2021-02-05 HR Examiner article John Sumser The HR Data Department part 2 stock photo img cc0 by AdobeStock 235503318 edit 544x324px.gif

“Jim Collins originally used the Flywheel as a metaphor in his book, Good To Great. Picture a huge, heavy flywheel mounted horizontally on an axle. The flywheel is two feet thick and weighs five-thousand pounds. Now imagine your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and for as long as possible.” - John Sumser


The HR Data Department

Part Two


Building the Computational HR Flywheel


The HR Flywheel that drives the HR Data Function


I’ve been discussing The HR Data Department and The HR Product Manager. This piece will focus on building a computational HR flywheel within the emerging HR data department.


Jim Collins originally used the Flywheel as a metaphor in his book, Good To Great:


“Picture a huge, heavy flywheel — a massive metal disk mounted horizontally on an axle, about 30 feet in diameter, 2 feet thick, and weighing about 5,000 pounds. Now imagine your task is to get the flywheel rotating on the axle as fast and long as possible.


Pushing with great effort, you get the flywheel to inch forward, moving almost imperceptibly at first. You keep pushing and, after two or three hours of persistent effort, you get the flywheel to complete one entire turn.


The metaphor describes the way that momentum can be achieved. In particular, the idea that great business initiatives create a flywheel effect is at the heart of much of contemporary venture capital investing.”

The same idea, that a virtuous cycle of positive feedback loops can be created to increase and ensure momentum, should be applied inside of the HR Data initiative. Correctly managed, initial repetitive efforts can be converted into sustained momentum.


This ought to be the vision that drives the HR Data Function. The objective is to build a sustained analysis of the organization and its data that produces a steadily increasing flow of value.


Here’s how it works. The foundational idea is that the Data Department is intensely curious about how the organization actually works. That creates momentum because each investigation of a question produces deeper questions.


The HR Data Science Flywheel


HR Data


Start where you are. This component is rooted in using what you have to maximum effect.


  • New Insights
    • The heart of any data department is the routine production of actionable insight from currently available data. This is the place where momentum begins. Insights are the immediate output of the flywheel.
  • New HR Questions
    • The process of coming to understand the relationships between variables in organizational life on the productive output of the organization should produce a relatively constant stream of new questions. Another way of framing this is that the second most important priority for the core data department is the maintenance and expansion of curiosity about the workings of the company.
    • The flywheel is driven by the flow of new questions. Rather than a search for conclusions and hard, binary answers, the Data Department is charged with investigating the nuances that can drive both incremental and transformational performance improvement. It may even be the case that transformational improvement is the consequence of lots of incremental change.


New Technology


The acquisition of new technology should be driven by requirements that can be shown using the existing tools. When new questions emerge from the HR Data, it’s time to begin the decision process to make or buy new technology. The premise of this phase of the cycle is that the best new questions require new measures, models, and more sensitive technology.


One look at this series on the emerging HR Data Department should persuade you that there is no shortage of new technology and that there is a good argument that it drives real competitive advantage. From that perspective, the question is not whether to continue to buy new tech and tools but which to invest in. A proactive approach to the technology market depends on knowing which questions you want to answer next and how far down the rabbit hole you are willing to go.




At relatively small scale (500 Employees minimum), HR Departments will be on the hunt for the things they can do to drive business results and deliver the greatest value to all stakeholders.


  • Software and Models
    • Even though every vendor will supply unique, client-specific models and algorithms, it will be critical that the Data Department understands the differences between what they’re being sold and what they need. This is a non-trivial concern. That means that there will be company originated models, algorithms, integration applications, and other bits of homebrew technology.
  • New Hypotheses
    • The goal of this phase of the flywheel is to generate new hypotheses about the workforce and its capabilities to be answered in the first phase of the flywheel.


2020 10 26 HR Examiner article John Sumser graphic The Data Science Flywheel of Continuous Organizational Improvement photo img 544x410px.png

The Data Science Flywheel of Continuous Organizational Improvement. Click image to enlarge.


With these elements in place and functioning, HR will have a foundational data department. While it will definitely measurably increase the cost of HR operations, it will be able to show direct causal relationships. The benefit will accelerate the longer the flywheel is pushed.


Read previous post:
2021-02-04 HR Examiner article John Sumser The HR Data Department stock photo img cc0 by AdobeStock 235503318 edit 200px-sq.gif
The HR Data Department Part I

“What we’re talking about here is the emergence of a new set of analytics-driven data-based elements of the HR department....