Measuring & Managing Culture with Big Data

January 8, 2013 Darcy Jacobsen

Here is part two in our series of posts on the 6 hot themes that we see affecting HR this year. This post discusses how Culture Management is made infinitely more possible with the advent of Big Data into HR.

Winston Churchill once famously said: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” Meaning however bright your ideas are, it’s their impact that actually matters. The more analytics we gather, the more we are able to build a culture of analytics to measure and optimize strategy. It’s a reciprocal relationship that is important in any organization. And in 2013 it will become critical to HR.

Why? Because Big Data offers HR an invaluable opportunity to manage the two things it cares about most: Talent and Culture. Talent management is something we’ve been trying to measure for years with subjective data and inconsistent results. Culture management has been a huge challenge until now, as we’ve struggled to find ways to quantify and measure something that has been largely intangible.

At last, Big Data, through HCM and Recognition programs, is giving HR the tools to quantify and manage culture, from individual performance to how departments interact, to how well values are thriving within your company.

Analytics have long been at the periphery of business strategy, but in the past few years, they have moved to center stage. From supply chain and manufacturing to product development to marketing and sales, over the past few years Big Data has become critical to every corner of leading organizations.

In 2013, Big Data will become integral to how we operate in HR. In short, collecting data on your employees allows you to gain the deep insights into your culture that will allow you to manage it. It enables you to effectively gain insight into your culture’s inner workings, which puts you at a significant disadvantage, because in 2013, culture will continue to emerge as a distinguishing asset for recruitment and retention of talent.

Line graph of big data overtime

So what is HR Big Data? The term “Big Data” started as a catchphrase for large pools of data analytics that were too large for common software tools to manage—terabytes of information with complex, multiple or unstructured data types. It has since expanded a bit to incorporate a sense not only of size, but also importance. SAP’s blog has a great breakdown of this, which I’ve paraphrased and added to, below. In effect, HR data is the huge reserves of information we can now gather from sources like HRIS, HCM and Recognition solutions. It includes:

  • Anyone who’s ever been employed by the organization
  • Recruiting and candidate pipelines
  • Personnel actions associated with each worker, including transfers, promotions, demotions, relocations, resignations, and rehires
  • The tracking of every role, position, and job a person holds—each title, salary, compensation history, and performance history
  • Payroll data: frequency, earnings, deductions, and taxes
  • Benefits: enrollments, changes and accruals
  • Time off and attendance data
  • Employee participation in training, proficiencies, and certifications
  • Records for contract and temporary workers
  • Recognition data that captures who is being recognized, how departments and individuals are interacting, and how values are thriving in your organization

Gone are the days of gut-decisions based on instinct and anecdote. The most successful businesses not only rely on business analytics, they foster a culture based around them. They actively gather all of these metrics and they analyze and act on them to ensure that their strategy is effective.

Because culture and analytics are involved in this constant reciprocal relationship, the dialectic between them means that a culture that produces strong analytics is also a culture that is made strong by them. And a company that produces results. In fact, according to According to a recent survey by HCI/Taleo:

“Organizations that rated themselves ‘proficient’ in workforce data analysis were far more likely […] to financially outperform those who rated themselves as ‘deficient’ at workforce data analysis.”

How can you best optimize the data you are gathering? In October, IBM and the Federal Government published a report for federal agencies that outlined how to build a culture of analytics. They offered the following points of advice, which I believe is equally useful for private sector businesses. I’ve extracted some of that here:

  • Put together a team that includes people familiar with the work being performed; staff with analytical skills; and subject-matter experts. Bring in key partners and stakeholders, and include people who aren’t part of the process but who have a vested interest in the outcome and are willing to challenge the status quo.
  • Ask questions even if they can’t be answered with current data. The exercise will help highlight what data or information is needed.
  • Using the questions as a starting point, brainstorm to define a current process or activity and what a future, improved version or result might be, focusing on top issues and agreeing on a desired outcome or outcomes.
  • Take large issues and break them into smaller, workable components.
  • Dispel fear: Promote data scrutiny as a way to enhance overall team performance. Prepare the troops” by explaining the importance of data and communicating a vision for how that data will be used in decision-making.
  • Get to know the data and understand what they mean. Then lead by example, using information from the data to make decisions. Ask questions about the information being used to inform decision-making.
  • Challenge assumptions to encourage dialogue. Focus on the importance of learning from the data and whether they adequately answer key questions. Clearly communicate how data has informed decisions.
  • Encourage collaborative partnerships across the groups and with key partners and stakeholders outside the group.
  • Take the initiative and show passion for working on problems that stymie organizational performance. Fight complacency and seek opportunities for changing business as usual.
  • Raise issues, demonstrate knowledge of those issues and suggest ways to do a job better or achieve better results.

One thing is clear Big Data is a freight train that is coming our way in 2013. Make it work for you!

More in this series of posts:

#3 Keeping HR From Getting Lost in the Cloud

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