4 Ways to Build Agile Teams Using People Analytics

It’s no wonder that “disrupt or be disrupted” has become a popular business adage. The average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 is projected to shrink to just 12 years by 2027 (it was 24 years in 2016). 

As a result, established incumbents are scrambling to survive and transform into startup-like agile organizations. But the term “agile organization” may actually be a misnomer. 

As Michael Arena, the VP of talent and development at Amazon Web Services (and author of book Adaptive Space) argues in this Q&A, the core recipe is actually agility and stability combined: “In other words, you have to be agile enough to move away from where you are and meet the market where it is. And then you have to stabilize fast enough to be able to produce.”

For HR leaders, building and deploying the kind of teams required to support this kind of agile-stable quality is not a “fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants” process. Research conducted by Arena from his days in academia has shown that certain types of social arrangements produce new ideas, and other types of social arrangements are better for stabilizing those ideas and bringing them to market. 

These kind of informal networks can be hard to see with the naked eye: “Even in small, contained groups, executives are often surprised by patterns of collaboration that are quite different from their beliefs and from the formal organization chart.” That’s a statement organizational network analysis pioneers Rob Cross and Andrew Parker made in this earlier 2004 post, and it still holds true today.

Furthermore, the process that supports allocating people to teams (headcount planning) does not take into consideration important details about team formation, turnover trends, or projected employee movement.

To rapidly build and deploy teams to meet a particular goal, then, HR leaders need nuanced insights. Here are four ways that people analytics helps HR leaders go beyond traditional methods so they can rapidly deploy high-performing teams:

#1. More Agile Workforce Planning

Certain organizations need to be more agile than others: A software development firm, for example, would quickly be outpaced by the competition if it adopted the same idea-to-market cadence as an airline or another capital-intensive business. The key is to understand the pace at which teams need to be deployed to meet broader business goals.

One way to do this is with workforce planning, which by definition, is the process of aligning talent requirements with business requirements. This process is often cumbersome and spreadsheet-based, however, with HR pulling information from many disparate systems (covering everything from compensation and performance data to financial targets). This can make it difficult to manage the flow of people to new projects as different business priorities rise and fall.

Data visualization of a forecasted workforce plan
Data visualization of a forecasted workforce plan

When this process becomes automated and analytics-based, you can look ahead at how many roles need to be filled for a certain project, when they must be filled, and where in the organization they are needed the most. 

In particular, analytics-driven workforce planning can enable you to understand and manage employee movement–how people move within teams. Reviewing this will help you see two things:

  • Too much movement: This can be detrimental, with people constantly re-forming relationships and re-learning their roles. 
  • Too little movement: This can mean that innovation gets trapped within pockets of the organization. 

By understanding these patterns, you can adjust your plan accordingly and prioritize which people get moved to new teams. This is one way that people analytics can help HR leaders ensure they have the right balance of agility and stability within their organizations.

#2. Better Visibility Into How Work Gets Done

To create agile, productive teams, an organization requires different types of social connections. This boils down to four main types of network roles, according to Arena:

  • Brokers, who have relationships across many groups and act as gateways for new ideas.
  • Connectors, who have relationships within their core group and are well positioned to get ideas adopted locally. 
  • Energizers, who get the most out of other people.
  • Challengers, who entice debates to refine ideas.

A growing number of companies are using Organizational Network Analysis (ONA), which can analyze social interactions and classify people in terms of whether they are a broker, connector, energizer, or challenger. 

A proper ONA study incorporates data coming from multiple sources, such as calendar, email, instant messaging, sociometric badges, and knowledge sharing applications. When considered within a people analytics platform, ONA metrics can be viewed alongside broader people analytics data to accurately determine how the different types of connections impact team performance.

#3. Optimized Team Performance

A team needs to be more nimble or stable depending on where the project fits within the innovation cycle. For example, a broker may need to move into a connector role once a team moves from the discovery phase into the development phase.

But a team member who can come up with novel and creative ideas may not be the best person for refining those ideas. HR leaders should therefore track how employees contribute to the team and how well they perform in certain network roles. Assess how a person performs in the following way:

  • Preferred — Team member performs this role exceptionally well with a minimal level of stress.
  • Manageable — Team member is capable of performing this role, but it is a stretch. 
  • Least preferred — There is a high likelihood that the team member will under-perform in this role, putting the project at risk.

With this information on-hand, HR will be in a better position to rapidly deploy people on teams and set those individuals up for success. A people analytics platform can link this data to other important information, such as the workforce plan, so that HR and business leaders have a precise idea of who they need in certain roles and when.

Network effects by organization ONA
Network effects by organization

#4. Clearer Understanding of Skills 

As Deloitte’s human capital experts explain in this article, rapidly forming teams requires a clear understanding of each employee’s skills — a capability that has been mastered by the US Department of Defense (DOD). 

“For every soldier, DOD grades his or her leadership experience and skills; captures occupational specialties with details on levels of experience; and compiles a complete service history that encompasses both DOD and non-DOD skills, including degrees and certifications…With this information, DOD can make agile, highly targeted deployments—in essence, teams or networks of teams—from its population of 7 million,” they write.

Nobody is going to argue that, when it comes to designing a great team, skills sets also matter. The challenge for most HR leaders is having current and easily accessible skills data. The best people analytics platforms can make this information more available and better structured.

Team Synergy Produces Innovation at Scale

When it comes to employee performance, success is not just due to experience and raw talent — but also workplace connections. Organizations need to shift to not just attracting star players, but arranging these star players in a way so that groups can produce something greater than the sum of their parts. 

With the right people insights delivered via a unified platform, HR leaders can better understand how informal networks produce new ideas in the most efficient way. In the end, this puts HR leaders in a much better position to deliberately replicate past successes — instead of relying on gut feel or trial and error. 

Author Photo
Ian Cook |
Curious about the differences between gaussian and pareto distribution? Ask Ian. Want to know what it’s like to kite ski North of the Arctic Circle? Ask Ian. Not only is he an expert in statistical analysis and HR metrics, he’s also an avid cyclist, skier and runner. At Visier, Ian helps customers drive organizational change through linking workforce analysis to business outcomes. He is responsible for the workforce domain expertise within the Visier solutions.