“Just [being able to] count in real time the number of people in your organization was considered groundbreaking,” said Matt Stevenson, leader of the North American workforce analytics practice at Mercer, during a session at the Outsmart Global Digital Summit.
This was the HR scene when he first joined Mercer 22 years ago, a time when workforce data was only about reporting.
But over the past two decades, analytics has evolved, and now leaders now use data to solve problems and make strategic decisions about their people.
At Outsmart, Matt discussed this intersection between strategy and data with Paul Rubenstein, Visier’s Chief People Officer. Their thought-provoking session, titled Empowering CHROs with Data, was a must-see for any CHRO seeking to become more data-driven in how they tackle key business challenges. Here are six important takeaways:
1. Flex the spending muscle
Leaders often use people analytics as a way to cut costs, but what they often miss is the flip side of how to invest. The most advanced HR practitioners focus on how they can make more money for the organization through better spending decisions.
“The investment question is great because you can’t cut your way to greatness,” said Paul. He asserted that HR is a cost center learning the muscle of ROI. Making investments in HR that show returns in the form of workforce outcomes (or even in another department’s P&L) is the future businesses must adjust to.
2. Use benchmarks wisely
Paul and Matt both emphasized that, while benchmarks can be helpful, they shouldn’t dictate an organization’s goals. Benchmarks will reveal the most common number for things, like turnover within a particular industry, but this number is not necessarily the goal that your company should strive to achieve.
In fact, Matt cited that study after study shows employee turnover is predicted by a person’s age and length of service. “So when you’re comparing turnover profiles…what you’re really doing is comparing service profiles,” he said.
Paul added that it’s important to be “informed, not constrained, by your benchmarks.”
3. Understand business problems first, then find the data
Matt explained how there are insights that are interesting to HR, but irrelevant to the business, and HR leaders will lose their audience if they don’t focus on the right areas.
“One of the things I think CHROs really have to focus on is connecting the analytics to the business problem,” he said.
But he warns that decision makers should stay clear of a phenomenon known as “data fishing.” It involves leaders using data out of context to justify a decision they’ve already made or a worldview they hold, in the same way that people looked for data to justify travelling during the pandemic.
Starting with the decision, and then looking for the data prevents you from looking holistically at problems. To circumvent this, one of Mercer’s clients stated that they won’t collect or analyze data until they first know what business problem they are trying to solve.
4. Establish a broadcasting rhythm
To enable people analytics more broadly, it’s important to establish a rhythm for broadcasting data and information outside the HR group. Finance departments are a great model for how to do this well.
“12 times a year, the CFO puts out the P&L…and never goes more than 28 to 31 days without reflecting on what happened and course correcting if needed,” said Paul. “[Now] imagine when the CHRO puts out curated people analytics content 12 times a year. The repetition and having everybody look at the same data at the same time–not shepherded by HR, but out there for everyone to respond to–that’s a winning strategy to align people. That’s one of the greatest behaviors I see data-driven CHROs or digital CHROs taking.”
Paul adds that it’s also important to share data even if the trend hasn’t changed:
“Showing it every month…that’s how you actually establish a signal rather than make noise. Because if the first time you show somebody a piece of turnover data is when it’s out of bounds, they have no context, they have no power to react.”
5. Use analytics for M&A visibility
M&A integrations can be made better when CHROs lead with data for accelerated visibility. Paul recalled when he was a consultant and clients would wait to do analysis on their combined new company until the HR system conversion was complete. But this only delays decision making.
“Have a platform where you can bring into the people analytics environments all of the different data ahead of doing the actual integration,” Paul advised. “Don’t wait to integrate your HRIS.”
Leaders should also use analytics immediately to understand things such as where there are pockets of engagement and who are the key players.
“The best one is deal model accountability. How many mergers never actually hit their financial targets because it gets lost in the noise?” he added. “[Share the data on] what you committed to around labor, around product, etc…That’s another powerful thing for CHROs.”
6. Go broader–and look ahead
To get everyone on board with the direction of the people strategy, it’s important to have a well-communicated plan that incorporates data.
“The data is the most important thing you can do to shape culture; by getting everybody to understand a North Star, linking it to business, and helping them reflect on individual decisions relative to that North Star,” Paul said.
Another key element of developing a good strategy is leveraging the right external data. People can now get good answers to questions about the direction of broader trends instead of being forced to just guess. This also makes it easier to become future-focused.
“Rather than just observing what’s going on today and reacting to it, let’s ask: What’s the workforce of the future going to look like? How do we align our strategy so that we’re going towards that rather than diverging from it?” said Matt.
CHROs are stepping into the spotlight with data
The expectation to drive strategic outcomes through an organization’s people has never been higher. With the right approach to benchmarks, external data, communications, and other facets of data-driven decision making, CHROs can successfully integrate insights into their day-to-day working lives.
In the end, this generates the right kind of decisions that are now critical for organizational health.