Monday 25 November 2013

CIPD - Talent analytics and big data

Screen Shot 2013-11-22 at 20.25.28.png

In my last post I argued that the CIPD has got things wrong in arguing for the focus on analytics in their new framework.  Well I disagreed with this top-level focus, and I disagree with the detail in their new research report, ‘Talent analytics and big data - the challenge for HR’ as well.

But I first need to note that I’m not against analytics or big data - I’m strongly in support of using both things.  I also do like a lot of the report.  Silos are a problem for HR teams, and the siloisation of data and systems compounds the problems that these should help solve.  And HR’s skills in the measurement and analytics space do need to be enhanced.  (I also like the suggestion that HR professionals should focus on telling stories from the stats [‘nobody likes dry statistics’].  I agree with the suggestion on stories - I just don’t believe you always need statistics in order to tell them!)

But just because big data is important, and we need to improve what we do in the area, doesn’t mean that we should let analytics take over from our focus what’s even more important, and that we already do reasonably well!

And I simply don’t believe that analytics are going to provide the basis for the leap forward we need to make in the profession.  I like one of the interviewee’s comments in the report that ‘the fact that HR wants to move into the place is good as it complements and balances the gut-feel approach.’  I agree, but I think the rest of the report forgets about the importance of this duality.

I also strongly object to those of us who have a more nuanced view about the utility of big data to be discounted as suspicious and afraid!  We have a reasonable (and I believe accurate) point of view, and it demands to be taken more seriously!


Let me explain -

The report makes a big thing of the problem in the take-up of analytics being what is called suspicion, as well as silos and skills.  This is about the cultural barriers which can ‘subtly undermine the people analytics effort.’  These cultural barriers include ‘biases and beliefs about where HR’s expertise lies’ and even ‘fear that data might reduce human beings to units of measurement!’.

This is just one example of the report distorting rational, critical arguments into emotional ones which most people will disagree with.  We, or at least I, don’t think data will reduce human beings to units of measurement, we just don’t believe measurement can ever fully describe the full qualities of these people.  That means that whilst measurement is important, it can’t be the big solution to our current needs.

The report goes on...


While it’s clear that HR is engaging with the challenge of big data,it’s also clear that this is not inthe comfort zone of many. Some feel that the advent of analytics compromises a more thoughtful and grounded HR practice. Few articulate this openly, but there is unease. The term ‘big data’ is sometimes associated with ‘bigbrother’ surveillance, control and an ICT and technology focus. The idea that this approach dehumanises and disempowers people is one strand of thinking commonly encountered in the learning and coaching space.'


Well, those who are concerned about a more thoughtful and grounded HR practice are correct in my view!  An excessive focus on metrics and analytics can compromise our effectiveness.  The more we focus on data, the greater the risk of losing sight of the forest for the trees, and reducing not increasing our insight about our people, and the effectiveness of our approaches.  And the approach also leads to absolute and dangerous nonsense like the belief that “If HR can’t measure what it does and prove the value of what it does then it shouldn’t be doing it” (Accenture again).

The report also notes that 'analytical people don’t live in HR - HR people are better at managing ambiguity than analysis' - well, perhaps there’s a reason for this (that this is the skill which is really most important and that we need to develop even further)!

There’s more too...

'There is also a fear outlined in our skills and smarts section that,since the capability to do this is not within HR, external specialists without the insight and nuance of HR will drive the approach. HR might be sidelined and kept out ofthe loop. There is also a perception that the insight generated might be less nuanced and more focused upon performance and productivity, with questions about the sustainability of such an approach.These concerns will need to be addressed along with the other issues of silos and skills if HR is to engage fully with this compelling opportunity.'


This repeated use of the word fear strikes me as deliberately emotive and pejorative language designed to discount views which oppose those in the research.  We’re not afraid, we just don’t agree!  This is what gives us a ‘certain comfort in sticking to our strengths’ - not some sort of stuckness based on fear.  I thought one of the interviewees in the research summer it up well:

“For me it’s just a buzzword that people are using to make themselves feel clever. Everyone else is just wanting to get on the bandwagon. The issue is what kind of stuff? You don’t always need to push the envelope and be ahead of the curve. People misunderstand the challenge: what’s the operational talent data? For a start you need a clean definition of talent which is clear. The unstructured [data] issue is promising, but what’s theincremental value? How is it going to drive my business in a leading-edge way? Not sure it (big data) can add real value…"


There are no quotes in the report of anyone saying anything like ‘I’m really afraid of big data!’ so I presume this thing about fear is the report writer’s interpretation of why people are ‘resisting’.  The following comment seems to confirm that this is an interpretative overlay over the research findings too:

'Suspicion and scepticism

Suspicion and scepticism is hard to identify, but behaviour and priorities can sometimes give us more insight than what people tell us in surveys or interviews. This is because there is anxiety and concern that HR is being asked effectively to jump the talent analytics and big data hoop when the issues of silos and skills are working against the ability to do that. Scepticism about whether a data-driven world would be better than the one we are in also abounds. The fact that a number of organisations we talked to for this project refused to be quoted is instructive.'


I’m happier about the use of the word scepticism than I am about the accusation of suspicion (defined above to relate to peoples' biases and fears).  However once again any rational, critical scepticism about the over-exaggerated potential of analytics and big data is distorted into a more general, quasi-flat-earther perspective (fear of the new data driven world).


So what I find really interesting is that the report itself demonstrates just how limiting a focus on data and analytics can be.  That is, that even after what seems to be a sound research approach (interviews with individuals from ten different organisations, survey data over two time periods and what is described as an extensive review of literature on the topic), presumably leading to a set of sound findings, the conclusions can still be so completely off the mark.

To me, this reinforces the central fact that it’s not the data but the insight this provides that is important - and this is where we need to focus our effort.  And insight is still as much about gut-feel as it about all this other malarkey.


BTW, whilst I’m on the subject of the research process and the literature review, I would just point out that the report mentions just 21 references within its extensive literature review and that this included no blogs - which is increasingly the place where new ideas are brought forward.

I think the CIPD is still a little suspicious (hah!) when it comes to social media.  And OK, citizen journalists do more obviously have our own axes to grind.  But at least I admit to my own biases as a blogger, and my blog is still a paragon of neutrality compared to this report!

Anyway, perhaps if the database had been widened out a bit and made more topical, it would have led to sounder conclusions too.


For example, what about the main problem in analytics - strategy!?

The report notes that analysts may be operating without a full understanding of the purpose of analysing people data, leading to a ‘bean counting’ approach to the measurement of people, but it doesn’t probe any further.  But in my view, poor, or lack of, strategy is a much more important and valid problem than the other three s’s that provide the focus of the report.


There are some important issues in all of this.

For one thing, I worry that the report is likely to mean that even more excessive focus gets put into measurement and analytics, rather than where the strategic need really lies.

It may also be one the main factors that have led to the CIPD putting so much focus on science and analytics in their new framework (see my previous post.)  Despite Andrew Marritt’s well through through response, I still think that’s a mistake as well.



By the way, and to save you from having to comment on this point at least, I am aware that rather than just carping at other peoples’ work, I should probably outline my own beliefs about analytics here.  And I just may do that later in the week.  In the meanwhile, you can take a look at these posts I wrote earlier (and if you’ve enjoyed this rant, you’ll probably like the way I lose my rag in the top two of these as well):


And I am going to continue my post-CIPD rantorama on a related field - external reporting - tomorrow (that’s if I dare!)


  • Consulting - Research - Speaking - Training - Writing
  • Strategy - Talent - Engagement - Change and OD
  • Contact me to create more value for your business
  • jon [dot] ingham [at] strategic [dash] hcm [dot] com


Technorati Tags: , , , ,


Post a Comment

Please add your comment here (email me your comments if you have trouble and I will put them up for you)