HR and data: what gets measured gets improved

Alex Graves, CEO of Silicon Reef, discusses how HR departments in organisations can better use data to bolster operations

Modern society is driven by data. It’s everywhere. Each time someone or something interacts with a connected device or piece of software, data is recorded. In fact, people create about 1.7 MB of it every second.

Used wisely, data has colossal power. This was recognised by the management theorist, Peter Drucker, who reportedly said, “What gets measured gets improved”. The trick is to understand the value of data, measure the right things and then make sense of it all to inform decisions. And huge swathes of the economy are now doing so – often using AI – to drive innovation and accelerate growth.

Sadly, HR is lagging. When searching the top HR degrees in the UK, few of them focus on data as a major part of the job. Out of 39 modules, over three years, one degree course lists “managing data” just once.

And if you ask most people why they got into HR, it’s about relationships — making people’s working lives better, supporting others and helping employees thrive. These are all vital, but it often means data is ignored, despite it having a huge role to play in meeting these goals.

This is a fact recognised by the CIPD. It says too few organisations use HR data and analytics to help inform strategic decisions about how they invest in, manage and develop their workforce to deliver on their business strategy. The organisation states, “The people profession is low in skills and capability, with gaps in data science, and statistical and numerical skills. The absence of these is preventing advanced analytical capability from being developed.”

This must change if the profession wants to be taken seriously at a board-level, rather than being seen as a tactical role that hires and fires. However, it begs the question, what HR data is available and what value can it bring? The answer is “lots” and “a huge amount.”

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Knowing where to start

The challenge can be knowing where to begin, especially if, as pointed out, the profession lacks capability. With this in mind, rather than jumping in at the deep end, it’s better to consider what’s at your fingertips. This can paint a picture of what’s available to most HR teams – no matter their size.

In terms of where to look, there’s one thing that is nearly ubiquitous in modern businesses: the Microsoft suite of tools. Even the smallest of businesses often have access to it. And the program to focus on is Viva Insights. It works in three ways:

  1. An individual level: it tracks how people use their time; in meetings, on focused activity, answering emails, or communicating in other ways. With this, it can make suggestions directly to employees about the best use of time, while supplying hints and tips to boost productivity.
  2. A managerial level: it collects data for team leaders, offering vital insight into work patterns that might lead to burnout and stress, such as regular after-hours work, meeting overload, or too little focus time. Managers can use this to help teams strike a balance between productivity and wellbeing.
  3. For HR teams: it can answer critical questions about organisational resiliency and work culture. Importantly, it doesn’t just present raw data, but benchmarks it against other businesses in similar industries and gives scores and suggested actions. This is vital as it takes away the need to become an expert in data analysis, overcoming the skills gap in HR.

In short, Viva Insights gathers the data, makes sense of it, and offers solutions to problems. For example, it can see how many staff are getting stuck in meetings, then suggest ways to reduce this. Or how many are getting the right amount of one-to-one time with managers – or not. And how many people experience meeting clashes or even whether employees are experiencing enough cohesion across teams, all with actionable advice on how to improve.

Suddenly, with this data available to HR teams, and the accompanying advice on action to take, HR can step up and help leaders make a tangible difference to the operation of the organisation and support its strategic goals.

Supporting the business

For example, let’s imagine that a business goal is to grow in a market that is booming. The strategy to achieve this might be greater customer-centricity, offering special attention to clients to expand existing accounts. Data can be collected by the HR team to see how much time is allocated to external collaboration with those customers. It might find that only 10% of employees spend 8 or more hours each week doing so.

HR could then find ways to reduce less important meetings – perhaps those longer, larger ones where fewer decisions are made – and provide ways to boost customer interactions. This might include creating VIP lists of key external contacts so when they email, it’s flagged to staff as something to respond to first. Or it could be reminders to schedule time to connect with clients. Alternatively, HR may decide to create a Teams channel with those key customers for direct, informal chats to bring the client and team close together.

When considered like this, it’s easy to see how data, insight and action can help HR teams make a tangible difference to the way the business runs. And it’s not complicated – this level of data is often available to anyone using Microsoft 365, but more people teams need to learn about it and make use of it.

Of course, once the floodgates are open, there are a thousand more data sets that can be measured, understood and managed. They can be as simple as headcount and demographics or cost per hire and new-hire turnover, or employee satisfaction, retention rates, absenteeism and overtime.

In fact, some of the data may already be measured by operational and financial colleagues, including information on revenue per employee, utilisation and performance. The list can go on and on – and might be especially useful for HR teams to consider.

Herein lies half the challenge: knowing what to measure and what to ignore. Because while Peter Drucker said, “What gets measured gets improved”, not everything needs to be measured or messed with if it doesn’t link to the goals of the business.

HR has a huge opportunity to catch up with other business functions and make use of the huge pools of data available to them. Whether it’s on a small scale, helping certain groups of employees, or an enterprise level, helping entire departments and business units change operations for the better. Whatever HR chooses to do, one thing is certain: it needs to involve data.

Written by Alex Graves, CEO of Silicon Reef

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