My 8 lessons from the icon group SWP & Talent Analytics Conference

Last week I had the pleasure to moderate the third Icon Group Strategic Workforce Planning & Talent Analytics conference. They were two very insightful and fun days. Partly as a result of the international line-up of speakers. Partly as a result of the delegates who were really engaged; they asked great questions, shared their experiences and gave their opinions. For those who couldn’t make it and for those who are still digesting the information overload: what were the main takeaways?

1. Focus on the bottom line

If, in an HR function, you want to be successful with HR analytics and SWP, you need to start with the end result in mind, i.e the bottom line. According to Max Blumberg, too many HR professionals are still starting with the data and not with the problem. As result, they invest in technology and data quality projects, but fail to respond to real questions and concerns from the business regarding Human Capital ROI. It should be HR’s ambition to learn more about the bottom line (i.e. the business), so that HR can demonstrate and predict impact. Personally I would like to add: don’t start with an HR-analytics pilot before you have nailed down the real business problem which the pilot will provide actionable insights for.

2. Head-Heart-Gut

Both Suzan Defazio and Esther Bongenaar explained that humans make decisions with the head, heart and gut, or in other words:  that we have beliefs, intuition, experience and evidence. However, within HR, the emphasis has been on the heart and the gut too much and for too long. HR analytics is not there to replace humans (heart and gut) entirely, it’s there to fill a void. Data and analysis allow HR to earn a seat at the board table as it enables HR to make better informed (head) / more balanced (head-heart-gut) decisions.

3. Build a bespoke ecosystem

Both with regards to SWP and Analytics, different presenters reported on how they successfully set up ecosystems (method-technology-stakeholders-focus areas-in/outsourcing-governance). At some companies analytics includes research, reporting and analytics, while at others, it focuses purely on analytics. Jane Barret explained that at Ericsson they have Workforce Experts in the business, while other organisations play SWP through their HR BPs. Some companies invest heavily in technology, while others just make a start and worry about technology later. Some companies focus on critical roles, others adopt a blanket approach to SWP. Some work extensively with third parties, others carry out most of the work in-house. However, the common denominator is that they have all made well-considered choices and tuned their ecosystem to fit their company’s DNA.

4. Big data? Not quite there yet.

What became clear from the panel discussion with Alex BrowneMaude JulienMax Blumberg and myself is that big data has not really penetrated HR on a large scale yet. As a function, HR is too static – think of the annual engagement survey, which is a poor way of tracking sentiment, think of the annual performance conversation, which with one touch point a year can hardly be called a conversation. As a result, HR doesn’t meet the velocity aspect of big data. In addition, most HR departments are still getting used to fact-based working and are still involved in the ethical discussion around the use of big data. So they aren’t focusing on external and/or unstructured data for the time being. As a result, HR doesn’t meet the variety and veracity aspects of big data. However, guess what? It doesn’t really matter! Most bottom line challenges and opportunities can, for a large part, be tackled with leveraging data that are in HR systems and data that can be generated through research (e.g. interviews, focus groups and surveys). Once the more traditional data have been successfully leveraged, HR can start looking at more exotic types of data, like for instance Facebook’s Ross Sparkman did when he included stock market and private equity fund size data in their predictive attrition model.

5. Analytics does NOT eat ethics for breakfast

Just like the myth that analytics will make HR obsolete was busted at the conference (see point 2), the other myth about analytics, that it eats ethics for breakfast, was busted too. As pointed out in the panel discussions described in point 4, ethics do not have to be sacrificed. At best practice companies, making the ethical consideration about an analytics project and the data that will be used, is embedded as an early stage process step in every analytics project they commence on.

6. Analytics goes beyond data crunching and predictive models

Data can provide us with very interesting insights, especially when more advanced statistical methods are being used, like predictive modelling. But looking at the data alone, entails a considerable risk. The risk of lacking a deep understanding of the topic and the dynamics around the topic, which can lead to suboptimal decision making. Therefore various speakers, including Marcus Champ, pointed out that doing research, as part of analytics projects, is paramount. When we speak about research, this includes both qualitative and quantitative research. Qualitative research could for instance be a focus group. Quantitative research could for instance be a survey.

7. Use maturity models pragmatically

Maturity models are great as a compass. They give the organisation something to work towards and function as a roadmap to achieve objectives. Therefore, several of the presenters included Luk Smeyers maturity pyramid in their deck. At the same time, several speakers mentioned that organisations should match their methods to the business challenge that they are working on. In practice this means that sometimes simple descriptive or causal analytics can be used, while at other times organisations should go all the way up into the pyramid and apply predictive or even prescriptive analytics.

8. Companies can get up to speed fairly quickly 

Aviva’s Nathan Adams, ABN Amro’s Auke IJsselstein and Shell’s Vasileios Giagkoulasand Esther Bongenaar were very kind to share their fact-based HR journeys with us. The bad news from their presentations is that fact-based HR is not something an organisation can adopt overnight. Luckily we can also conclude that within relatively short timeframes (1-2 years) organisations can ramp up. And another 1 to 2 years can bring an organisation towards a balanced distribution between head, heart and gut.

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