The Big Data HR Fad

Jun 19, 2013
This article is part of a series called Opinion.

Screen Shot 2013-06-12 at 9.08.04 AMNothing excites organizations like another fad. The latest one happens to be a thing called “Big Data.” Big Data refers to collecting so many performance numbers that understanding them becomes difficult. Some people suggest Big Data be applied to HR, which brings me to my point. While Big Data might work for managing things and numbers, how can it apply to something few understand, let alone manage and measure … like human performance?

Human performance is A + B = C … that is, something stimulates the employee/manager (A), he/she does X or says Y (B), and the result is either good or bad (C). For example, a manager might have two problem employees (A), he/she talks to them (B), and later, everything is all better (C).

Sound simple? Sure, we can often record results (C), and sometimes we can even record the problem (A), but what the heck happened in the middle? Shouting? Warning? Exploring differences? Coffee chats? Bribery? Threats? Blackmail? Extortion? Something else?

Human performance is all about B … not A or C. That is, we need to know the specific employee skills used. Pile all the before or after-the-fact performance data you can collect into one big database and it still won’t be actionable until you include links to employee skills.

Skills are the things people bring to work. It’s the thing(s) they use to get the job done. It might be the ability to learn new skills, acquire specific technical knowledge, analyze data, make good decisions, be organized and able to plan, be motivated to act in a specific way, be skilled communicating with people, or any one of dozens of other job-related KSAs. If you promote an individual contributor to manager and the person fails, it’s probably because the “B’s” for the old job did not match the “B’s” for the new one.

Organizations are great soothsayers. They think reading the tea leaves of results leads directly to employee skills. I’ve known salesmen, managers, and business owners who were rewarded for performance, but the unethical practices used to get them there almost destroyed the company and workforce. You see, if you only have performance data, you never know the full story: did the employee lie, cheat, and steal; be at the right place at the right time; take credit for someone else’s work; or, were the results influenced by something else?

Big Data analysis might give you a fuzzy sense of confidence, but unless you understand your ABCs and include them in your data files, Big Data will be just another short-term HR fad.

This article is part of a series called Opinion.
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