By Emily Dean
16th April 2015

Last month, we looked at how data professionals can help the marketing department. This month, we asked HR Consultant Emily Dean to explain how improved information management could engage the human resources team.

In business, HR is under pressure to show its value through information about people.  We need numbers and data to do this.  We know we need to measure effectively where we, the HR function, align people to the business goals, how we can build capability, how we can monitor employees and so on.  Measuring data such as headcount, staff turnover and absence is easy.  Other HR data is difficult to derive meaning from and often elicits a ‘so what?’ response in me.

Here is where the worlds of data and HR collide.  People are not widgets, they are not numbers and they can’t be entirely predicted. Accountants may see people as a cost but really people are not something as simple and quantifiable as that.  People are people and that means it is difficult to extrapolate true and accurate information from HR data.

Here’s just one example of how the HR data industry swallows up big money to collect and analyse HR information with limited effectiveness:

Employee surveys.

Companies spend thousands on data specialists and software to carry out employee surveys. Why?  Because 78% of business leaders think retention and engagement are important and feel it is something they should at least be seen to be doing something about.

Employee engagement, run a survey, tick.

But when filling out an employee survey yourself, have you ever thought ‘that question just doesn’t apply to me?  I am a special case.  I am an individual not just a cog in a huge machine.’

The point is we HR people get lots of data and I wonder how useful it all is.  Is it just a matter of questionnaire design or interpretation? Do we lean on data rather than have it do something useful for us?  For example, ‘54% of people thought that the company should provide a water fountain on every floor and this would impact how they felt about their work.’  Really?  Should we invest in water fountains to improve engagement and ultimately business performance?

I just don’t believe it is as simple as that.  People are difficult to quantify, we don’t like being put into boxes and we will almost certainly fill out a survey in a different way depending on our mood at the time we sit down to do it.

A very interesting piece of employee engagement research published in the Journal of Organizational Psychology last year was very well outlined by Stuart Walkley, Director at Oakridge at the Talent Management Think Tank in Manchester recently.  He set out to explore the drawbacks of “one size fits all” employee surveys.  The research shows the differences between what engagement looks like for different age groups and for those employees at alternative stages of their career.  There’s no surprise in the conclusion that we’re all different.  What is important to me at age 30 is not so important at 40. And, you are different to me and so may feel that having meaningful work is more important to you at 40 than earning a big salary was at 30.

We know that to provide a truly successful business and employer brand, people want work that has meaning, good management, a positive work environment, opportunities to grow and develop plus good leadership, but how do we realistically measure all of this in order to demonstrate improvements? All those different things have a different weighting for all of us employees at different stages of our career. And because we’re people, we don’t all behave in the same way, we don’t have the same motivators, fears, pressures and so on.  The danger is we have lots of data and we’re not sure what it actually tells us.

The gauntlet that I would lay down to Information Management professionals is that my instinct is that some really good, meaningful one to one conversations with employees would probably do a lot more for employee engagement than collecting vast amounts of survey data. But then how do you measure the impact of those conversations?

This is a tricky problem which HR professionals would love some help with. Can HR data ever be meaningful and actionable or should we just give up on the surveys?

Written by Emily Dean, HR Consultant

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