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Numbers people and “people” people


There is a huge movement towards HR analytics and that is a good thing. However there is a risk that this will create a culture war within HR with the “numbers” people squaring off against the “people” people. That war won’t be good for anyone.

In the extreme case the numbers people believe that all the answers can be found in the data. They show distain for the opinion of experienced HR professionals unless those opinions are backed by data; and are more comfortable sitting with a spreadsheet than engaging with an employee.

In the extreme case the people people actively avoid numbers. They say that the reason they went into HR is because they wanted to work with people, not math. They argue that data doesn’t show the whole story (which is of course correct), but do so in a way that sounds defensive. They eagerly look for cases where analysis has failed and use that as an excuse to ignore data.

You probably don’t face these extremes, but the kernel of these world views likely do exist within your HR team; and we need to act to head off the predictable conflict. We will never bring more rigour to HR if we don’t get the people people, who are the bulk of our HR team, onside with analytics. Furthermore, the numbers people won’t succeed without the wisdom and skill of the people people since the answer never lies solely in numerical data.

Bridging the gap between the numbers people and the “people” people

The way to bridge the gap between the numbers people and the people people is to create a process they both can relate to. That process is based on a field called evidence-based management. In a nutshell the difference between evidence-based management and analytics is that analytics focuses on the tools (the data, the software, the analytical techniques) whereas evidence-based management focuses on the decision that needs to be made.

Whereas analytics looks for hard data, evidence based management looks for the best available evidence. Evidence may include expert opinion, stakeholder views, and academic research as well as hard numbers. Analytics is a critical part of evidence-based management; it is greatly admired, but it is not the be all and end all.

Furthermore whereas analytics tends to look for “proof”, evidence-based management tends to look at the overall weight of the evidence. Analytics people tend to say things like “The data shows that…” whereas evidence-based management people are more inclined to say “Overall the weight of evidence leads us to think….”

And as always, evidence-based management drives back to “What are we trying to do?” “What question are we trying to answer?” “What decision are we trying to make?” Whereas analytics can fall into the trap of saying “We have a whole lot of data, I wonder what it means.” Now, I say ‘trap’ which may be a bit strong, it can be interesting to ask “What can we do with all this data?” However, too often this focus on data leads to endless analysis with no “So what”. When we start with the issue of “What decision are we trying to make?” we have already resolved the “So what?” question before we start.

When you decide to bring rigour to the HR department by asking clear questions and gathering evidence then people people and numbers people can get on the same page. They both bring their unique strengths to the table and they learn from each other instead of fighting for dominance.


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