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HR must use data to talk “culture problems” not “process problems”

A panel at the CIPD People Analytics Conference and Workshop discussed how HR can gain recognition in the business for its data and analytics insights

HR must use data to talk “culture problems” not “process problems”, according to Rob Nitsch, chief operating officer at the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

Speaking on a panel on day one of the CIPD People Analytics Conference and Workshop, Nitsch explained that if HR is to use people analytics to effectively “nudge” the business towards behaviour change it needs to focus on culture.

“Talk culture, don’t bolt on another process,” he said. “Try to resist processes and don’t turn problems into process problems but into culture problems – which is more difficult but for humans it’s more interesting.”

Nitsch recounted a time in his career where he demonstrated how people data could nudge behaviours in the business. When he was in the army he noticed women's career progression fell behind men’s, and after looking at the reasons he found that 30% of military roles were closed to women.

“It eventually led to the point where we opened combat roles to women as we were able to demonstrate that the quickest progression was in combat. And that wasn’t important in itself as few women wanted to join combat, but what it did was send a message to the female cohort in the army that they’re the same as the male cohort so it made them want to stay and be part of it,” he said.

Nitsch explained that this shows the “difference between nudging on insights and just bumbling along” and also highlights the importance of persistence. “You can’t do a nudge and then walk away,” he said, adding that it must be a “dynamic process”.

However, before HR can change behaviours and have any real business impact with analytics it needs to lay the groundwork, Nitsch said.

He highlighted three ways to get the basics in place.

“First is organising data, understanding data – and the great way to get everyone bought in is to cleanse the data and that’s not just the job of data scientists,” he said. “Second get leadership commitment… so mobilise leaders and set direction. And third is to get the culture right.”

Culture is key, agreed Olly Britnell, head of workforce analytics and HR strategy at Experian, but the mindset of the wider HR function is also crucial. “You can create the best analytics and have the best nudges and the best insights in the world but unless the wider HR function is committed to a data-driven culture it will be hard,” he said.

People need to trust in the data, added Melissa Kantor, VP of people analytics and insights at The LEGO Group. “If you want to build a more data-driven culture then people need to trust the data,” she said. “No data is 100% but people need to trust it.”

The panel agreed that the right type of communication with senior decision-makers is critical to HR gaining credibility and making an impact with people analytics.

It’s important HR isn’t seen as the “poor cousin” with worse data than other functions, said Britnell: “I’ve seen that HR data is actually better than finance data but the typical perspective of the business is that finance data is usually the right data and it isn’t always.”

“There’s no silver bullet to get business partners singing and dancing about a dashboard,” he said, recommending a “horses for courses” approach to communication. He gave the example of using data to analyse gender diversity and show the business the trajectory it is on if it continues hiring and promoting people in the same way.

“We changed the conversation by showing people,” he said, adding that this is where analytics becomes “more than just numbers”.

Cheryl Allen, HR director transformation at Atos, added that analytics “changes the conversations” HR can have. “As a function, for years many of us have been scrabbling with data to go into meetings with and argue with finance or whoever if it’s right,” she said.

Storytelling is a key way to communicate to the business that the data matters, Allen agreed.

“Keep it simple, use the right language, and draw out the two or three things you want to direct attention to,” she advised.

Nitsch told how his organisation took the decision to “sit communicators in the data science team”. “We’ve put operational researchers in the data science team", he said, in order to create a bridge between the business questions that the data looks to solve and the insights gathered.

“Data scientists have great skills but they’re inside the data” so teams need communicators who can tell stories on people analytics to the business. Nitsch added that it’s more effective if these communicators sit within the data team from the start so that communication with the business is considered throughout any analytics work “rather than just having communication come after”.

The panel went on to discuss how it’s not just other parts of the business that need to be convinced of the value of HR’s data insights. Kantor revealed how she has taken a “hard stance” on ensuring HR professionals also leverage the use of people analytics.

“HR has four key KPIs and one is data integrity. Everyone in HR has this KPI, which is powerful,” she said. “It’s a hard approach and we might not need to always have it as a KPI but we do for now.”