Big Data. There. I said it. Let’s speak this word no more. It’s completely separate from workforce analytics and distracts from the real issue.

Big Data. There. I said it. Let’s speak this word no more. It’s completely separate from workforce analytics and distracts from the real issue.

There’s an old sports saying that dates all the way back to the late 1990s: “All the ballers want to be rappers, and all the rappers want to be ballers.” With apologies to Master P and Allen Iverson, it seems people are never satisfied with who they are. In the world of HR software and services, things are no different. All the thought leaders want to be marketers, and all the marketers want to be thought leaders. Now that we have that out of the way, this marketer wants to talk about workforce analytics. As a former sports journalist, I want to serve this up with a side of baseball. After all, it’s summer, and sports can teach us a lot about the world of business.

Big Data. There. I said it. Let’s speak this word no more. It’s completely separate from workforce analytics and distracts from the real issue. However, I will unapologetically invoke the book Moneyball and the name Billy Beane, the data-savvy manager of the Oakland Athletics. I know this topic is well-trod ground, but hang with me here.

I believe that lots of people get the wrong idea about workforce analytics from Moneyball. It’s not simply having or using the data. It’s whether what you’re finding something unique in the data to benefit your organization and give you a competitive advantage. It’s finding the “so what?” factor.

Major League Baseball is perhaps one of the best and longest-running examples of reliable, consistent, actionable workforce analytics. Billions of dollars in workforce decisions are driven by this data. Open up your daily newspaper or on your iPad today. You’ll find the box scores from yesterday’s game. You can look at the batting leaders. Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera is hitting .370 and leading the American League and the majors. He went 2 for 4 with a double and an RBI the other day against the Red Sox. Speaking of the Red Sox, last year Cabrera became the first player to win the Triple Crown since Boston’s great Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. That’s workforce analytics. You can get a snapshot in time (June 24), annual performance (2013), and all-time historical performance (19th century until today).

Everyone has access to the same data, but what Billy Beane did with the A’s was different. He and his team looked at the data and noticed something unusual — on-base percentage was a better indicator of success than batting average. But that didn’t mean they went out and signed the guys with the best on-base percentage. The A’s had a tiny budget. They simply used this information to find high-quality performers at bargain prices. As Moneyball author Michael Lewis correctly pointed out, they were arbitraging the mispricing of baseball players. That’s the “so what?” factor.

OK, so while all of that’s interesting, you may be wondering how it applies to you.  A recent report by the Corporate Executive Board spells it out. In the study, only 12 percent of organizations feel they make full strategic use of the talent metrics they gather, and 41 percent of business leaders don’t believe HR data impacts performance. These findings are also not shocking on their own. HR has to do better. HR needs to earn the trust of the business. How does HR do it? They must find the “so what?” factor.

▪       Know your business. Talk to business leaders. Pay attention in meetings. Read your 10k (and your competitors’). Ask questions. Be engaged, listen, and stay intellectually curious.

▪       Focus on your KPIs. What’s your “so what?” factor — your version of on-base percentage? You can’t (and shouldn’t) figure out your KPIs from reading a blog post. Your KPIs should be custom. For example, a KPI for a casino might be the time it takes for a guest to get a drink. That’s probably not transferable to your work. And if it is, I want to visit your office.

▪       Choose technology that fits your business. I market software for a living, which automatically makes me an unreliable narrator. However, you need to get the right analytics software to get the right analytics answers. And, sorry to break this to you, but if you already own analytics software and you didn’t update to the latest version in the past 18 months, you need new software. The market is changing that fast. Also, you must find a way to integrate people data and business data easily and effectively. You can’t get analytics right without the right technology. And just like your KPIs, the right technology is the one that fits your organization best. Ask for referrals from your peers, but ask for references and do your due diligence.

▪       Get management behind you. Analytics won’t be a priority unless the people at the very top get behind it. And they won’t get behind it if it’s just about people. You have to connect people, finance, operations, and company performance.

▪       Remember that your window of opportunity is brief. When Billy Beane and the A’s made their little data discovery, it was unique to them. They had a brief advantage until everyone else caught up. The A’s never won a World Series with their data advantage, but the Red Sox did. Be prepared to move quickly and always be looking for new data wrinkles to exploit.

▪       Be skeptical. To paraphrase H.L. Mencken, you’ll find plenty of answers that are simple, obvious, and wrong. Do let analytics become a way to fail faster. You should vigorously test, challenge, and tweak your assumptions.

Don’t despair if you’re not lucky enough to be one of the organizations in the top 12 percent who are getting results from workforce analytics. Just like in baseball, focus on your next game or your next season. Get another at-bat, and make it count.

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