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Discussing the data: Roundtable debate

HR now has access to more data than ever – but is the function using it effectively? Our roundtable, in partnership with Capita, discussed...


Interpreting data requires some very specific skills. Is HR cut out for it? “We [HR] have been accused of jumping on the data bandwagon,” said Isabel Naidoo, senior vice president of talent for FIS. “But that’s not fair. We’ve always had this kind of data; it’s just a question of how we choose to use it.”

“I think a major problem HR has is that it doesn’t have nor teach the skills needed [to handle this data],” said Penny Newman, Lewis Silkin’s chief people officer. “For example, we [at Lewis Silkin] are a small team of generalists, and HR generalists don’t always have the confidence or the interest to handle it.” She added that other areas of the business have not suffered from the same problem. “Finance and marketing have been able to do this for a long time,” she said. “HR should be able to access those skills too.”

The rest of the business

One of the key ways HR can add value is by bringing together data from different areas of the business, according to Steve Rockey, people director of Home Grown Hotels and Lime Wood Group. “Bringing everyone together is the really important bit,” he said. “We are here to help the business make money, or to achieve what it has set out to achieve. If you end up siloed with your HR data and use it to support you own hypotheses then that’s fine – but it’s not necessarily adding anything to the business as a whole.”

Graham Salisbury, director of people and organisational development at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, agreed that being able to influence other areas of the business is a key skill.

“In a small organisation where you have limited access to the HR team, if I had a choice between an effective, influencing HR business partner who knows how to coach, council, communicate, and influence people, or someone who knows how to use an Excel spreadsheet, I know who I’d choose,” he said.


Once you have access to the data and the skills to interpret it, how can you tell if the data you have is fit for purpose?

Alex Tullett, head of benefits strategy at Capita Employee Benefits, warned that it is far too easy to become overwhelmed by the data you have access to. “If you take enough time to look you can find data that backs up anything you want,” he said. “It’s essential that you start with a business problem, otherwise you could end up with data paralysis – where you’re looking closely at every detail without coming up with anything useful.”

Salisbury likened the situation to riding a motorbike. “If you’re doing a high-speed motor race you might have the information about your speed to hand, but that doesn’t matter,” he said. “You only need to know your rev count. You might assume you need a certain set of data in your business, but you find in actuality that you do not.”

Newman added that data can be misleading. “Imagine supermarket delivery drivers, where their employer might keep track of how long it takes them to make deliveries,” she said. “You might assume that the faster driver is going to be more efficient, but actually it could be that the one who is taking more time and interacting with the customers more is adding value and doing a better job.”


Context is crucial to interpreting data in a meaningful way, the group agreed. “I was working at an aerospace firm once where turnover was around 4%,” said Salisbury. “But I ran a project where the turnover was 2%. So is that good? In context it was pretty bad. A charity might have a turnover rate of 30%, but when it compares itself to others in its sector it might realise that’s actually not as bad as it first appeared.”

“People can often add two and two and get 19,” Helen Giles, executive director of people and governance for homelessness charity St Mungo’s, warned. “You might, for example, notice from your data that your BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] colleagues are more likely to be given a disciplinary, and then you might assume that means your organisation is institutionally racist. While that might still be the case, there could be many other reasons behind it that this piece of data isn’t showing you.”

It can also be easy to jump to conclusions when it comes to causation and correlation. The group discussed data at a firm that suggested there was a positive correlation between working away from home for business and divorce.

“But we need to ask exactly what action we can take from that observation,” said Laura Wigley, global director of learning and talent for Dorchester Collection. “Do we ban our staff from travelling? Do we offer relationship counselling? The data alone doesn’t give us that sort of insight.”


Even if the data you have is relevant and contextually supported, using it might generate some ethical issues. The panel discussed technology that allows employers to scrape information from social media to see what is being said about their company. Frances Duffy, HRD of Capgemini UK and north-west Europe, warned that the penalties of getting this wrong are severe. “Once you break an employee’s trust in you you can’t get it back,” she said.

Naidoo added that trust should go both ways, with employers being more willing to trust their staff to use technology such as Yammer or their emails without fear of being overly monitored. “I think we sometimes do our people a disservice,” she said. “These people are managing profit and loss, they are dealing with customers, they are managing our business, so we have to put our faith in them. And we need to start operating with that in mind.”