Sometimes, Opinion Is Better Than Data

One common mistake of HR analytics professionals is to overplay the idea that only objective data has value. To balance the scales, here are some situations where objective data may be less useful than informed opinion:

When the objective data isn’t particularly relevant: We may have lots of data about employees, but none of it may be relevant to the question we are trying to answer. For example, why do people keep quitting our call center jobs? The main reason may be that the facility is too cold in the winter and too hot in the summer. The department’s manager may suspect that and be right; but that data isn’t going to show up in our HR systems. Until we get relevant objective data, acting on the manager’s insight may be the best bet for reducing turnover.

When the opinion comes from a true expert: Humans can have very accurate opinions (which we should probably call ‘judgements’) if they have repeated experience with a situation and get good feedback on the outcome. For example, if a sales manager has seen many different sales reps deal with a client over the years, then they may well be able to accurately predict who will be a good fit for that client — and their predictions will outperform any prediction based on objective data.

When we can accumulate a lot of opinions: An opinion survey goes from being “just an opinion” to “important data” when it has been completed by a lot of people.

When the objective data isn’t what it seems: Finance will be happy to give us the book value of equipment down to the nearest penny. That seems like objective data. However, if the issue is “What can we sell this equipment for?” then book value is just a formal way of making a wild guess. It’s better than nothing, but it may not be better than an informed opinion.

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Objective data is great and we should certainly use it whenever we can; but let’s not think for a moment that analytics should be limited to objective data and that it is somehow illegitimate to make judicious use of subjective data and well-informed opinion.

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Special thanks to our community of practice for these insights. The community is a group of leading organizations that meets monthly to discuss analytics and evidence-based decision making in the real world. If you’re interested in moving down the path towards a more effective approach to people analytics, then email me at

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research. Based mainly in Toronto and partly in Kuala Lumpur, he’s best known for his research on the latest issues in human resources.

He works with think tanks such as Talent Tech Labs (New York), Works Institute (Tokyo), Workforce Institute (Boston) and CRF (London). He’s collaborated with leading academics such as Henry Mintzberg (leadership development), Ed Lawler (“Built to Change”) and John Boudreau (future of work).

His books include The CMO of People: Manage employees like customers with an immersive predictable experience that drives productivity and performance with GrandRound’s CHRO Peter Navin; and Lead the Work: Navigating a world beyond employment with John Boudreau (USC) and Ravin Jesuthasan (Willis Towers Watson).

You can connect to Mr. Creelman on LinkedIn