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Data as a Competitive Advantage

Kevin J Bohan, Vice President, Human Resources, UGN, Inc.

Kevin J Bohan, Vice President, Human Resources, UGN, Inc.

The role of Human Resources has undergone a paradigm shift in recent years, from performing back-office tasks such as payroll and benefits to a business partner model to the current state where the HR Function is expected to generate competitive insights from the data they have access to. Generating these insights starts with having the right systems in place to not only capture the data but one that is user friendly. The other key item is having a leader that is business savvy enough to know what to look for. More than ever executives with business backgrounds are taking up the role of the Chief Human Resource Officer (CHRO). What CEO’s expect from their HR Department has changed and the bar has been raised for us all.

One way that HR Leaders can rise to this challenge is in how they use data to support the business. HR is lucky in that in our current day and age, we have access to more information than ever, but if we do not match it with the right technology it can become more of a distraction than a value add. The key to our success is being able to harness that data with the right systems to generate actionable insights that will make a difference to the business. Generating a multitude of merely interesting data points does not move the business forward.

We need to stop and think about what we are looking for and why in the data, otherwise, we can easily go astray. Earlier in my career, I used to think that the more facts and data points that I could share with executives the stronger my business case would be. I never stopped to fully understand what was important to the business. My perspective now is to keep it simple and focused. This allows my team to truly impact our organizations in a visible way.

"Data plays a key role in allowing HR Leaders to link their teams’ actions directly to business performance"

I recently had the opportunity to join a group of HR & Workforce Analytics Experts in Chicago to discuss how I have used HR data to impact a company’s bottom line performance. I was different from many the conferences speakers in that I look at data analytics as the HR Business Partner and not as a data scientist.  In my session, I shared why I believe that “Keeping it Simple” is the key to linking analytics to actionable business impact. I explained my framework for engaging CEO’s and Senior Executives with actionable insights. I would like to share that framework here at a high level.

The first step in leveraging your data is to tie your analytics to the business strategy. You need this inorder to get senior stakeholder interest and buy in. The results of what you are exploring should benefit the business in a defined way. If the business leaders cannot see the link between your analytics and a positive impact on the organization, they will not be interested and more importantly not support your initiative.

It is exactly this point that distinguishes an HR Function that merely has analytics to one that uses them to drive business decisions. The key here is to effectively use data to uncover connections that can be used to solve a business challenge or create a competitive advantage.  We have to find that point where the data goes from just interesting to having business value. Look at Laslo Bock’s book on Google. While his book includes a number of examples of interesting data points, all of them are linked back to relevant actions that will either make the work place more effective or solve a business challenge. If your data insights can help solve a business problem or provide a competitive advantage, that will get the attention of your executive team. 

Once you have a data insight, the first step is Alignment. Talk with your key stakeholders, ask them about the area, gauge their interest and  support by them expressing a desire to know more. The next step is communicating the insight that your data has brought you to. Pick your venue and audience wisely. For instance, you do not want to surprise a stakeholder with data that may make their team or them look ineffective.

When engaging your stakeholders, don’t feel the need to share all the data or insights at once, I find Storytelling helpful here. Create a real or fictional story that helps the business to understand what you are seeing with the data and link that to the business result or opportunity that you have found. 

If you have found the right connection that resonates with your leaders and your story has caught their interest, they will ask you the questions as they look for more data to support your idea or hypothesis. At that point, you know that you are onto something good and are that much closer to making a difference to the business. Remember, Find the right technology solution, Keep it simple, Align with your stakeholders and Communicate with a story.