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Will analytics end your HR career?


If you loved math then there is a good chance you would have ended up in finance or engineering. Instead your skill probably lay in understanding people and organizations, that’s why you landed in HR. At this point you probably have a lot of HR skill and subject matter expertise. The question is this: will not loving math, or more specifically, not loving analytics, derail your HR career?

Taking an axe to HR business partners

Each month I host call with a community of HR leaders committed to improving HR analytics and evidence-based decision making. In one such meeting a guest speaker described how their company had to get rid of almost half their HR business partners because they couldn't adapt to the new demands of the role. The new demands were that, well, they were expected to really be business partners. To really be a business partner meant bringing analytical skills to business problems. No skills, no job.

The need to know analytics may not land quite so heavily in your life. More likely it will show up in terms of being passed over for promotions as someone with perceived analytics smarts shines more brightly in the eyes of management. Perhaps the biggest risk is that when you need a new job you’ll find the options limited if you lack an analytics background.

What you ought to do

The first thing you need to do is mutter that phrase we hear in American films when the protagonist faces a challenge: "I can do this!" You can do it. You can develop the analytics savvy all HR professionals need. The reason you can do it is that you don't need to be a math whiz nor do you need to master statistics. You just need to learn enough about the field that you can interface with the people who are strong analysts. If you don't love numbers then set you sights on being a great partner to the analytics experts, rather than trying to be one yourself.

The other thing to do is step aside from all the hype about big data and predictive analytics. Yes, those tools have a cool role in HR but it's a small role and you don't need to expend a lot of energy there. Concentrate instead on evidence-based decision making. Analytics, data, and numbers all feed into evidence-based practice, but they are not at the heart of the practice. The heart of evidence-based management is replacing opinions with decisions based upon the best available evidence.

Here’s an example. In the world of opinion we might say "I don't think team building exercises work". In a world of evidence-based decision making we would say "One hypothesis is that this proposed team building exercise will not have a significant impact on performance. Let's see whether the available evidence supports or refutes that hypothesis." We make the decision about the investment in team building based on evidence, not on opinion.

Where do you get the evidence? It might be academic papers on how to build better teams. It might be analytics from your own company on the effectiveness of that program. It might be the informed expertise of a manager who has worked with many teams before and after these exercises and can provide insight on whether or not the exercise works. This is not rocket science, but it is a change from how many organizations operate today. Learn to think it terms of “this is our hypothesis” and “here is the available evidence” and then analytics (which is one source of evidence) will slot nicely into how you guide leaders in making decisions about talent.

Make the leap now

If you wait until you need to demonstrate analytics savvy or an evidence-based mindset it will be too late. So as we start this new year set a clear, stretch goal to learn and display skill in analytics and evidence-based thinking. It's doable. Take training, join a community of practice, or get coaching. Write it on your to do list now.


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