Getting to Evidence Based HR (2/2)

On March 10, 2015, in HRExaminer, Mark Berry, by Mark Berry

photo of Mark Berry, on where he is an Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

Mark Berry, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

Elaborating on the Roadmap

#1: Get Your Story Straight – and Relevant & Compelling

Having a compelling, business-relevant story is critical to the success of any HR analytics initiative. Notice I didn’t say “HR-relevant story”? There’s a reason for that; a foundation of any effective evidence-based HR analytics program is addressing those most immediate, relevant, compelling business issues or opportunities.

However, it’s not enough to have a great business case – you must bring the business case to life. This is the essence of great “story-telling”. Story telling is not fabrication of reality, but rather engaging the audience in an emotional, visceral way to the reality you desire to represent. Stories are a critical means to do just that.

#2: Securing Senior Sponsorship – or Staying Statistically-Stigmatized

Get senior leadership sponsorship…or don’t move forward. By “support”, I don’t mean full comprehension of all that a comprehensive, evidence-based HR initiative will entail. Most likely, you won’t be able to predict that at the beginning of your organization’s journey. However, it is important to be able to engage them in understanding – at both a high level and on a practical basis – to what they are being asked to commit.

As that’s realized, an important next step is taking time to build on that initial sponsorship. Great evidence-based leaders are also great teachers & mentors – specifically to those in leadership roles. Just as you want bring your practice – and HR organization through whatever respective analytics maturity model to which you subscribe, you also want to bring your senior leaders along – if nothing else, one step ahead of the rest of your organization.

#3: Don’t Forget the Foundation – The House Will Be Better for It

Too often, I see organizations Don’t neglect the critical, foundational issues – customers, data, technology, and acumen. Due diligence must be done to ensure that you understand your customers – what they understand (and don’t understand) about evidence-based HR, what they are currently doing (or should be doing) to drive fact-based decision making, and where you have advocates (and adversaries).

In addition, it’s important to understand where your organization is in terms of data (quality & accessibility) as well as technology (capability to aggregate & analyze). If you’re starting with little – or poor quality – data, you’re ability to ramp up with relevant, impactful results will be impeded. It shouldn’t be something that discourages you from pursuing evidenced-based HR practices; it’s simply an impediment you will need to overcome in the process.

With respect to technology, it’s not about spending having the newest/best/most powerful human capital management (HCM) tools & technologies; it’s about having what you need to help begin to do the work – and will allow you to “prove the theory” that future investments will pay returns commensurate with the required investments. It may mean starting with very simple Excel-based tools – pivot tables, slicers, and the like. You may be able to generate some metrics/visualizations/insights from your existing HR tech investments. The point is that you need to understand where you are starting, begin to consider where you need to go, appreciate what will be required – in data & technology – to get there, and start to think about how you will solve for these needs.

#4: Find Present, Pressing Pain Points

Solve for the immediate needs of the organization. It’s great to be aspirational – but don’t allow your failure to focus on the immediate opportunities cause you to be perceived as delusional. Most organizations will have issues that need to be solved – NOW! They may not be the most glamorous. They may not be areas on which you would even want to focus, but it’s far easier to gain support by solving for an organization’s acknowledged issues than seeking to step aside from those and focusing on something that they do not see as an issue.

Example: In my past life, a pressing issue with “representation” of women and people of color. In any presentation HR provided to the business leaders, “diversity” of the workforce was a given. Personally, I understand it, but didn’t want the analytics team to be tagged as the “diversity reporting team” – I knew there were bigger fish to fry. However, HR’s felt need – at that time – was to better understand representational trends, especially as it related to hiring & retention of diverse talent. So that’s where we went…and the customers were happy. They stepped right past what we could have delivered that was more impactful to the business – and we had to be ok with that. Meeting their present, pressing pain point built good will and the opportunity to show what else we could provide.

Start where your customers feel the pain, solve for it, and then seek to sophisticate in the future.

#5: Careful With That Cash…It’s Not About How Big Your Budget Is…

Minimize major investments in consultants or technology. Yes, consultants are smart and the technologies are cool, but you don’t need them to succeed short-term (and they may – in fact – adversely affect your success).

Too often, organizations seeking to build evidence-based HR practices believe that they must engage professional services subject matter experts and HR technology vendors – or they cannot succeed. For whatever reason – a lack of self-confidence, fear of failure, or a host of other factors – some people simply feel that investing in evidence-based HR requires investment of capital. They, then, move forward seeking the funding to do the work – if they get the funding they believe they need, they move forward. If they fail to receive the funding they believe they need, they freeze, believing they cannot move forward without it. This doesn’t need to be the case.

Given the wealth of information in the public domain regarding establishing evidence -based HR practices, a resourceful HR professional doesn’t need professional consultants to do this work for them. What is required to succeed in evidenced-based HR is the same as any other facet of HR – natural curiosity, an openness to challenge your presuppositions, and an aspiration to be better than before. Sure, I had the benefit of quantitative coursework through three college degree programs, but that didn’t make me an advocate for evidenced-based HR; what did was the appreciation of the power of data, analysis, and insights to making people-driven decisions.

The same points can be applied with respect to technology. You don’t need a six-figure invoice to be “evidence-based”. What you need is a passion for allowing facts to support your outcomes and imagination in how to best represent that. Major tech investments can create several issues that will impede your work, including (but not limited to):

  1. Higher expectations relative to the financial investments being made. You can’t afford – literally – to go into a major change initiative with expectations that exceed your ability to deliver.
  2. Technology that doesn’t truly meet the needs of your initiative or your organization.
  3. Distraction – requirement documentation, vendor selection, configuration, and implementation may compromise your ability to focus on answering the most pressing business questions.
  4. Customer frustrations – demonstrations of technology – especially HR technologies – are generally amazing. The software does everything it was promised to do (and more!). However, there’s that “user experience” piece that you also must navigate. It’s one thing for a customer rep to show off a product – they do it every day. It’s quite another thing to have one of your customers (a HR generalist, for example) be able to drive the technology with the same level of agility.

My advice – don’t buy anything for the first year. In most organizations, you can borrow (using existing technologies – in my last role, it was BI software licenses purchased for the enterprise ERP system) or build (I use this term loosely – build can including configuring “borrowed” software or creating tools your team can use with Excel, Power Pivot, Slicer and other “free”, readily available software.

#6: Taking Good Will to the Bank

Leverage good will from solving for the immediate needs to expand the work being undertaken. Addressing pressing issues that are easy to solve will be “equity” for your practice and good will with your stakeholders you can use to “fund” future work.

It’s easy to lose focus – and seek to rush ahead of the felt pain of your key stakeholders. Don’t do it. I repeat, “DON’T DO IT”.

When I started the human capital analytics initiative in my last assignment, I wanted to show the HR world what they could get from this initiative. I wanted to leap forward to exciting opportunities – inferential & predictive analysis, workforce planning, and multi-dimensional metrics dashboards and scorecards. However, my “customers” (ie, HR) were looking for something that was – to me – far less sexy. They wanted headcount reports, representational statistics, and turnover trends. I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to go there. But the bottom line was simple: that is where my customers needed me to go. I knew that – metaphorically – I could provide them with filet mignon, but they wanted sirloin (or maybe bologna). I could provide them with Dom Perignon, but they wanted soda. I could have provided them with a Cadillac, but they wanted a Yugo. Ok, I think you get the picture. Bottom line: I needed to provide them with what they needed, embrace the good will I would receive from doing so, “sophisticate their palate” in the process, and leverage that good will to continue to build out our organization’s HR analytics curve.

I remember – as though it was yesterday – when I debuted our first generation, “home grown” portal-based reporting solution to the HR leadership team. It truly was likely showing an iPad to a tribe of Aboriginal natives – they were amazed that tables, charts, and graphs that would have previously required days to develop were delivered – online – in a matter of seconds. It was both invigorating and sad – invigorating because I saw the “lights” come on in the minds of my customers and they understood they potential that was set before us. It was sad because we had so far to go – and they seemed so happy with what they had (which was extremely rudimentary, relative to where we needed to be and where we would arrive in the next several years). But it was the place to start – and I leveraged that good will, reinvesting back into the program..

#7: Boldly Going Where No Man (or Woman) Has Gone Before

Look for opportunities where others have feared to tread. Don’t be afraid of going after something that has derailed others. Just be careful how you do it. It might derail you as well.

This one may seem contradictory, relative to #3 & 4 – but it’s not. As you’re building the foundation for evidence-based HR practices, be looking at those future opportunities – often, this will be the “pressing pain points” I referenced earlier.

In the world in which I’ve worked the past few years, this was operational workforce planning. What is “operational workforce planning”? In that world, it was the process whereby the organization – usually Finance, with support from HR – sought to plan, analyze, and forecast headcount and personnel costs for a short-term window of time. In that world, what made this so challenging was several factors, including (but not limited to):

  • HR & Finance used different systems to support planning.
  • HR & Finance defined terminologies of the process differently.
  • HR & FInance didn’t have standard processes to support planning, analysis, & forecasting.
  • HR & Finance didn’t have agreed upon processes for managing/ controlling variances to plan.

I think you get the picture.

Because of the “chasm” between these two groups – and no one’s previous success in solving for the issues that created the chasm – the situation was seen as hopeless. But it wasn’t. Operational planning provided the perfect opportunity for the team. It wasn’t an esoteric exercise – it was a potentially impactful enterprise business process. In many organizations, personnel costs are the majority of an organization’s total costs. There was a business case that could be made for HR analytics to take on operational planning – and we did. In the course of that, we began to uncover the unknown “traps” and “tripwires”. We found significant points of resistance – not driven by technology or process, but people – people who didn’t want to change the way they had done what they had done.

However, that didn’t stop me from continuing to ruminate over the issue, building capabilities – systems, metrics, processes, etc. – that could align with and support the optimization of operational planning in the future. It took almost three years – from start to finish – to get there, but we got there. Simply put, HR had to be willing to take on the risk – and ensure that unmitigated risk didn’t derail the effort and me at the same time.

#8: No “Islands of Excellence” in an “Ocean of Incapability”

Recognize that there are no “islands of excellence” in an “ocean of incapability”. Workforce analytics “centers of expertise” are cool, but you’ll never drive significant, sustainable organizational change if you don’t engage the broader “network of expertise” – others in HR who “get it”.

Just this past week, I received an email from a colleague – someone new to the field of evidence-based HR – who asked me to review his proposed 2015 objectives. As I looked at them, they were good – he was focusing on many of the right things. However, what he had missed was the importance of building the single most critical component of an effective evidence-based HR practice – customer acumen.

It’s easy to miss this, especially if you are one of those analytically agile individuals (who may have little patience for others who don’t know the difference between a correlation and a cluster analysis). You define your role as “doing analysis”. You don’t define your role as “babysitting HR”, “suffering fools”, or whatever disparaging terms you wish to use. Unfortunately, in your zeal to be highly effective in building your evidence-based “center of expertise”, you’ve missed the most important component in evidence-based HR – HR. You’ve got to stop thinking about doing & publishing work and start thinking about partnering with HR, co-innovating on projects, building evidence-based acumen in your customers, and sharing the knowledge with others. Let me say it in simple terms:

“Islands of excellence are worthless in an ocean of ignorance”.

I don’t mean to use the term “ignorance” to disparage any group, but rather to underscore that this lack of knowledge (which is – by definition – what “ignorance” truly is) serves NO useful purpose. We – in pursuing the promulgation of evidence-based HR practices – must work to move from thinking solely about our “center of expertise” and thinking more about how to build & equip a “network of expertise” – comprised of HR business partners, generalists, staffing personnel, talent management folks, OD team members, and others. The collective analytical “DNA” of an organization never gets changed by one person or by one team; it is transformed as others embrace the vision & seek to realize the value of our efforts. I’ll be sharing more – much more – on this topic in future postings.

#9: Stories of Your Success are Critical – Craft Them Wisely & Tell Them in Compelling Terms

“A story is data with a soul”.

John Sumser

Continue to tell the story – and stories – of how evidence-based decision making drives relevance and results in HR. Your role is not only as a purveyor of workforce analytics, but as the “PT Barnum” of analytics. Learn to approach this as the business approaches product marketing – leverage the capabilities of your marketing folks to build your team’s brand equity.

Storytelling is a powerful technique rarely used by HR people and even less frequently with the analytically inclined. However, storytelling entertains the listener/stakeholder audience & earns their interest. The power of the story converts dry PowerPoint slides into engaging, enlightening, and compelling points for discussion. In fact, I’ll be so bold as to say that the slides, charts, and graphs should only serve as a backdrop for the discussion – not the centerpiece.

In a presentation I gave late last year to a group of really sharp, evidence-obsessed HR people for a leading member-based advisory firm, I summarized the role of storytelling in evidence-based HR as follows:

Storytelling is an essential skill in communicating the truths inherent in the analysis you conduct. Done well, storytelling actually engages the audience in ways fundamentally different than other forms of presentation.

When supplementing storytelling with visualizations, there are several critical considerations:

  • Simplicity – does it convey what it is intended to convey in as simple a form as possible?
  • Specificity – does it specifically convey what you intend it to convey?
  • Relatability – does it generate interest, engagement, and a desire to act?

The focus should be on the situation, issue or problem outlined in the story – not the visualization. The visualization supplements the story – it is not the focus. Given this, engagement of the audience is the best measure of impact. Ensure that prior to ending, you have clearly defined next steps.

#10: Grow as You Go

If you have passion, purpose, and perspective, you’ve got what you need to get started. What about “crawl”, “walk”, and “run” – where does that fit into the picture?

Sure, it helps to have people who have “been there” and “done that”. Early in the work I’ve done, I was fortunate to engage with others – who had laid that foundation at other organizations, experienced first-hand the pains in the process, and succeeded in driving evidence-based HR practices within their respective organizations. Most were willing – freely – to share what they had learned through the process – and my most valued strength was the openness to learn from others. Sure, it helped that I had undergraduate & graduate coursework in statistical analysis, research methodologies, and quantitative processes. But what mattered even more was having a desire to see the field I love – HR – transformed with the power of fact-based decision making. I was intrigued by the challenge of changing the nature of how we set priorities, evaluated outcomes, and incorporated those findings into future work. It wasn’t about statistics, it was about driving sustainable change.

“Crawling”, “walking”, and “running” are metaphors that those seeking to implement evidence-based HR practices should consider. There are times when you can “run” – the opportunity is right before you. You have full support of your customers. You are good to go. Run! Get the work done. Savor the ease at which that was accomplish. However, recognize that there will also be times – many times – when “running” is not possible. It may be due to lack of will, absence of resources, or an issue seemingly too challenging to overcome. In those cases, “walking” – a steady, deliberate effort to move to resolution may be the right pace. It may be even slower & more deliberate…’crawling”, if you will. However, what you want to avoid is that inevitable sense that the journey is too hard & too long. In those cases, you may need to rely on something as simple as “continuous forward progress” – regardless the pace or the process. Don’t quit. The rewards of your efforts may be closer than you can see from your current vantage point.

I had gotten to that point prior to the time I left my last job. The challenges ahead of me, the inertia of the organization, and the lack of affirmation for the work being done had become impediments to our progress. It was hard for me to see how I was affecting the organization in a positive way. Then, after leaving, I received an email from a former co-worker who paid me – as a professional – the greatest compliment I could ever have received. She said,

“You changed the DNA of our organization and we – thankfully – will never be the same”.

She had the perspective I had allowed to become eclipsed by the challenges I had sought to overcome. She was able to see – over the months and years – the value created by the efforts undertaken. She was the one screaming in my ear:

“Run if you can. Walk if you have to. Crawl if you must. Just don’t quit!”

What’s important is not a PhD in I/O, statistics or mathematics – it’s about passion, purpose, and perspective. You don’t need to be a master of workforce analytics or planning to begin to build your practice. You simply need to be one step ahead – whether by running, walking or crawling – of your smartest customer. Just don’t quit!

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photo of Mark Berry on in Mark's article about evidence based HR part 1
Getting To Evidence Based HR (1 of 2)

Five years ago, in a company far, far away, I began the process of building an evidence-based capability within the...