On HR, Big data, Analytics and Moneyball

In brief : HR Analytics will change turn talent and competences management upside down. But not everything should be put into the hands of technology to reduce people to a couple of numbers. On the contrary the power of technology should be used to analyze jointly factual data and subjective feelings to objectivize things and make more informed decisions

Many things are said on the need to reinvent HR, most of all regarding the social and 2.0 paradigm. Spending hours discussing the interest of being able to identify talents, expectations, wishes, potentials and hidden qualities as well inconscious needs is useless. But the way theory will be put at work often leaves HR managers doubtful.

Data is good. Drawning into isn’t.

When HR people come and ask “now, so what ? What do I do I ?”, nobody seriously think of saying “read employee’s  blogs, tweets, what’s said on your enterprise social network then use your intuition, instinct and try to make a synthesis”. As I wrote about cognitive computing : having data is nothing if one’s not able to extract those that matter, make sense of them and use it for decision-making.

What leads us to analytics : what should we look for, how to find and quantify it, make sense of it. That’s a challenge that’s anything but simple for HR. If, on the customer side, sentiment analysis is improving everyday and businesses are getter better at correlating these trends with tangible data, it won’t be that easy on the HR side. If the “sentiment and concern” side is pretty well tooled and becomes more and more relevant, what’s about competences ? Competences is much more than the ability to write a lot on a matter, that’s also being relevant and thinking and putting knowledge at work. Social analytics will have to be used jointly and correlated with other systems that measures levels of mastering and accomplishment : performance reviews, peer reviews, social performance management etc.

There’s no doubt we’ll quickly find things to rely on, that will be good enough for a first sept. But it won’t come without questions, mainly on the difference between a talent and his competences. As a matter of fact we’ve always linked competences to their owner and considered that people were the sum of all their competences. But what would happen if we start thinking in terms of team competences rather than in terms of people ? That’s called Moneyball.

HR the moneyball way ?

I think everyone has seen or heard about the Moneyball movie and what it was about. Quickly put, it’s about having a more analytic than human vision of talent and consider that a team should not be built on additionning the needed talent but on the cumulative capacity of its members to reach given numbers in key statistic fields. Why hire this talented player while we only need the team to do xxxx, y times a game ?

It brings two reflections. The first is that competence is nothing without tangible results, hence the need to correlate many sources. Second one is that individuals can be dissected into a sum of key performance indicators.

What’s the interest ?

According to the movie (based on a true story) it allows smarter recruitment, most of all when budgets are low, and be able to compete with wealthy teams able to hire the best players when you have only a quarter of their budget by recruiting average but very complementary players. What matters is to know the right criteria. No matter a player is not good at everything, provided the sum of all players allows to meet the target from a collective standpoint.

It’s no use saying that such principles look like Heaven for lots of businesses who try to apply it in HR. What inspires a very controversial post on the Wall Street Journal last year. In the same way Ford used to say “when I need a pair of arms why do I have to deal with the brain that comes with”, now it’s “since I need a team capable of doing….why should I pay for an individual that comes with supernumerary competences I don’t need”.

The approach actually looks nice. Since HR mission is to put the right competences in front of the right needs, why not have the more granular possible approach and look for “the capability to deliver a quantifiable result” instead of individual competences. The “competence mix” becomes the role of HR and management, not a matter of people anymore.

When work is collective, people can’t be reduced to statistics

The problem is that a business is not a baseball team. Let me elaborate (I hope purists will forgive my shortcuts) : baseball is a sequential game that cumulates individual plays. Collective can only be found in the addition of individual results. There’s no interaction between players in the game. In my opinion the Moneyball approach would be doomed to fail in more collective sports like basketball. In a sequential sport, 1+2 will always equal 2, in sports with collective actions 1+1 could be 3 or even 0 depending on the capacity of the group to play together.

But there are a couple of things HR could draw from moneyball :

• Production is the only criteria that matters. Whatever a sales director’s competences are “on the paper”, what matters is sales numbers.

• The importance of the “mix”, but not in the Moneyball way. I’m talking of the mix managers make by helping their team playing a better collectively. Better results will be achieved this way than by summing individual results. That’s what makes “1+1>2” possible.

Individual competence weight very little in the collective mix

•The need to reinvent indicators and measure what really matters regarding people’s jobs and activities and have a dynamic view of these indicators that could change during a project, over time etc.

• To have an objective knowledge of people, the Sabermetrics Method used in Moneyball requires sentiment and subjective matters to be taken into account.

• It’s interesting, for any given individual, regarding his characteristics, to guess the way he’ll evolve in the future, based on what people with the same mix have done in the past. But it depends on so many contextual factors that this point leaves me quite skeptical.

For another point of view, please read this.

The power of analytics to represent the human diversity

Soo what’s the value of analytics in all that ? It’s obvious that they will change the face of HR, most of all in terms of talent allocation, provided they won’t be used to do things they’re not designed for. Technology is here to serve a vision and if the vision does not hold the road the collective intelligence machine becomes an industrial accidents one.

I can see two majors ways for analytics to contribute to HR.

First one about mass identification and processing of unstructured data. Second one if about correlating objective and subjective data, bring sentiments, feelings and a bit of that subtlety that’s the proper of humans in data processing. The ability to create synergies between data computing and social computing. Who said cognitive computing ? Achieving this complex challenge will help businesses to take the human complexity into account, what both people and machines have been failing at for years. The first because they lack objectivity, the second because of too much rationality.

The challenge is as big as it’s promising. Let’s be careful of what we do and don’t give the keys of HR to a modern Frankenstein. Moneyball HR are both illusory and dangerous. Talent management relying on a deep and comprehensive understanding, objectivized and informed decision are essential.


Bertrand DUPERRINhttps://www.duperrin.com/english
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler
Head of People and Business Delivery @Emakina / Former consulting director / Crossroads of people, business and technology / Speaker / Compulsive traveler

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