Big Data could provide rich pickings for HR departments

Big Data could prove to be invaluable for HR departments, but there's a need to change mindsets first

Big Data, analytics for big datasets and mixed structured/unstructured data, is a term that's now entering the business mainstream.

Marketing companies have been making much use of the trends divined from big datasets in order to make better decisions about how to market their products, but could HR also use the same analytical techniques to recruit and manage staff better?

Big Data provides the organisation’s human resources department with a massive opportunity. But before any data is collected, HR must understand the requirements of the business and ask the right questions to get satisfactory answers. By doing this, HR can start to gather data and show the effect of policies on people and the business’s investments.

According to Brad Peters, chief executive at cloud business intelligence software vendor Birst, HR is no different than any other functional area that can tap into the data treasure trove.

“It offers an opportunity to layer in data you might not have previously considered incorporating into analysis due to the cost and complexity involved,” he says. “This could include demographic or regional data that is combined with operational HR data to help discover trends that were not previously evident.”

HR is no different than any other functional area that can tap into the data treasure trove

This could even include machine-generated data resulting from employee interactions such as what’s common in call centre environments, according to Peters. All this data can be captured, and when analysed with operational data, can lead to insights that had not previously been noted.

Annrai O’Toole, European chief technology officer at Workday says that there is a wealth of new and interesting possibilities when you combine accurate HR data with data from other parts of the organisation.

“For instance, in the insurance industry it would be useful to combine HR and insurance claims data to find out which employees are contributing the most to the profitability of the business. The scenarios will differ from industry to industry, but HR Big Data offers the organisation an opportunity to contribute empirical insight into the performance of the business."

O’Toole says that in order to get the maximum out of the technology, the starting place is to have good quality HR data in the first place.

“Many large organisations suffer from old and complex HR systems that are hard to use and are prohibitively expensive to deploy on a global basis,” he says.

It’s important that HR technology is adoptable for the whole organisation, for example by offering a "consumer internet"-like experience to employees, wherever in the world they are. This makes it easier for HR to ensure their data remains accurate and up to date. There is no way to maximise Big Data if the core HR data is not accurate and correct.

"But implementing a data-centric HR strategy can be a bit of an uphill struggle, particularly if it is a new process being introduced to the organisation. The issue then becomes one of a cultural change within the HR organisation. Change of process often needs to be backed by a convincing manager and can take time for everyone to adjust – but if managed correctly it can have a powerful and positive impact on the way people work," says Jeremy Langley, Marketing and Business Development director at talent management software vendorLumesse.

“If you and your organisation truly believe that a data-centric approach is necessary, this should be an idea that is sold into the whole company, starting with the HR organisation, from the top."

Implementing a data-centric HR strategy can be a bit of an uphill struggle

That means that senior managers and leaders inside the HR department and the overall company need to ensure that everyone in the HR department is pulling in the same direction when it comes to compiling, understanding and using data.

But access to vast amounts of data and the trends they reveal can also present a security challenge too.

“Data that would have been previously meaningless when viewed alone, becomes connected to a whole wealth of information that can lead to confidential details being exposed,” says Neil Stephenson, chief execuitve at Onyx Group. “In addition, there is always the concern that when data is combined, it can be misinterpreted. This needs to be managed carefully to avoid influencing recruitment decisions or impacting upon employee relations.”

But there can be downsides to the use of Big Data in HR. Aneesh Gupta, head of innovation EMEA at HCL EAS believes that such use in HR would eventually become mandatory.

“This road needs to be traversed with caution. It is not an answer for everything. Big Data can create big noise as well.”

Gupta says that using social media feeds to make decisions on our professional lives is going beyond the boundaries of our work lives.

“We need to recognise the basic need for personal and professional space for each individual and ensure that the need is protected. With great access to information comes greater responsibility in usage of the information. HR departments need to set the standards for usage of Big Data, particularly social media,” says Gupta.

Using social media feeds to make decisions on our professional lives is going beyond the boundaries of our work lives

But putting aside pitfalls and downsides, if Big Data usage by HR really does take off, the future could see the technology being used to understand the sentiments of existing and potential employee, according to Stacy Blanchard, managing director of management consulting, talent & organisation, at Accenture. Blanchard says this would make the HR department far better at talent acquisition and management than those who are not using Big Data.

“Some of the visible changes will be in the way of tracking and attracting key talent and employee engagement, such as no longer being dependent on a once in year survey with 70 questions to understand what employees value,” she says. “There will also be other changes, though not so direct. For example, the way an organisation will manage and drive its cultural values and profile.”

In future, better integration of Big Data will lead to better and faster analysis. This in turn will lead to Big Data increasingly influencing strategic decisions and this could mean seeing data on people having influence at a board level. This has already started, but the links between strategy, talented employees, and performance will become clearer. The importance of a motivated team will become more obvious and the data will empower HR managers to influence the board.

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