Are we Jumping the Shark on Big Data for HR?

Jumping the shark is the moment in a TV show when it begins a decline in quality that is beyond recovery, where the writers use some type of “gimmick” in a desperate attempt to keep viewers’ interest.  As a result, the show loses credibility and starts its long decline into irrelevance.  The term Jumping the Shark is actually named after this scene in Happy Days, where Fonzie did actually jump a shark on waterskis, inexplicably wearing both a leather jacket and swimming trunks at the same time:

Big Data Bandwagon

All aboard the Big Data Bandwagon

Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of HR vendors jumping on the Big Data bandwagon, and I wonder if as an industry, we’ve jumped the shark on this one.  Many of the articles and whitepapers I’m reading are describing Workforce Analytics, but claiming to be Big Data.  Some of them go to great lengths to define Big Data in ambiguous and overly-generic terms, so that they can claim to be offering a “Big Data” solution.  Let’s be clear – Big data is a collection of data sets so large and complex that it becomes difficult to process using traditional database management tools.  Think Sentiment Analysis from Twitter feeds; Behavioural Analysis, or Resume Screening for structure and soft skills – these data sources are largely unstructured, and require non-traditional approaches to data analysis like NoSQL and R.  

If you’re crunching internal data about your workforce from your HRIS and ERP systems, even if that data is coming from multiple sources, you’re not doing Big Data – you’re doing Workforce Analytics.  The good news is that:

  1. There are some really exciting potential applications for Big Data in the Workplace; and
  2. Workforce Analytics generates some meaningful and actionable insights for organisations, and is still gaining traction – though it’s been around for much longer than the term “Big Data”.

My concern is that Big Data for HR will go the way of Gamification for HR – another trend where some vendors will add token functionality and claim to be in the space for marketing reasons.  The result of much of this effort will be that, like gamification, clients will become disenfranchised with the field because it won’t deliver results.  The reality is that both gamification and Big Data have great potential – for the right organisations, and using the right tools – but you need to sort out the marketing spin from the significant offerings from vendors who understand and embrace the potential of these concepts.  If you really want Big Data, run a competition on Kaggle.  If you want actionable insights from analytics and, like 95% of organisations out there, aren’t suited to Big Data, then what you’re looking for is Workforce Analytics.

Big Data has big potential – just don’t jump onto the bandwagon until you know how to play an instrument – and remember, the plural of statistic is not strategy.

Jumping The Shark

Agile Workforce Analytics workshop at the Australasian Talent Conference

Australasian Talent Conference

Australasian Talent Conference

I’m happy to announce that I’ll be speaking at the Australasian Talent Conference from May 28th – 30th in Sydney.  The theme of the the conference is “Agile Talent Management”, and I’ll be running a 3-hour workshop on Agile Workforce Analytics, focusing on how organisations can uncover actionable insights into workforce challenges and opportunities.

Organisations are constantly looking to improve business performance, and doing more with less is critical. Agile workforce analytics enables HR to strategically lead the business in this improvement process. Participants in the Agile Analytics workshop will learn how to uncover actionable insights from the data they have about their workforce today; the ways in which statistics mislead us; and discuss the impact of Big Data on the future of talent management.

More information can be found about the conference here, and other places I’m speaking here.

The False Proxy Trap

Back in November, Seth Godin wrote:

“Sometimes, we can’t measure what we need, so we invent a proxy, something that’s much easier to measure and stands in as an approximation.”

We do this all the time in HR out of necessity – we measure employee satisfaction because there’s a connection between satisfaction and productivity, for example; and it’s difficult in many (but not all) roles to measure productivity directly.  Godin goes on to explain how this can become a problem when we focus on the proxy (in this example, employee satisfaction) and forget the goal (in this example, employee productivity):

“…When we fall in love with a proxy, we spend our time improving the proxy instead of focusing on our original (more important) goal instead”

I believe we often fall into this trap too – being obsessed with employee satisfaction metrics as if they are an end in themselves, forgetting that the point is to increase employee productivity – and that:

  1. There are many other paths to boosting employee productivity; and
  2. Not all of the ways to increase employee satisfaction will also increase employee productivity.

What are some other examples of the “false proxy trap” in HR?

(This post originally appeared at, the other place I blog at from time to time)

The ROI of Talent Management Programs

I’ve been working with a great organisation here in Melbourne over the last few weeks and ran a 2-day Strategic Workforce Planning workshop with them recently.  One of the questions that kept coming up was how to engage the executive in Strategic Workforce Planning to ensure that the program is successful.  In my experience, as well as aligning the workforce strategy to the business strategy, Strategic Workforce Planning is an effective way way of providing evidence that each initiative is providing a Return on Investment – or showing where they are not, and how to improve.

It’s not easy, at times, to quantify the costs of HR programs in in an organisation – but there are ways of doing it.  Turnover and Absenteeism are relatively straight-forward, but how do you put a price on innovation? productivity? creativity?   Even more challenging is predicting the extent to which a particular program will increase or decrease these factors.

Wayne Cascio, who I was fortunate enough to meet last year, has some great resources – including the book “Costing Human Resources” – with some techniques for costing some of these aspects.  For factors such as innovation and productivity, case studies can be instructive – but as each organisation is different, a well-crafted analytics strategy is the only way to really prove the “return” on your people investments in your organisation.

Business talks the language of numbers – and though it can be challenging, justifying proposed HR programs, and uncovering the value of existing ones, is one way of elevating Human Resources to become a strategic partner to the business.