While “artificial intelligence” (AI) seems to have replaced “big data” as the overused buzzword in corporate America, the ability to access, aggregate, and assimilate data to aid in better decision-making remains a much more realistic imperative for organizations to tackle. In the new world of digital HR, the deluge of available people-related data has provided an opportunity to better understand (and influence) human behavior.
Today, we have a never-ending trail of binary breadcrumbs that provide us with information and insights about employees. It is time for organizations to embrace new strategies that analyze and leverage data to make more informed decisions for employees.
The challenge is delicately balancing evidence and empathy to ensure we avoid driving the humanity out of Human Resources. Technology allows us to create an analytical approach to measuring performance and engagement, but automation without understanding (at a personal level) is not sustainable.
How Can Data @ Work Help?
In a recent The Wall Street Journal article, Greg Ip explored a possible dystopian future where eventually, software fires people, with little human intervention. He pointed to a recent example of Amazon firing an employee for not meeting productivity targets. This is a good example of the need to use technology to augment our intelligence—not replace it. When used appropriately, data and intelligent systems can enable individuals and organizations to reach their full potential while maintaining the human element. Within the realm of HR, we have an opportunity to explore new ways to define and measure performance, as workforce productivity has remained relatively stagnant over the last decade.
While Amazon’s model may seem a bit obtuse, the reality is that we can pull data from a variety of organizational systems and receive a fairly accurate view of an individual’s capabilities and contributions. This stands in stark contrast to the way most performance discussions and evaluations have taken place in the past. Traditionally, managers often base their feedback on subjective definitions of success—or, in some cases, their personal feelings about the individual. By incorporating data into this equation and then aggregating and weighing for impact, we begin to develop a more objective view of:
- Where opportunities for improvement exist
- When there are correlations between behavior and business outcomes
- How to identify objective predictors of performance
This approach creates a more holistic picture of performance and can be used to better quantify performance at the individual and organizational levels.
From an engagement perspective, most organizations use surveys to attempt to evaluate the pulse of the workforce. And while these surveys are helpful in understanding some aspects of the relative health of the workforce, a data-driven approach will provide even greater depth of understanding beyond what people are willing to offer up when they are asked how they are feeling at work. Think about going to the doctor for a physical or routine checkup. While a physician, no doubt, asks about how a patient is feeling, he or she also likely draws blood and runs lab tests to get a better understanding of what is happening inside the body that the patient may not even be aware of. The same can be said for matters of engagement, as we may not be fully aware of everything that is contributing to our current mind-set, not to mention the fact that workplace satisfaction is dynamic and will inevitably change over time.
In order to improve the way we define, measure, and impact performance and engagement in the workplace, we need to embrace the use of technology and data while recognizing that there will always be some subjectivity related to the people side of business.
Going back to the issues at Amazon, if it relies solely on data from its systems, it may not realize that some of its “least productive” employees are actually some of its strongest assets. For example, some of those individuals may possess institutional knowledge that newly hired employees constantly leverage to get up to speed. While evidence-based HR is here to stay, it will be important to maintain a delicate balance of data and discernment in the new age of work.
Marcus Mossberger is the Senior Director, Global HCM Strategy at Infor.
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