Smart use of data can help show that HR can make a business contribution

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Not for the first time, I’ve just discovered something I’ve been doing for years has a fancy new name.

In many ways, of course, this is a good thing. In my experience, many HR professionals are custodians of a whole bunch of data which they haven't got the time or, in some cases, the imagination to mine or explore sufficiently.

The issue here is rarely a shortage of data. Most frequently, the challenge is to find the space to think laterally or to use data to shed new light on a business or performance issues. This is not a way of working for which many HR folk have the time or inclination. But smart use of data can illuminate real issues and help show that HR can make a real business contribution.

For example, I worked with an HR manager in an NHS Trust who, without being asked, identified a link between higher-than-average cases of hospital-acquired infection and the use of temporary and agency staff to cover sickness absence. In a retail business, I helped the HR team identify the 'people management' capabilities of line managers whose teams delivered consistently higher customer satisfaction scores. In both cases, the HR professionals could use data to shed a diagnostic and analytical light on operational problems from a new perspective.

Of course, many HR people do this routinely, but perhaps not as often as they could, especially as many businesses are now looking to take rapid advantage of the recovery which is now slowly developing. Indeed, we might need to develop more predictive analytics so organisations can start to plan for future challenges.

One area which seems to be of increasing concern to many CEOs is talent retention - an anxiety that specialist or high potential staff will catch the wave of a more buoyant labour market and leave to join a competitor.

Many organisations now differentiate between 'regretted' and 'non-regretted' staff turnover when analysing past trends, yet they are also likely to be sitting on data which would tell them which kinds of employees are the high-risk future leavers. These employees have sufficient labour market power to leave tomorrow, but could be persuaded to stay if their employer showed some imagination. By this I don't mean eye-catching, but frequently ineffective measures such as retention bonuses. I'm thinking of measures to enhance career development, job challenge or responsibility, and which are far more often associated with retention than pay-related initiatives.

Historical data on the demographics and engagement scores of yesterday's 'regretted' leavers can give very clear clues about who tomorrow's leavers might be. In addition, a simple risk analysis combining assessments - perhaps involving line managers - of an individual's 'likelihood of leaving' and the business consequences of their leaving, can help prioritise preventative action that can save money and time.

Whether you call it 'analytics' or not, the insight HR professionals can get from spending a little more time interrogating the data they already have can certainly pay dividends. And if the labour market is - at long last - going to get livelier from a recruitment and retention perspective, forewarned is definitely forearmed.

Stephen Bevan (pictured) is director of the workforce effectiveness centre at the Work Foundation

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