Data Coaching: Is It the Next Big Step in Human Capital Measurement?

Data coaching is a big change for most HR departments.
Data coaching is a big change for most HR departments.

As the quest for the “right” human capital metrics continues, there has been a quiet detour to the overall evolution taking place in a workshop we have been teaching at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California.

The program is called Data Coaching. Data coaching is not another search for the Holy Grail to determine what the perfect metrics are for all organizations. Data coaching teaches participants how to help managers tell stories with their people or human resource data.

You may be wondering why scientists and professors, who are focused on numbers, would even consider such a program. The reason is that people do not take action, remember, or respond to numbers. There is some very compelling neurological research showing that in order to get the degree of emotion, you need action — you need a story.

The bewildering state of HR data

In addition, what we know from our work with organization is that stories are not naturally emerging from numbers.

As part of the data audit process, that is the beginning of custom data coaching workshops, we’ve been interviewing managers, senior leaders, HR generalists, members of the HR analytics departments, and every-day employees. These people tell us that they are often confused and bewildered when they look at their HR data.

For example, they wonder why their organizations are spending money to produce 50-page plus decks of employee survey results and/or big dashboards with lots of pie charts and bar charts that no one knows how to use.

What we learned is that human capital data alone are not enough. It is a starting point, but successful organizations need to use their human capital data for “power story telling.” The power comes from the data, but the data are not the end of the adventure.

  • Part of the growing up process: Too much data is most likely a natural part of the HR department growing up. The field went from having no or very little data to too much data. This is not unlike what has happened in other fields.  In fact, one interesting comparison is the evolution that has and is taking place in the medical community and how management researchers are learning from that line of work.
  • Evidence-based medicine and management: There is a lot of talk today about something called “evidence-based management” and this way of thinking is being utilized to help focus measurement. What is so interesting about the evidence-based work in medicine is that doctors are now supplementing their evidence with the narrative. Doctors and medical researchers are learning to tell stories with their data. This is because story telling is the future of evidence-based work if you want an audience to pay attention and take action in response to a message. The medical field needs evidence; no one wants to start taking medicine or be scheduled for surgery without knowing that research was done and data gathered to validate the use of the procedure or drug. However, what medical researchers and doctors learned was that lots of data and evidence were not necessarily changing public opinion or behavior.
  • The need for the narrative: There is an accumulating amount of knowledge about how the brain works.  Scientists study brain activity when people are provided with different types of stimulus. One such experiment has been run with data, and you know what? People do not get too excited about data. What we learn is that people do not emotionally respond to data, and thus, they do not remember data. What the human mind responds to, however, is a story. Stories provide context; stories ignite the process by which the mind can be activated and then remember. So all that good data we are producing in HR — without a good story — are meaningless. That is why leaders often witness little action as a result of the multitude of surveys or other data collection efforts being done within their organizations.
  • Beyond making sense of your HR or communications data: There is a need for people to learn to be data coaches. Data coaching is a new skill for HR professionals. Data coaching has been taught in education; the focus has been on helping teachers use data to help children succeed and learn. Data coaching is a skill set that HR, communications, and organization development professionals are learning in order to coach managers to take action with their employee data.
  • Learning data audit and data coaching skills: Data coaching uniquely blends human capital analytics with storytelling. What we find is that the way we present data in HR does NOT follow the rules of how to tell a good story. Therefore, we are changing the content and process of how to deal with HR data.

Data Coaching workshops and webinars

The data coaching workshop does not transform a dialogue person into a data person; what we can do successfully is to help everyone who attends learn to take the data they have and tell a better story with it.

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We start by teaching participants to do their own data audit, or at least learn enough about the process to work with a professional who can do a data audit for them. The data audit helps uncover the stories that reside in the organization’s data. It also pinpoints the holes in the current metrics strategy. If participants want to improve their human capital metrics, then the data audit process provides the answers to streamline and focus HR data with stakeholders and stories in mind.

Outcomes: As researchers who write articles and books, we have been telling stories with our own data for years, and now data coaching teaches others to do the same. Anyone interested in learning more can access webinars done with two organizations that are now using their data coaching skills.

You can go directly to these webinar links:

Next public data coaching workshop: The next 2.5 day workshop is being offered December 8 – 10 in Redondo Beach, CA. You can learn more and register for the December workshop at:

Dr. Theresa M. Welbourne is the founder, president, and CEO of eePulse, Inc., a human capital technology and consulting firm. Dr. Welbourne’s expertise is in the areas of leadership and human capital management in high growth and high-change organizations. She has a large body of work on initial public offerings; in addition, she works in the areas of employee energy and engagement as well as managing a large project on employee resource groups (ERGs). Theresa also holds an appointment as an affiliated senior research scientist with the University of Southern California’s Center for Effective Organizations. She also is Executive Director of the Alabama Entrepreneurship Institute as well as the Will and Maggie Brooke Professor in Entrepreneurship at the Culverhouse College of Business.

Dr. Welbourne’s research and work have been featured in popular publications such as Inc. Magazine, Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Business Week, New York Times, and Entrepreneur Magazine and published in books and in journals such as the Academy of Management Journal, Academy of Management Review, Strategic Management Journal, Journal of Applied Psychology, Leader to Leader and Organization Dynamics.  Theresa is a prolific writer, well known speaker, and she focuses on turning rigorous research into practical tools that are being used by organizations around the world.  Theresa was awarded the 2012 Academy of Management Distinguished HR Executive Award (for contributions in research, teaching and practice).  She was named a Top Technology Trendsetter in 2014 by Survey Magazine, and in 2017 she was inducted as a Society for Industrial Organizational Psychology (SIOP) fellow.