Start With Analytics Problems Instead of Desired Insights

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Feb 18, 2020

In Wanda Wallace’s book “You Can’t Know It All” she quotes a mentor telling an aspiring executive “I can’t help you if you don’t come to me with a problem.” That little statement is worth pondering over. It’s easy to imagine someone going to a mentor just for some general advice, yet that’s not effective.

We need to say the same thing in analytics “I can’t help you if you don’t come to me with a problem.” It’s easy to imagine a manager asking the analytics team just to generate some “insights”. As with mentoring, that’s not effective.

The almost universal idea that analytics should provide insights flowed from the world of reporting where HR would hand pages of data to a manager. The managers didn’t know what to do with this, so they pushed back and said, “Don’t give me data, give me insights.” That’s understandable, but still the wrong approach.

It’s interesting that knowledge management ran into a similar problem. The idea was that experts would put knowledge (or insights) into a database which novices could then access. The trouble was that novices rarely found the knowledge, as captured in the database, useful. What works much better is if novices come to experts with specific questions which they can then talk through (see “Sharing Hidden Know-How” by Kate Pugh.)

The approach of managers coming to the HR analytics team with a problem works, but it’s far less straightforward than you would imagine. Managers are not used to framing their problems in a way that analytics can help with. The process of helping managers frame problems is the most important and highly skilled part of what an analytics function does. Ideally, HR business partners, with support from the analytics function, can help managers think through the problems and then work with analytics to provide answers.  Maybe we can call those answers “insights”, but they have to be initiated by the manager coming to HR with a problem.