Key debates in people analytics

For the last couple of years, I’ve had the pleasure of chairing the conference day of the CIPD’s People Analytics Conference and Workshop, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve been “asked back” for 2019! The conference always brings fascinating discussions and debates, plenty of critical questioning, and opportunities for networking with some of the best practitioners in the space. This year will no doubt follow this trend, and in anticipation I thought I’d share as a precursor some ideas on what I think will be exciting debates on the day:

Inclusion and analytics
Post gender pay-gap reporting there is heightened interest into how people data might be able to inform better reporting of diversity issues, and many expect that ethnicity pay-gap reporting will follow. We know however that external reporting is only a small part of the capability people analytics can bring: analytics can also highlight aspects of the individual’s relationships at work that often remain unhidden. Most powerfully it could provide evidence and insights for minority groups to be able to bring about positive change. We must therefore remain aware of the value and importance of data when it is used in the inclusion arena. There are also many HR and people management practices which benefit from increased evidence and data. In fact, ‘what works in inclusion’ is an area of research we will be reporting on over the coming months.

There are also many risks associated with people analytics if used without clear consideration, for example the nature of different biases often baked in to algorithms, or arising from machine learning processes which learn from biased human systems. As Bodie et al (2016) highlight people analytics practice could potentially lead the large-scale replacement or hiring of employees “like-for-like”, and in homogenous organisations with little diversity this could be a significant issue. Whilst data-mining is often considered an opportunity to overcome this type of issue, the reality is that modelling from data reliant on the “labels or characteristics” of a good quality worker may be biased by the data-scientist’s interpretation of “good-quality” (Hardy, 2015). Its important therefore to looking under the bonnet to understand how the algorithms and tools of people analytics are operating.

This is just one of the topics that is likely to be covered in the “behavioural nudge” panel at the conference, which will explore various ideas for driving the uptake of people insights by managers. The panel, which includes Melissa Kantor VP of People Analytics and Insights at The Lego Group and Olly Britnell, Head of Workforce Analytics and HR Strategy at Experian is likely to cover not only what is possible but also what is appropriate. As well as being important champions of evidence-based practice People Analytics teams are increasingly in the centre of debates about the ethicality of certain practices – this panel is likely to go deep into these challenges that data professionals are facing and will uncover the exciting opportunities and risks that people professionals are now presented with.

Distributed or centralised? Where to build people analytics capability
Next up are the debates around where to situate analytics teams. The typical (much disputed) analytics maturity curve tends to describe the emergence of people analytics as capacity within the HR function to meet the needs of operational reporting, before progressing through to sophisticated analytics and then emerging as predictive and prescriptive capabilities and outputs. Whether such a model represents the reality of analytics functions is much debated, but what many do agree on is that people analytics emerges from within the HR function. Whether by strategic design, or operational necessity (or a happy mix of both) the function is often described as building analytics from the ground up, serving the business before eventually leading business decision making processes.

The question is therefore one of when integration and centralisation is expected to occur. As capability and capacity grow, so should the influence and impact of analytics outputs. Given that advanced analytics required the integration of non-HR data sets, there is an argument for locating the function within a centralised Data Science team, who provide analysis and insights across the organisation. HR professionals then take a partnering role with the data science team (commonly a Centre of Expertise) and work on specific business-related projects.

This is one of the debates that is likely to surface at the conference as we explore the future of analytics practice in the people profession in recognition of the CIPD’s new People Analytics specialism. Not only are people professionals building their own capability and the capability of their teams, they’re increasingly advising and influencing the structure, strategy and integration of people analytics functions and looking across to other disciplines to collaborate and drive impact. This presents considerable opportunity, and potentially significant risk – and as such much thought is needed as to the best model for delivering analytics outcomes.

From employee attributes to employee relationships
Another interesting theme to keep an eye on regards analytics of employee relationships. Analytics questions often take the form of “what level of X leads to outcome Y”, for example the classic people analytics question of the relationship between performance and burnout. Whilst these questions have value there is growing interest in stepping beyond linking attributes and exploring relationships, not only between employees, but also between teams or even entire functions. Mapping relationships and their qualities has the potential to enable management to tailor projects and assignments to the qualities of a group and may even facilitate better cross-team working (Leonardi and Contractor, 2018). Some are now seeing this as the next phase in the development of people analytics – bringing a new level of insights to management to facilitate teams in whole new ways.

This is an interesting as it lifts the lens of people analytics beyond human capital (what people know) and human capital management (how the systems around them enhance the value of people’s knowledge) to a new level in which data is also used to explore and enhance an organisations social capital: the value derived from employee relationships. This could be of obvious benefit not only to the HR leader and their team, but also to the OD specialist designing the organisation for the future and L&D expert looking to build individual and team capability.

Bringing augmented reality into people analytics
Finally, the conference will explore what is perhaps one of the most innovative elements of emerging analytics practice. We know that people analytics practice offers fertile ground for introducing new practices and innovations into the HR management sphere. One such emerging innovation is the application of new augmented reality (AR) technology (think Pokemon Go!) alongside machine learning and natural language processing which could enable teams to explore data sets, streamline processes, and engage managers in data in totally new ways.

What if workforce size and demographic scenarios could be integrated with technology to visualise the office of the future? Where will new headcount go? How can the workplace be reconfigured to accommodate an ageing workforce? Data could enable professionals to go beyond predictions on a graph or table and experience various scenarios within virtual space.

AR technologies already exist which are being used in the workplace (e.g. for workplace design) but the practice has yet to mature to enable people data to be incorporated into AR projects. To end the day Megan Marie Butler from CognitionX will highlight the possibilities for the people analytics specialism and paint a picture of a possible future where new technologies, such as AR, are radically changing the relationship HR and people managers have with people data.

There is much to be excited about in the People Analytics space, and no better forum to explore it than at the CIPD’s annual People Analytics Conference and Workshop 16-17 October 2019 at The Montcalm Marble Arch, London. I hope to see you there.

Bodie, Matthew T. and Cherry, Miriam A. and McCormick, Marcia L. and Tang, Jintong, The Law and Policy of People Analytics (March 1, 2016). University of Colorado Law Review.

Hardy, Q. (2015) Using Algorithms to Determine Character, N.Y. TIMES (July 26, 2015, 5:30 A.M.), 

Leonardi, P., Contractor, N. (2018) Better People Analytics. Harvard Business Review. Accessed online. Accessed on 27.08.19

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