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An HR Transformation to be proud of


If you studied science or engineering (back in the day), you probably still find the standard practice of HR a bit odd. As a profession we are quick to adopt faddish practices because they are new, or sound good, or because someone else is doing them. This is a far cry from the disciplined approach to gathering evidence that you learned in university. The question for you is, can you create a change to bring more rigour into your own HR department? Can you drive a quiet transformation you’d be proud of?

What success would look like

What would that quiet transformation lead to? Here are two vignettes:

  • Imagine HR saying “Yes, we looked at the Amy Cuddy TEDtalk on the benefits of the Wonder Woman power pose; but it seemed a bit too easy, so we did a quick internet search and found her findings were based on a sample of only 21 people and further research on a larger sample showed no effect. Hence we won’t be training managers in this technique.”

  • Imagine HR saying “We’ve been tracking quality of hire and trying to tease out what parts of the process have the biggest impact. Our measure of quality of hire isn’t that great, in particular we find managers get tired of rating each new hire, nevertheless we’ve found that when people skip steps in the assessment process quality of hire does fall. So we track whether those steps are taking place and have educated managers on their importance.”

Fundamentally, an evidence-based HR function would consistently be saying things like “Let me give you some numbers…”; “On balance, the academic research indicates this…”; “We interviewed a group of randomly selected employees, using a structured methodology, and this is what the analysis showed.”

What we’re aiming for is not boasting about an algorithm nor presenting a fake certainty that HR knows a foolproof answer; it’s just about creating a more disciplined HR team, a team that you can be proud of.

Why this transformation now has a chance of success

If you are going to head down the path towards creating a more evidence-based HR function, you’ll want to know that you have a reasonable chance of success. The good news is that you have three things going for you:

  • Highly Educated HR and Line Managers: Many HR professionals and our clients, the line managers, have post-graduate degrees in a quantitative discipline. Yes, you’ll still run into many people who show no interest in data or evidence; but there are more allies to support your transformation than there were in the past.

  • The People Analytics Movement: People analytics as a movement creates legitimacy for bringing more data into HR decision making. People analytics as a set of techniques makes it easier than ever to gather and analyse data.

  • The Evidence-based Practices Movement: Evidence-based practice includes analytics, but is a good deal broader. As managers hear about “Evidence-based Medicine” and “Evidence-based Education” and “Evidence-based Policy” it creates legitimacy for “Evidence-based HR”.

How to do it

If you feel this is a transformation you’d like to lead, you still need to do so within all the normal constraints of running an HR department. Here are some of the things to do:

  1. Hire people with a scientific mindset. In an ideal world you’d be given the budget to hire a big team of data scientists. In the real world you probably have to make do with existing staff in existing roles. However, when those staff do turnover and there’s a vacancy, bring in a replacement with a scientific mindset. It’s great if you can bring in people with a PhD in I/O (Industrial Organisational) psychology, but even someone with an undergrad in biology may well have the right mindset to support your transformation.

  2. Gently raise the bar by asking for data and evidence. Whenever you are working with your HR team you should be asking “Can you give me some numbers?”, “What data do we have on that?” “Can we dig up any evidence on which option is best?” This may not sound like a dramatic transformation, but it is something that is easy to do that moves HR in the right direction.

  3. Train people in the processes of evidence-based management. A lot of people analytics training is aimed at hard-core numbers geeks (“How to do structural equation modelling”). Evidence-based management is much more accessible to the average HR professional. The ideas are pretty simple: let’s make decisions based on the best available evidence. But the simplicity of these ideas doesn’t mean that they don’t represent a substantial shift in how we do HR.

What’s great about making this your legacy

If we look at the field of medicine, which we would have thought was totally based on science, we find it has gradually been transformed by the insistence that decisions be made on the best available evidence. The relatively gentle changes I recommend can accumulate into a sort of revolution—just as we’ve seen in medicine. You’ll start by asking your staff “Do you have any data?” and after a few years they’ll be coming back with “We did a cluster analysis of the data and discovered…” or “We managed to get hold of a systemic review of the past 30 years of research in this area and it’s quite clear we should be…” or “We really didn’t know so we ran a little experiment and the evidence revealed…”

So yes, evidence-based HR is a path to a real transformation of the function. I hope you embrace it.


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