Moneyball redux: What can it buy you?

I’m not shy about going back to the well. Last month I posted some lessons HR professionals could take from Billy Beane’s roster management of the Oakland A’s, as told in the bestseller, Moneyball.

For my money, Beane’s innovations as GM of the cash-poor A’s put him in the upper ranks of baseball executives among the likes of Branch Rickey, who first made use of an organized farm system to grow talent for my beloved St. Louis Cardinals (before he went on to sign Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers). Now that Brad Pitt has played him in the theaters, people from all walks of industry are clamoring for a bit of Beane’s mind, and personnel managers have been at the front of the line.

If you have to ask why, look around you right now. You are probably reading this on a digital display set into a laptop, tablet, or smartphone. That device is tethered to the ether (likely through your employer) where a server down the hall, in Seattle, in Bangalore, or who-knows-where is making a little record that you, my poor reader, lingered over my humble musings.

Five minutes ago, it also noted the nasty joke you forwarded to a buddy in another office, and it saw that your buddy (not as good a friend as you thought) felt that your joke warranted HR’s attention and sent it to his office HR rep. If asked, the server holds a map of the 16 times in the last three months you’ve crossed this line, and is just waiting for someone to call up this information that will twist the knife you’ve stuck in your own back. (If you’re wondering what it knows about all that stuff you’ve been copying to the used one terabyte hard drive you bought online last week, well … let’s just say you don’t want to do that anymore.)

If Billy Beane could hire coders to rip hitting statistics from almanacs and baseball cards to identify productive players with attractive contracts, surely your company can find someone to bring order and analytical data out of the mushrooming amount of “big data” available to it. Sure enough, they are.

If you are interested in an introductory glimpse at  the nascent world of “people analytics,” I highly recommend Don Peck’s article in December’s The Atlantic, “They’re Watching You at Work.” Peck’s article introduces readers to a host of companies engaged in fascinating (sometimes eerie) exercises to harness some predictive and evaluative capacity from the seemingly random sea of data modern enterprises maintain.

For example, video games predict which employees have the entrepreneurial chops to justify funding; data signatures purport to judge your leadership potential by tracking your movements, time at your desk, time away from your desk, emailing patterns, web surfing, and innumerable other criteria; and blind online tests that measure aptitude for a particular job leave recruiters wondering why they even bothered to interview you in the first place.

Where will it all lead? Which industry has an underdog like the Oakland A’s that will leverage their superior analytical ability to slay their titan competitors? Who knows. Peck does well to remind us of other employee evaluation techniques that ultimately fell out of favor. Also, American anti-discrimination law–especially the disparate impact theory of discrimination–has left corporate HR managers skittish about anything that smacks of “testing,” and Peck mentions that U.S. law does eliminate some criteria that analytics experts can use in other jurisdictions. (I have written separately criticizing the disparate impact theory and speculating that the Supreme Court may have a current majority prepared to revisit it, if you’re interested.)

Nevertheless, industry has a mountain of data before it, and you better believe they’re mining away.

As for you and your secondhand hard drive … good luck with that.