Powering the Future of Work: Six trends in People Analytics

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According to author Mark Kurlansky, 1968 was “the year that rocked the world”. It saw the Prague Spring, the assassinations of Martin Luther-King and Bobby Kennedy, the Tet Offensive and the release of the seminal White Album. 1968 was also the year that Andy Warhol made his prescient and infamous (no pun intended!) remark that “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes”.


My 15 minutes of fame is scheduled for Wednesday 14th June, when I will be speaking on day 1 of HR Tech World’s inaugural show in the US at the Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, for what promises to be a memorable two days – see Lexy Martin’s terrific preview of what to look out for here.


I’ll be speaking about the some of the main trends in the field of people analytics – an area of HR that is generating huge amounts of interest and which is also helping to power both the future of work and the future of the HR function itself.


Whilst I couldn’t possibly hope to cover all of the main trends in 15 minutes, this blog is intended to provide more detail. It focuses on the trends impacting organisations that have already successfully built people analytics functions and capability. They are primarily based on conversations I have had with people analytics leaders and others operating in the space across the globe over the last 12 months.


The six main trends I’ve identified are:


1) Making people analytics part of the organisational DNA


Building a people analytics team and demonstrating some initial success is a challenge in itself, but if you are going to develop something that is sustainable you need to scale it across HR and effectively make it part of the organisational DNA. Restricting interest, knowledge and responsibility solely within a small and intrepid people analytics team will not pay-off in the long run.


There are many facets to creating sustainable organisational capability, but some common requirements include the need to:

  • Enthuse, educate, equip and then provide ongoing support to HR Business Partners and the wider HR community
  • Forge partnerships with influential stakeholders and analytics specialists within the business, identifying champions and key focus areas based on business (rather than HR) challenges
  • Determine, agree and provide clarity to the business on how projects will be undertaken and prioritised i.e. be clear and what the team will and won’t do
  • Measure and communicate to the business the impact and outcomes of people analytics projects thus building momentum
  • Augment and continually hone the skills of the people analytics team particularly with regards to areas such as storytelling, data analysis techniques and business consulting
  • Stay on top of developments in technology, analytical tools, in/external data sources and privacy legislation


2) Embracing new and emerging data sources


People analytics is like a fast flowing river, practitioners need to be constantly on their game and be ready to embrace advances in technology, data sources and the tools to analyse them. In terms of new and emerging data sources, this typically falls into two categories. Firstly, existing sources of data that haven’t been traditionally used in people analytics such as in/external social media and collaboration platforms (read here how IBM used social sentiment analysis to reverse a decision to ban the use of Uber by employees). Companies are also beginning to analyse email meta data to gain insights on productivity, collaboration and relationships. For example, read here how Microsoft is using analytics on email meta data to help employees and teams become more productive whilst putting employee trust at the heart of the initiative. Look out too for what innovative vendors like TrustSphere and Syndio are doing in this space too.


Advances in wearable technologies and sensors are also increasingly being adopted to support people analytics studies. For example, I recently heard Randy Knaflic speak at a conference about an analytics project at Jawbone that studied employee sleep patterns in the run-up to a new product launch. The finding – sleep patterns were disturbed – enabled Jawbone to implement an initiative whereby employees were given additional leave immediately following a product launch.


Another example (see here) describes how Humanyze equipped employees at different branches of a European retail bank with digital badges to measure how they were collaborating with each other. Perhaps not surprisingly the data showed that the highest performing branches had the best inter-connected employee social networks. In another (less well-performing) branch, Humanyze found that there were two distinct but separate social networks. On further investigation they found that one group worked on the 1st floor, the other on the second and never the twain shall meet. This enabled the bank to move away from multilevel branches and implement a desk rotation policy to engender better collaboration.


Many of these ‘new’ data sources are fraught with concerns about ethics, data privacy and employee trust. This will be addressed in trend #6.


3) New ways to analyse and democratise data


As the sources of data available to people analytics evolve and multiply so does the technology and tools available to analyse it. Until recently, most of the data used by people analysts has been structured but much of the data provided by the new/emerging sources documented above is unstructured (mainly text but also potentially images, audio and video). Fortunately, technology has evolved to the point that unstructured data and the plethora of insights it offers can now be more easily analysed. Whilst this means that people analysts continually need to hone and augment their skills they are also able to capitalise on new technology to enable quicker and better data integration, analysis and visualisation. In parallel, people analysts are increasingly able to democratise data through putting data in the hands of the people in the business who need it – not only to run the business, but also for managers to guide employee development and indeed for employees to better manage their careers and performance.


4) Enabling the consumerisation of HR


It has been well documented how employees are increasingly expecting a similar experience at work to that they receive as a consumer. Companies that have already built capabilities in people analytics are in pole position when it comes to developing personalised services to enhance the employee experience. People Analytics teams at the likes of Cisco, IBM and Salesforce have all built interactive machine learning tools that personalise areas such as onboarding, career development, mobility and learning for employees. Another area of growth is engagement, where people analytics is underpinning efforts to develop employee listening capability. This enables organisations to not only understand employee sentiment but also analyse and most importantly act on it.  Moreover, it has the dual benefit of driving better business outcomes in tandem with enhancing employee experience and wellbeing.


If you are going to HR Tech World, check out Obed Louissaint’s presentation on the Festival Main Stage Jr on Thursday 15th June where he will talk about how IBM has infused Watson into virtually, every aspect of talent management to accelerate employee impact on the business.


5) Shaping the new organisation


People analytics offers the opportunity for HR to move away from its traditional (some would say exclusive) focus on the individual. It is teams – rather than individuals – that actually get work done. The powerful combination of people analytics and organisational network analysis is helping organisations uncover insights on how teams work together. Improvements on how teams operate and collaborate will move the dial much further and faster than improving individual performance. As organisations move away from the rigid and bureaucratic models of the 20th Century, people analytics is playing a pivotal role in designing the organisations of the future as well as the composition of the workforces required to support it – such as human vs. machine as well as skills vs. jobs.


For more on this subject read this article on Google’s Project Aristotle, which sought to answer the question ‘What makes a team effective at Google’. Furthermore, if you are attending HR Tech World, be sure to attend Michael Arena’s session on network analysis and how to facilitate the interplay between three very specific network roles—brokers, connectors and energisers in order to enable innovation.


6) Ethics, trust and privacy


The top challenge for the vast majority of people analytics leaders I meet concerns data ethics and privacy. It is a topic that is as contentious as it is complex. What might be ‘creepy’ to some may be blasé for others. From a legal perspective, companies operating in multiple jurisdictions face different laws, processes and attitudes to data privacy and security. Many people analytics leaders I’ve spoken to work closely with their legal counsels both before embarking on a project but also prior to communicating results. But the challenge is as much moral as it is legal, people analytics is about people and we cannot afford to get it wrong. Just because we are able to do something from a legal and technology perspective, it doesn’t mean we should. The debate between privacy and benefit (to employees as well as companies) is set to define the next five years. Certainly, employee trust and transparency needs to be put at the front and centre. Fortunately, many of the trends outlined in this article do just that. By personalising services for employees we should be able to take better control of their careers, improve wellbeing and provide a better employee experience.


If you are a people analytics practitioner and you are concerned about privacy and want to get access to research on the latest thinking in this area, I recommend participating in this survey, which is being led by Al Adamsen and Jonathan Ferrar.


Final thoughts – the road to widespread adoption


Whilst most organisations are yet to build credible and capable people analytics functions, those that have are powering ahead. These organisations do not view people analytics as a new and separate function within HR; they see it as underpinning the whole of HR – and critically the ability of the function to provide more impact to the business. People analytics not only enables better business outcomes but also the opportunity to understand and therefore improve employee experience and wellbeing. People analytics is set to be a core component of the HR of the future and those organisations that put employee trust and privacy at the centre of their efforts will ultimately be the ones that derive most value. It’s set to be an exciting road head.


About the Author


David will be speaking about trends in People Analytics and their impact on the future of work at HR Tech World in San Francisco in June and is a long-term member of the Blog Squad. He is a respected influencer, writer and speaker on people analytics, data driven HR and the future of work. He was recognised as Best Writer at the 2015 HR Tech Writers’ Awards, and was awarded one of ten LinkedIn Power Profiles for HR in 2016.  David’s role as Global Director, People Analytics Solutions at IBM enables him to help clients apply an analytical, insight led and business outcome focused approach to their talent strategies and people decisions. Connect with David on LinkedIn, follow him on Twitter and read his blogs on LinkedIn, ERE and HRN.


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