The three analytics traps

An inconvenient truth is the fact that organizational dynamics can work against effective people analytics by rewarding non-productive projects. Let’s look at three such problems: the activity trap, solutioneering, and the imitation game.

The activity trap

Few things make managers more nervous than a lack of activity. It’s why a narrative along the following line tends to form: as long as employees or their teams are seen to be busy on something that sounds plausible, then everyone is happy. It’s a mindset that perpetuates, because this outlook doesn’t place any real blame on anyone specific if the plausible project doesn’t work out. In other words, there are many more reasons that could have explained a projects’ failure.

There’s another reason why the activity trap exists too. Being busy can be stressful, but it’s less stressful than sitting around trying to figure out what to do. Churning out 100 reports can be demanding, but at least it’s an activity that has been defined. It’s just a matter of putting in the hours.

In the world of analytics though, it’s almost too easy to generate activity. Analysts can build dashboards, run surveys, or experiment with machine learning. The trouble is that all this activity, if not directed towards a carefully thought-out business issue, is likely to be a waste of time.

So HRDs need to be very wary of being led towards a project that involves lots of activity towards a goal that, if we they were honest, is a rather vague.


I don’t know who coined the term ‘solutioneerng’ but it’s a good word, and it means attempting to deal with a difficult situation without first understanding it.

Take, for example, low productivity in a manufacturing plant. HR is often eager to pull out familiar solutions – such as training or incentives or culture – rather than digging into the gnarly complexities of the situation.

In people analytics, this can show up in the guise of using any problem as an excuse to deploy a favorite tool. It could be that the analytics team is eager to use sentiment analysis or multiple regression or simply some cool visualizations and present those as solutions instead of facing up to the complexity of the problem.

So, anytime there is a rush towards solutions, HRDs need to get the team to slow down, take a pause, and spend two to four meetings on understanding the problem before even mentioning solutions.

The Imitation Game

The ‘imitation game’ is another name for the famous Turing Test [a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior], but unfortunately, here I mean it in a rather more mundane context. It’s common for managers to read about what other companies are doing so they can imitate it. In people analytics, we’ve had waves of imitation around flight risk models and dashboards with no doubt new fads to come.

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In people analytics, as in all of management, we should not treat one piece of data that was (apparently), effective in another organization, as reliable evidence that it will work in another. Skepticism is a virtue. HRDs should want to gather more evidence, and perhaps experiment a little, before jumping headlong into imitation.

Anytime something seems faddish, and the interest in it seems to be because “this famous company did it” then you should be cautious.

Common threads

You can probably see the common thread that runs between the activity trap, solutioneering, and the imitation game.

In all cases, we shortchange the uncomfortable step of grappling with the complexities of an important business issue.

Sure, one can never figure everything out in advance, but don’t commit to months of activity on a comfortable solution or something that someone heard about at a conference. Be aware of the dynamics that encourage us to take the easy path rather than a productive one.

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