HRExaminer Radio

HRExaminer Radio is a weekly show devoted to Recruiting and Recruiting Technology airing live on Friday’s at 11AM Pacific

HRExaminer Radio

Guest: Mark Berry
Episode: 91
Air Date: April 10, 2015


Audio MP3

Mark Berry is a business HR leader and passionate proponent of evidence-based HR practices, who has first-hand experience establishing a successful “People Insights” function at a Fortune 200 consumer packaged goods company, as well as co-innovating in the development of a next-generation workforce planning technology platform.

Mark’s work has been honored with Bersin by Deloitte’s “WhatWorks” Award for Innovation in Talent Analytics and Workforce’s Optimas Award for Business Impact with Workforce Planning.

Most recently, Mark named as one of nine “HR Trendsetters” in the January 2015 issue of HR Magazine for his work in workforce analytics & planning. He has 20 years of HR experience (having started as a child) in food ingredients (ConAgra Foods), paper/packaging (International Paper) and chemical (Borden Chemical) industries, respectively, as well as 10 years of experience in applied psychology.

Mark holds B.A. & M.A. degrees in Psychology, as well as a M.B.A. with a concentration in Operations Management. Prior to his work in HR, Mark was a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) and Certified Employee Assistance Professional (CEAP).

Mark resides in Omaha, Nebraska with his wife, Carolyn, and daughters, Hannah and Grace. In his free time, he engages in masochistic pursuits, such as ultra-endurance running, including a number of 50- and 100-mile trail races each year.

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Begin transcript

John Sumser:

Good morning, and welcome to the HRExaminer Radio show. I’m your host, John Sumser. We’re coming to you today from rose bloom-encrested Occidental, California, the home of innovation in the great state of California.

Today, we’ve got Mark Berry with us. Mark is an amazing and innovative HR leader who is at the forefront of the movement to turn HR into an evidence-based discipline.

Mark, how are you?

Mark Berry:

I’m very good, John. Thank you for that introduction. I think that you just set the bar inordinately high.

John Sumser:

Well, that’s great. Mark, why don’t you introduce yourself. Why don’t you tell us your story.

Mark Berry:

I’d be glad to do that.

I’m Mark Berry. I live in Omaha, Nebraska. I’m 30 years in the people profession, ten years in social services, a Bachelor’s and Master’s in Psychology, and spent ten years, John, doing my best to try to save the world, and was, as you can see, not very successful in that. The last 20 years I made a career pivot of sorts twenty years ago and was hired by one of my clients when I was doing work in social services, to be their HR manager.

That led through a succession of of opportunities with several Fortune 200 companies and led to me being here today, the last five years, have had the privilege of leading an enterprise workforce analytics and planning initiative of that Fortune 200 company that I left at the end of October of last year.

John Sumser:

Wow! You’ve got experience in the big game. You’ve led this amazing project to bring analytics to your last company. Tell me a little about that.

Mark Berry:

You’ve heard this phrase before, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” What we had was the juxtaposition of several opportunities that presented themselves at the same time. We had a new CHRO coming into the organization. At the same time, we were implementing a new HRIS solution. At the same time, we were facing a lot of headwind from a cost perspective. There was very much an interest in trying to figure out how to manage keeping this HRIS solution vanilla by not building a tremendous amount of reporting capability within that environment, not doing what had been done previously, in fact.

In the organization, we did the baseline at the beginning of the work. We didn’t have a handful of reports people could use. We had 1,500 HR-related reports people could pull from. The organization was open to hear a different way to do business in HR.

What I proposed to the CHRO at that time was, we had short-term an opportunity to create a different way to do reporting and analysis. We had longer term an opportunity to transform the culture of the organization and change HR from being a highly intuition-driven organization to being a more evidence-based organization, and that if we did it right, not only leveraging technology but also process and people development, we could take HR and move it from being a group that focused on “I hope, I believe, and I feel,” to “I think, and I know, and I have the facts to support the decision.”

That began five years ago. The first two years of the project, John, were purely a skunkworks project. What I mean by skunkworks is, it was a small group of passionate proponents who were focused on this initiative. We had no full-time staff, no budget, and borrowed technology. Our only mandate at the beginning of the project was to create a portal-based, self-service reporting solution for HR.

We got together, small group of us, less than a half dozen, and began to think through what the end state really was, and how would we get from where we were at that time to that end state in six months. The end state was delivering what the customer had asked for, but that delivery had to be something that would be foundational to the overall initiative that we had in mind in transforming the organization, and it had to be scalable so that over time, would be something we could build on and be able to leverage more fully as we tried to drive in the organization a greater focus on evidence-based HR and fact-based decision-making.

Three years ago, the equity that we gained from that first two years of work led to the creation of a dedicated center of expertise, what was called in the company, “people insights.” People insights was a COE within HR that reported to the chief HR officer, and our focus was around building acumen within the HR organization, enabling workforce planning from end to end through planning, not just what’s called strategic planning, but also cost-based planning, and then beginning to introduce the use of inferential or predictive statistical analysis to solve for HR issues.

John Sumser:

That’s good. That’s kind of top level.

How about a couple of specifics. When you put a complex analytic system like this in place in a large company, what are some of the specific victories that come with having the capacity to do a more analytical, evidence-based job in HR?

Mark Berry:

One of the challenges that we found, John, was simply, and it was really foundational, but it was a big victory in a sense was, we had to standardize the nomenclature, the data dictionary, if you would, around what we were doing.

When we originally started the project and we said, “Let’s think about what we’re going to measure,” an example would be turnover. That was one that people said, “We’d really like to have an easy means to be able to generate visualizations and analytics around turnover.” There was one specific type of turnover they wanted to look at in particular that they called, in the organization, “regrettable turnover.”

Regrettable turnover doesn’t have a single definition in that company. It actually, at that time, had eight different definitions in that company, because Business Unit A said regrettable turnover was turnover of people that were directors and above who were higher performers and above, Group B said it was managers and above who had potential ratings above X, Group C said, and so on. We had eight different definitions of what constituted regrettable turnover.

Simply being able to bring the organization together and say, “We’re going to give you a measure of turnover, and you can overlay on that definition of turnover all the demographic variables that you want to, but we’re only giving you one.” We really had to move the organization from sort of a Burger King model of analytics, where whatever you want you can get, to one that said more of a benevolent dictatorship, I guess is what I would describe, John, a model that said, “We’re going to provide you with something, but we’re going to provide you with what you need, not what you don’t need.”

From a talent perspective, this particular thing, turnover, or regrettable turnover was critical, because when those groups came together to have discussions and really talk about their talent from an integrated way, in the absence of having a common definition of what constituted regrettable turnover, they couldn’t have a meaningful discussion, because they were all speaking in different languages as though they were speaking in tongues.

At a foundational level, that might seem to be a fairly sublime but was a really critical [end 09:08] for the organization to say, “We’re going to define what the data dictionary is, and we’re going to build this with the capability to be very robust in terms of how we parse the data, but in terms of the basic definitions of what we’re analyzing and how we analyze it, we’re going to be very rigorous in that.”

That was really a critical capability that we had to have, because we otherwise would have been crushed under the weight of the customization that the organization wanted. What we said was, “We’ll give you standardization, and then you have the interface, the tools, to be able to customize that as you see fit, but we’re going to standardize around these specific things.” That was a significant win.

John Sumser:

I think that sort of tells you where HR is, doesn’t it, that in a Fortune 200 company, what you have to do is get all of the elements of HR to be talking about the same thing.

In marketing, that happened in the ’90s, and in production and engineering and operations, it happened in the ’70s and ’80s, so it’s nice to hear that it’s happening in HR.

It’s funny that it’s imagined as a heroic initiative when that level of language standardization is what happened to transform industrial operations into information businesses.

Mark Berry:

John, we saw it in every area that we took on. When we looked at planning as an example, and specifically, cost-based planning, what we found was, as we looked at different organizations and different technologies that were doing it, every one of them used a different cost taxonomy, if you will, a different set of costs that they deemed to be important, and access aggregated and were able to analyze. We said, “If we’re really going to master cost-based planning, we need to have a taxonomy that is broad as possible, gives us access to as many of those variable expenses related to personnel costs as possible, and we need to work to redefine, when we talk about cost-based planning, that we’re talking about it in the broadest sense.

The narrowest sense is, “Well, it’s wages, and it’s a percentage that constitutes fringe, and we’ll leave it at that.” We said, “No, it’s really actually, when you truly analyze costs from an analytics perspective, there are ten different categories within that taxonomy, and you can fit every cost that you have associated with an employee into that taxonomy of ten.”

We saw the same thing when we went in to looking at internalizing what was called the engagement survey, which really wasn’t an engagement survey. I don’t know that anyone knows what engagement is, in the truest sense. What it was [crosstalk 12:12] …

John Sumser:

It’s what you do before you get married. It’s what you do before you get married.

Mark Berry:

It was a satisfaction survey. We were asking people, “How happy are you with what you have,” and then trying to make inferences from that. When we internalized it, what we said was, “Let’s really change the focus of what we’re looking at, because no one can really agree on what constitutes engagement. Let’s talk about things that we know that we can measure. We can measure a person’s perceived intent to stay, their discretionary work effort, we can measure the things that they value, based on what they’re telling us, at least, that they value, and we can measure how we measure up as an organization in terms of providing those things that they value, relative to the value that they assign to them.”

We really stopped talking about engagement, per se, and started talking about things like employee values, and what’s the value proposition, and how do we move closer to closing the gap between what an employee wants and what the organization provides, particularly focusing that on those employees that we most wanted to attract and retain and develop.

That was really what was critical. It wasn’t that we didn’t care about what other employees wanted or what they liked. What was important was to say, if in the world of HR, all employees are not equal, that if we’re saying that there are certain employees that are more critical, that are higher performers, or higher potential, or whatever we want to call them, we need to be focusing our efforts in understanding what’s most important to those employees, and how we leverage to spend the investment we’re making in people, to be able to attract and retain and develop and engage those people most fully.

Those were the kinds of challenges that we had to encounter, and I think what I’m seeing in the space is, there are a number of companies that are courageously going after these things, but for every one of those companies, I think there’s a multiple of companies that look at those issues and say, “I don’t want to go there. That’s too dangerous. There’s too much risk involved in breaking the glass of Paradigm A, which is what our leadership is accustomed to, and even though we know that the right thing to do is to break that glass and obliterate that paradigm, I don’t want to go there, because there’s too much risk involved in that.”

I think as a function, HR, by nature, oftentimes is fairly risk-averse, and I think that works against us when it comes to making courageous decisions and, in particular, pivoting from how we’ve tended to be to how we need to be, from intuition to evidence-based, because the businesses aren’t accustomed to us talking in that way. There’s risk even in assuming a different way of looking at an issue, because your leadership could readily ask you at any point, “Why didn’t you bring this up two years ago, three years ago, five years ago? Why haven’t we talked about this before?”

The correct answer is,”Because it’s only been recently that I understood what I really should be focused on.” I think many HR people are reluctant to acknowledge, as I was reluctant to acknowledge five years ago, that I was leaving a lot of opportunity on the table because I wasn’t looking at the numbers the way I could be looking at the numbers. I wasn’t making decisions based on the evidence. I was making decisions based on the way I had learned to make decisions in HR.

John Sumser:

Great story. Great story.

What are you doing now?

Mark Berry:

It’s been a pretty exciting last five months since I left my last role. I spent a couple of months, right around the holidays, John, really trying to understand the industry. I picked 16 people that I saw out in the world, that I thought were real vanguards in this space, in HR and technology and analytics and thought leadership in this area, and I set up 30-, 45-minute calls with 16 people and just asked them questions about, “Where do you see HR going, and what do you see the impediments as being, and where do you see the opportunities or the challenges, and how do you think technology plays into this, and what about the role of the consultant,” and those kinds of questions. In fact, as I recall, I had a discussion with you as one of those 16 about this.

 The feedback I got was really interesting and enlightening and insightful. What it made me realize, in the course of this was, what I had been doing as a business HR leader supporting a small division within a large company and, at the same time, leading this analytics and planning initiative, it was God’s work, but everything that people kept saying to me was around the opportunity that at a leadership level, HR needed to take a different approach to things, that it was at a leadership level, not at a COE level, not an HRIS, not an IT level, at a senior leadership level, at the CHRO level, HR needed to take a different approach to the problems and issues and opportunities the business was presenting regarding people.

That started me on a very different journey. I actually pivoted at that time, in terms of what I was looking at. What I assumed when I went on the market in November was, “I’m going to go back into a role leading analytics and planning for a Fortune 500 company and just have a great time extending and customizing the work that I did previously with a new organization.”

What I realized was, through those discussions and some work with a really great professional coach, was 1), the opportunity was to find a way to help leaders be more effective at making that cultural change that HR needed to make, and 2), for me personally, what I really enjoyed was not so much about analytics and planning. It was about taking something good and making it better, taking something broken and fixing it, and figuring out how to optimize something that wasn’t optimized. HR analytics gave me a venue to do that, but it wasn’t the only venue to do it.

What I’ve really been doing the last three months is saying, “How do I take what I heard from those 16 people, how do I take what I hear in my heart of hearts about what really gets me excited, and find a way to monetize that, if you would, in terms of my career.” I’m really excited that in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be able to talk about the opportunity that I’m taking to move into a chief HR officer role with a medium-sized company, really having the chance to do much of what those 16 people I spoke with challenged me on.

I’ve been a pundit who’s been throwing rocks for years at HR leadership and the need for leadership to truly lead. I’m going to sit in that chair now, and have to figure out how to actually do it, and how to figure out how to solve the problems of people process and technology to be able to drive better outcomes for businesses with people. I get to fix something that’s broken, and I get to take something that’s good and make it better, and I get the chance to do it in a place that is really open to do that work.

That’s what I’ve been doing. I tell you, John, I would encourage anyone listening to this to take the time, stop what you’re doing and take the time, and really step back and engage those people that you may not know, but are known, you may not have a relationship with, but are thought leaders in your industry. Ask them the kind of questions that I had the privilege of asking people.

It’s not that hard. I talked to 16 people, I actually only asked 18 people. Only two people didn’t respond, and of that 16 people, 10 of them I didn’t even know, I didn’t have a relationship with. They were people that I had heard of, but I was asking them to do something that was kind of out of the blue. “Will you talk to me about your industry and your expertise and your perspective on these specific questions,” and then follow what I heard. That’s sort of the evidence way that you do it.

I collected data, I analyzed the data, I filtered it through the lens of my own experience and said, “Based on the data that I have, what should I be doing?” What I found that I should be doing is, I should be doing the work that I’ve been challenging people to do the last five years. I could do that in a number of different settings. I could have done it in a corporation. I could have done it with a consulting group. I could have done it with an HR technology firm. I could have done it as a private consultant, but different than you, my risk aversion for private consulting is astronomical.

I remember one particular person, a guy named John Sumser, when I talked to him about this, mentioned this whole concept of lumpy earnings if you’re a private consultant. That scared me, because I’m not a guy who likes lumpy earnings. I don’t like having variability in those major inputs in my life, like income. I knew for sure that was something I probably didn’t have the tolerance to do. Going back in a corporate environment and challenging myself and the organization to solve problems I did have the confidence and do.

John Sumser:

That’s interesting.

Just a quick note about that. One of the things that HR doesn’t get often is that even in massive companies, revenue’s always lumpy. Revenue’s always lumpy. It’s only when you are in an administrative role, tucked way inside and removed from where revenue is made that you can have the luxury of believing that revenue isn’t lumpy.

I recall in my time in major companies, that every year, in the fourth quarter, we would have to beat the bushes to make the numbers, because the goal is always bigger than the possibility. No matter how hard you [sandbag 13:56] the numbers, the goal is bigger than the possibility. There’s always a cattle-wrestling endeavor that happens as you’re trying to get to the year-end numbers where the job is to turn the lumpy into the predictable.

HR never has to participate in that. It’s what going to work is like for anybody who touches revenue, so it’s an interesting thing. You might think about lumpy revenue as you go on to the next challenge, but let’s move on and talk about implementation.

Mark Berry:


John Sumser:

You have been thinking long and hard and in public about implementation. If you want to see a universe of HR practitioners shiver and shake, all you really need to do is walk into a room full of them, step up to the podium, and say, “Implementation,” and everybody [flips out 25:07], because implementations generally don’t go very well.

You’ve had some success in actually getting things done. What makes an implementation work?

Mark Berry:

I appreciate the question. I think I’ve had the benefactor of a really strong group of people who were passionate proponents, and those folks were critical to the implementation.

Software’s always a challenge, and it doesn’t matter what kind of software it is. There’s the software configuration, and implementation, and optimization, but the real challenge that I think most organizations miss out on, it’s what causes that quivering and shaking that you described, it may be not acknowledged at a conscious level, but the reason I believe a lot of HR people recoil at the notion of implementation, especially software implementation, is because there is an understanding at some level that success is fleeting if it’s present at all, and that their success is not driven by the technology vendor or by the implementation team, success is really driven by the culture.

I think that’s why, rightfully, if people are reluctant, they should be reluctant for two reasons. One is, you’ve got to have the people who know how to do the work of the implementation and deployment. To me, that’s less around the technical, because the technical part in general is kind of easy. Configuring software in and of itself isn’t hard. What’s hard on the software side is getting at what is the end state. What am I seeking to solve for, and what does good or great look like, not just at the point of go-live, but at the point three to five years post go-live, when we’re talking about optimization. Then how do I deconstruct that objective of what I’m trying to accomplish with the software into requirements, and then phase those requirements in a way that I get what I need at go-live, and I don’t have to undo work that I’ve done post go-live to get to where I want to be on an optimization basis. That’s the software side of it.

The culture side of it, where I think the quivering really occurs, and I think this might not be fully recognized, is that in many HR technology implementations, the belief is, the focus is on getting it configured and going live. There’s not a lot of thought given to what’s going to happen, or what should happen prior to and subsequent to go-live, that if it happens, will cause magic to occur within the organization, that will really result in true transformation.

I think that’s where we get challenged, because we don’t think about that. What we think about when we’re implementing HR technology in particular is, “I’ve got to get the basic requirements to be able to go live, and probably replace what I’m currently doing, and maybe fix some problems with my current technology that I had, that are high-level problems.” I’m not thinking about that using that technology to optimize processes to change the way people do what they do to drive a better business outcome, or I don’t take the time to stop to think about, “Let’s forget about what the process outcome is for HR, but what is the business outcome for HR.”

If I’m implementing talent management software, as an example, why am I doing that? What’s the business compulsion for doing this? Is the business compulsion sufficient that I’m spending the time and money that I’m spending on this implementation process? If it is, how do I make sure that as I’m doing this work, I not only deliver the capability from a technological perspective, but I deliver the changes that have to happen from a people and process perspective to get the full benefit of that?

I think there’s a little bit of technology consideration in this, I think there has to be a lot more culture consideration to this, and that the focus of both of those has to be, in the end, not about putting a technology in place. It’s about driving a different business outcome, and what HR has to avoid doing is creating these kinds of faux business cases that I’ve tended to see in this space where they grab some disembodied numbers from somebody else’s study and say, for example, “Implementation is talent management solution will result in X percent improvement in our sales number,” and really say, “What, realistically, do we expect to get as a business from this, and how will we get that, and how will we quantify that we’re getting that, and is what we are quantifying that we will get sufficient to make this investment and to make these changes that we’re making?”

When HR can have the courage to start talking about things that way, and really challenging the conventions and the assumptions, then we will be in a different world with the business.

John Sumser:

We have just blown through our half hour, Mark, and it’s been delightful, but there’s so much more to cover. I hope you’ll consider a Part 2 of this conversation in a couple weeks, and let’s talk about that in real life.

Are there some things you’d like the people in the audience to walk away with?

Mark Berry:

If you’re in HR, be courageous. Challenge yourself, and challenge your peers. Think about a different way of doing things. The different way has to be driven by what is the desired business outcome, and how do we get there? Don’t assume that anything is sacred, because in the sense of the business world, nothing is. Whatever you believe is sacred will be subject to change in the future. Be one of the leaders that go after that.

Let’s continue the dialogue. Places like HRExaminer are great venues to be able to be a part of that process. Radio shows like this are a great place to be a part of that process. Leverage those LinkedIn, Twitter, be in the game.

John Sumser:

Great, so please reintroduce yourself to the audience. Tell them how to get ahold of you, and we’ll move right along.

Mark Berry:

Sure. That’s great, John.

Mark Berry, and LinkedIn, it’s SMarkBerry. On Twitter, it’s S underline, S as in Steven, underline, Markberry, single word.

Please feel free to reach out with Lovetheconnection. Look forward to the next phase in the journey, and John, thank you very much for the opportunity.

John Sumser:

It was great to have you. What a delightful half hour, and thanks, everybody, for tuning in. This is John Sumser, and you’ve been listening to the HRExaminer Radio show, and we will see you again next week. Have a fantastic weekend.


End transcript

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