Ben Waber, of the fabled MIT Media Lab, makes a key distinction between People Analytics and HR Analytics. “People Analytics solves business problems. HR Analytics solves HR problems,” he says. – John Sumser


The MIT campus is urban. Postage stamp sized splotches of green seem to hide behind a herd of contemporary sculpture. The neighborhood is as ‘big city’ as Cambridge gets.

The People Analytics class, taught by Ben Waber of the fabled Media Lab was opened and closed by Sandy Pentland, the director of the MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs. Between the two of them, they represent the state of the art in Social Network thinking about the nature of work. Waber taught the course while Pentland bookended the adventure with high-level observations. You can get a sense for Waber’s work in this article.

Waber makes a key distinction between People Analytics and HR Analytics. “People Analytics solves business problems. HR Analytics solves HR problems,” he says. People Analytics looks at the work and its social organization. HR Analytics measures and integrates data about HR administrative processes.

The distinction is useful if imperfect. The course was really about the impact of the social network on getting things done. With behavioral measures (instead of surveys), one can actually see the impact of decisions on the physical organization of work. Waber made the case that organizations are rarely made productive by managers and high visibility, high potential employees. Rather, the research shows that the real engine of productivity is middling performers who are highly networked.

HR Analytics, on the other hand, begins with the huge data set that begins its life in the HR Department. The possibilities for turbocharging organizational performance are endless. Recruiting optimization, long range planning, skills forecasting, performance enhancement and various pulse taking methodologies are ground zero for HR Analytics.

That said, the class was not a nest of HR Practitioners. In this inaugural program, MIT assembled a group of 50 senior analytics oriented people. There were three HR folks. That the course drew disproportionally from outside of HR is typical of current Analytics projects.

The object of the course was to give students enough grounding to think about establishing a People Analytics program. A couple of elaborate group exercises (designing a plan to build a pyramid and planning lunch) highlighted the importance of underlying structure on business outcomes. The theory components of the course focused on the way that social networks are structured. 

If you understand the network, you can optimize its performance.

Most organizations believe that the boxes and lines in the org chart describe the way that work gets done. It’s never the case. At the very top of the heap, where it’s important to have sharp boundaries, things kind of work they way they are mapped. Once you get deeper in the organization, work blurs the formal hierarchy beyond recognition. This is where measurements of social interactions can make a difference.

Waber and his colleagues have instrumented and monitored over 100,000 employees with devices that track movement, interactions, vocal tones. It’s all metadata. This approach doesn’t pay attention to the actual content of communications in the network. Based on this purely quantitative data, they are able to describe the systems principles that drive network behavior.

If you are interested in amping up organizational performance, this course is a great place to start.



Read previous post:
HRExaminer Radio Executive Conversations Badge Podcast Logo
HRExaminer Radio – Executive Conversations: Episode #247: Howard Schwartz

John Sumser speaks with Howard Schwartz, CEO and co-founder at Crowded, a sourcing and engagement platform for tech talent.