Blaming the Customer

On October 22, 2014, in Analytics, HR Technology, HRExaminer, John Sumser, by John Sumser

It’s easy to blame the customer than to try to understand what value actually means to them.

It’s easier to blame the customer than to try and understand what value actually means to them.

Good friend Brian Sommer has an article about the HRTech Conference on ZDNet. This year, most HRTech vendors offered some sort of analytics product. And, this year, most HR Departments are passing on the opportunity.

Although he says it much more politely than this, Brian thinks the problem is caused by the buyer. It’s a unique formulation of the technology industry. When a product doesn’t sell, it’s because the buyer is stupid. He says, “Before HR gets new technology, it needs new, additional people.”

He goes on to repeat the tired litany: “Where are the quants in HR? Where are the statistics and math majors? Where are the social scientists who understand human behavior? Seriously, giving powerful analytic tools to many HR folks today (who lack awareness or skills in these technologies and disciplines) is like giving a chainsaw to a 4-year old. If they ever got it running, you’d have a bloody mess on your hands.  If you don’t know the difference between causality and correlation, you have no business playing with analytics.”

I’ve said similar things.

You’ve probably heard about the company I’ve started with William Tincup, Key Interval Research. We have been watching similar train wrecks for a while. Our bet is that the customer is deeply misunderstood; that we have an endless stream of unsubstantiated anecdotes about HR, its practices and its talent.

It’s easy to blame the customer. It pays better than noticing that the products are not really valuable. It’s easier than trying to understand what value actually means to the customer. You can hide a lot of imprecision behind words like should and ought.

We’re starting to research the issues. I don’t have a pocket full of answers. I do have a lot of questions.

Here’s what I think most people in HR do for a living.

Imagine that I am an HR professional in either a specific silo (recruiting, learning, OD, payroll) and you are the customer (an employee, a line manager or someone in my reporting chain). We meet. You tell me about your concern and I work hard to understand it. At the close of our meeting, I promise to get back to you with relevant data (policies, specific numbers, trends, reports).

I return to my workspace.

On my desk are two monitors. On one side is the office suite. On the other are the 7 to 20 systems and software tools that I use in my job. Some I use a lot. Some not so much.

I figure out which tools to start using. Some are easy because I use them a lot. Some are hard because I use them infrequently but, because they are SaaS tools, the vendor changes the interface very routinely. I have to relearn those interfaces before I can get the data out of the system.

I pull data from the systems and integrate it in a spreadsheet. Once the spreadsheet is done, I make graphs and pictures in PowerPoint. Then I wrap the project with a Word Doc.

I present my findings to you. You then say either “Great job. Let’s solve the problem” or “No, go back and get better info.”

In other words, most people who work in HR spend their lives integrating data from disparate systems in order to solve problems. Their day to day experience is of disconnected software with data that doesn’t integrate easily. Their job involves being the analytics and the interface.

Most analytics packages that are currently on the market are extensions of a vendor’s product line. Somehow, having access to anonymized data from all of their customers is supposed to shed light on my problems. They bundle other customer’s data and sell it as bottled wisdom.

Generally, the problems that HR pros solve run across various systems. The analyses that are done every day by most HR pros involve complexities of data integration that are not easy to solve technically. The humans of HR spend an awful lot of time making up for the fact that most vendors don’t talk to each other.

The current crop of analytics offerings suffer from the same problem. It’s as if the analytics community forgot that HR people are problem solvers who use data routinely. Instead of making it easier to solve current problems, the focus is on solving problems that are not high priority.

It’s not surprising that the customer seems stupid from this perspective. However, it’s a little hard to imagine how to grow a business when you think so little of the user.

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