terms of quality and completeness, preferably within your direct control. Start by focusing on one specific business problem where your small data set can be used to both understand and address the problem at hand.

A full data cleansing exercise is a big undertaking that will take significant time and effort. This can easily become a major hurdle to getting started, but it doesn’t need to be. By starting small, with a narrowly defined scope you can get small victories, which help build capability, confidence and credibility. It might sound counterintuitive, but in this case it can help to not see the forest for the trees.

Step 3: Don’t forget buy-in

This should really be step zero, but from a practical perspective it might be easier to have some initial work successfully completed beforehand. Getting all your ducks in a row is critical in any big implementation or change program; building a people analytics capability is no different. Too often have I seen projects being kicked off without an explicit mandate from the CHRO, let alone the CEO. Remember when I said that it’s much less about solving HR problems as it is solving business problems using HR data? That’s why having the CEO, COO or CFO (depending on your organizational context) on board as a sponsor is critical for success.

While senior level buy-in is important, you should not forget your HR community either. Moving towards analytics typically means a big change for most HR teams, in particular those who up until that point have always done the HR reporting or “owned” subsets of data. People analytics may mean centralization of reporting efforts, resulting in a loss of data control for some and an existential threat to the livelihood of others. I don’t see running reports and handing these over to the business as a value-add service. Anything a dashboard can do should never be done manually.

Removing non value-add operational work will free up HR’s time to fulfill their ambition to become more strategic. While this is great, the truth of the matter is that not every HR professional is quite ready to let go of the operational work, or to embrace the strategic, which is often a known unknown. Mapping out change readiness for key stakeholders and building buy-in upfront can help prevent serious derailment issues throughout the project.

Don’t drink it all

There is a lot more that you could and at some point absolutely will have to do. There is a lot more that you could do, but when you are just starting out, now is not the time. There is a story I like to tell at the end of my analytics talks, to bring home the various concepts I discuss and to leave people with what I consider the most important bit of advice as they leave the session to continue their analytics journeys. The story goes like this:

Imagine an endless desert. It’s midday and the sun is scorching hot. A man, on his very last legs, is making his way up a sand dune. He is lost, dehydrated and hasn’t eaten in days. Then, as if a miracle, the man hears what appear to be birds in the distance. He starts making his way over the top of the sand dune when he sees an oasis ahead.

As he gets closer he can smell the moisture in the air and with his last breath he runs toward the water. He falls on his knees in front of the water, reaching over and touching it to make sure his mind is not playing tricks on him. Then, for the next 10 minutes, he just sits there, on his knees, at the edge of the lake.

On the other side of the lake a Bedouin, a native inhabitant of the desert, has been observing this strange man on his knees in front of the water. Curious, he walks over to the man and asks, “My friend, are you all right?”

“No”, answers the man, “No I am not. I haven’t eaten or drunk anything for days. I’m dying of thirst.”

“But friend, you are at the water, why are you not drinking?” asks the perplexed Bedouin.

“I want to, I really do,” the man says, “There is just so much. I’ll never be able to drink it all!”

Don’t be that guy. Building a people analytics function that provides actionable insight is a massive undertaking. It is an ongoing marathon, not a sprint. Don’t get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work ahead of you. Take one sip, then another, until you build up the appetite and capacity to drink more and more.

Useful resources

There is an amazing people analytics resource available online for free that I want to make people aware of. Richard Rosenow from Facebook’s HR Analytics team has done an amazing job pulling together an HR Analytics Starter Kit that has all the resources you would require to get started, going or move to the next level, including articles, podcasts, training courses, books and much more. I highly recommend this toolkit, it’s a truly great starting point to learn more about the subject and get your confidence levels up – no matter what your starting point is.