How to Turn HRBPs into People Analytics Evangelists

In early January 2019, a headline on the McKinsey Leadership and Organization blog caught my eye – “The critical importance of the HR business partner.” A key point made in the piece is that HR continues to struggle to deliver effective talent strategy. The disconnect centers on the lack of capability of HR business partners (HRBP), those who counsel managers on talent issues. The article remarks that the value of great HRBPs remains unquestioned. However, a great HRBP is hard to find and the structure of the HRBP role requires re-engineering. 

For me, the article does not go far enough in describing the disconnect. From my research, not only must these senior partners deliver strategic advice to business leaders on talent issues, they must also support these leaders in getting optimal performance from their talent. They must be able to measure talent performance. But to do this, HRBPs must manifest superb data and analytical skills.

Research says HRBPs are not data-savvy

In my research, HRBPs are not yet succeeding with the challenge to be comfortable using data. Indeed, they may not even be the right evangelists! (but that’s for another article).

Early last year, I embarked on a research effort to determine critical practices to succeed with people analytics. I also looked into key roles that contribute to the success of analytics.

A Vice President responsible for HR operations at a top US bank told me that his HRBPs weren’t up to the task of evangelizing people analytics. And, despite the transformation work the bank had done to enhance the strategic capabilities of its HRBPs, they were not even yet truly strategists.

Further, maybe only 10% were comfortable and competent with data! It was a refrain I heard often as I continued to do interviews last year looking at great people analytics practices. We also confirmed this with survey data.

Survey says HRBPs are a key obstacle to the success of people analytics

In our Age of People Analytics Survey, we discovered that a key obstacle to success of people analytics was “we do not have a ‘data-driven’ skillset within HR and / or our HR business partners.”

This was particularly prevalent in organizations just getting started with people analytics! When I present these findings at conferences and in workshops and ask audiences if they have similar issues, the audience laughs! “Of course! It’s our primary challenge too!”

Why is people analytics important?

Let me come at this topic from another direction from some long-running research based on the Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey that I managed for its first 16 years. It speaks to why people analytics is important.

This survey, that looks at HR technology adoption and the value achieved from adopting technologies, reports that starting back in 2000, organizations with some form of workforce analytics outperform organizations without. The characteristics of these organizations includes:

  1. High level of people analytics process maturity including the use of a people analytics solution
  2. Higher than average number of data sources integrated
  3. Higher than average number of analytics topics (metrics) available for analysis
  4. Higher than average use by managers as opposed to just the HR community

Organizations typically start to enable people analytics usage primarily among the HR community, but the above shows a correlation between managers as people analytics users and improved financial performance. Thus, when beginning to enable people analytics, the question I think is important is, “do you enable usage directly to business leaders and managers or through HRBPs?”

If it’s going to be the latter, we need to better prepare them. Keep in mind that not only does the HRBP role require re-engineering (which means expansion of their role definition to include these data and analytical skills), individual HRBPs also can benefit from having HRBP managers that manifest these skills as well!

In any case, here are a few ways to prepare HRBPs to be data-savvy so they can evangelize people analytics:

Define their roles and responsibilities related to data and analytics

First ask, what do you want them to do? In talking with numerous executives at organizations, they suggested the data-savvy HRBP of the future must be able to do the following.

Summarizing from an article I wrote last year on the roles and responsibilities of the HRBP manager of the future but applicable for HRBPs too, here’s what they need them to do over and beyond what they already do:

  1. Link the business strategy with talent strategy and back this up with data on how the workforce is doing in meeting the key business outcomes of the strategy.
  2. Be open to using (and also becoming) a champion of people analytics. Learn to use people analytics solutions and then use your change management skills to champion people analytics among business leaders and people managers.
  3. Use analytics to become a “data-driven” strategic HR business partner. Come prepared to any discussion with your business leaders and managers to show how the workforce is meeting business goals.
  4. Apply analytics to improve talent processes. For any part of the employee lifecycle, be prepared to show measures of the process: “So, how is the organization doing with acquiring, developing, and retaining the best workforce?”
  5. Stimulate other HRBPs to work collaboratively to use and promote people analytics. Learning together breeds comfort with people analytics. Take on a project as an HRBP team to address a key challenge of the business, such as where to open a new distribution center or how to be a more agile organization.
  6. Learn to tell a story with data. Don’t just report metrics but tell the story about how the data relates to a business challenge. For example, don’t just report turnover of 15% and how it is trending but talk about how that translates into increased costs of hire and decreased revenue from those leaving the organization.
  7. Put the right HRBP Manager in charge of the team. In addition to having responsibilities for the HR aspects of the job, this person should enable people analytics within the organization.

Now not all organizations are here – far from that. A good way to check readiness is to look at the current HRBP’s skillsets.

Assess HRBP skills

Start by assessing your HRBPs capabilities, and then work to help them develop necessary skills, whether that be how to use a people analytics solution, how to use data and analytics, or how to tell stories with data.

At Visier, we suggest using a gap analysis to determine which HRBPs have the skills, who they need to develop, and even who they need to replace to get the skills needed. In figure 1, we show the key capabilities that HRBPs need to be most effective as promoters of people analytics usage. We use this model to assess the capabilities of a customer’s HRBPs and identify which capabilities to enhance.

Chart showing a model for the data and analytics capabilities of HRBPs
Chart showing a model for the data and analytics capabilities of HRBPs

Understand how the HRBP delivers workforce insights in a transformed HR service delivery model

When it comes to using HRBPs as your evangelizers of people analytics, it’s important to understand how HR service delivery is changing. Until recently, the transformation of the HR service delivery model focused on simply leveraging automation for record-keeping and transaction management, while moving the HRBP into a strategic consultative role.

The emerging strategic services model elevates the ability of HRBPs to deliver workforce insights within and beyond HR so they are able to consistently use data to advise leaders and people managers on strategy.

For example, one of our customers, a not-for-profit healthcare organization with over 50,000 employees, developed a program to enable its HR business partners to deliver quantifiable business impact. Its evidence-based partner consulting model consists of a three-pronged approach to ensure this impact:

  1. It has a toolset that HR uses to bring data, analysis, and insights to the forefront of problem-solving.
  2. It is building a skillset in the appropriate use of the toolset, along with developing consultative HR competencies applied to problem-solving.
  3. It is also impacting mindset, a business-focused approach to problem-solving, one that uses the toolset and skillset in partnering with leaders to drive outcomes and success in meeting the organization’s goals and objectives.      

Develop HRBPs

Changing the mindset and skillset of HRBPs to have a business- and data-focused approach to problem solving requires development and training. This will vary by organization and its maturity with people analytics. If just getting started, develop and train pilot users or super users. Then take a train-the-trainer approach for others. If further along, the focus of development may need to be to help HRBPs develop a hypothesis and tell stories with data.

While HRBPs are learning and developing enhanced capabilities, it’s important to give them time to learn and excel. They need to be freed from other work. In the previously mentioned survey, among advanced organizations, we see they much more frequently free their HRBPs from other activities while they are helping them become effective agents of change.

Communicate at a regular cadence

Once organizations start on the journey to change the mindset and skillset of their HRBPs, it’s important to create a communication plan, and then to maintain a regular cadence to build momentum as you move your organization to a data-driven culture. We see organizations providing newsletters, brown-bag lunches, and wikis to build capability. Focus these on helping your HRBPs engage with their business leader and manager clients.

Provide HRBPs with support through a people analytics center of excellence

Training and communications is, of course, ongoing support. Over and beyond that, the organization needs to set up a way to support HRBPs and other users. Among advanced organizations, we see them establishing a center of excellence focused on people analytics support.

With this, they can apply a “fit for purpose” approach to both get data, education, and support to the broad set of stakeholders within the organization, including their HRBPs. This kind of support structure also ends up freeing the people with deep analytics skills to focus on the more sophisticated analytics needed within organizations.

Track HRBP progress and results and reward with recognition

We’ve all heard the saying, “What gets measured gets done.” And, not only that, what gets measured gets improved upon!

So HRBPs should be challenged to set goals they wish to accomplish with people analytics and then periodically review them and assess their success. Both individuals and organizations can benefit from a continuous process improvement approach!

More importantly, recognize your HRBPs for their progress and results. One of our customers gives their HRBPs recognition badges for completing tasks on their action plans and goals. That public recognition reminds not only the individual, but their colleagues, and their business and manager partners just how important it is to the organization to become data-driven.

We can make HRBPs ready for the challenge to be people analytics evangelists!

We have to re-engineer what HRBPs need to be doing going forward by defining their new roles and responsibilities related to data and analytics. We need to honestly assess the skills of what we do have. Maybe to jumpstart creating more applicable HRBPs, we even need to hire a new HRBP manager for the future.

As we go through HR transformation, whether of the HR organization itself or through HR digitization, we need to reassess the role of service delivery in a future with new people analytics tools and capabilities. We need to develop HRBP skills with sensitivity to the level of maturity of the organization with people analytics. Once we start on our people analytics journey, we need a regular cadence of communications to our HRBPs as well as to the organization.

We need to evolve to a support structure through a people analytics center of excellence. And, we need to track HRBP goals and performance against goals and recognize them for their achievements.

For more inspiration on the change management required to enable people analytics in your HRBP team and the rest of your organization, download the e-book: Leading Practices in People Analytics Change Management

This article first appeared in Analytics in HR.

Author Photo
Lexy Martin |
Lexy Martin is a respected thought leader on HR technology adoption and value achieved. Known as the originator of the Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey, she now works at Visier with customers to support them in their HR transformation to become data-driven organizations. Lexy is Principal, Research and Customer Value at Visier.