Make Sure Big Data Adds Up


The science of data collection is meaningless without the art of interpretation.

Big data is all the rage in Human Resources and Learning & Development departments these days. As business leaders demand more analytics from all disciplines within their organizations, professionals in roles as diverse as workforce planning and employee training clamor to crack the code on meaningful ROI metrics. While increased attention to quantitative inputs is a key component of demonstrating value, practitioners should be careful not to abandon the qualitative aspect of the equation.

When accurately defined, HR metrics can help enhance the way an organization hires, trains, rewards, deploys, and retains its employees. In addition to advancing these core employee lifecycle activities, thoughtfully designed measures can ensure targeted benefits from projects such as system implementations, culture change initiatives, and even post-merger integrations are captured according to plan.

In the training world, developing the right metrics early on can lead to demonstrating the real-world value of programs based on measurable advances in employee performance—a far cry from smiles sheets aimed at simply confirming participant satisfaction.

While there are cases when executives want a cold read of the “as is” reality, most often they come with a working hypothesis of a situation. Regardless of the topic, it is important to begin by understanding the reason behind the initial request. Business leaders are not interested in data for data’s sake. Most covet the story it allows them to tell. Understanding both the business case they want to validate and their personal motivations behind the project will help you maintain your objectivity. Other guidelines include:

  • Sweat the details: Time-crunched leaders often will ask for ballpark estimates. Avoid the temptation to dazzle with speed at the expense of quality. Often, big-picture views are only possible after detailed analysis, so be sure to know the proverbial trees before you speak of the forest.
  • Include the caveats…but don’t hide behind them: Variables exist and should be accounted for, but be sure to take a stand on what should be done. Anyone can present statistics. Data, however, only becomes valuable when transformed through analysis into directional indicators and accompanying actions.
  • Strive for balance: The science of data collection is meaningless without the art of interpretation. Even established quantitative measures, such as Total Cost of Workforce (TCoW) calculations, should be viewed through a complementary qualitative lens such as “TQoW—Total Quality of Workforce” to reveal actionable insights.
  • Mind the money: Treat each project as if you were personally funding it. Having a sound business case is not enough. Acting like an owner requires you to think beyond your individual initiative and evaluate the opportunity cost, associated risks, and project interdependencies before taking action.

As HR and Learning & Development professionals, we correctly call on leaders to manage their human resources with the same focus and care they do their financial resources—asserting, especially in services organizations, that there is a valid business case for increased attention to human capital management.

At the same time, we consistently clamor for a “seat at the table.” Membership, however, requires that you have something meaningful to say. Arming yourself with data is a good start, but having the wherewithal to consult on strategies and actions related to that information is the real game changer.

There’s no question that big data is a valuable tool for selecting a course of action. Sometimes, however, solving for X is harder than you think. To ensure your efforts add up to success, incorporate both art and science into your decision-making. No one blames data for a bad call or a missed opportunity. In the end, you have to own your decisions.

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