A Look at the Buzz in HR Surrounding Today’s “Big” Data Buzzword

Recently, the HR enterprise software community seems to have become interested in big data, evidenced by the fact that big HR vendors like Workday and SumTotal are talking about "big HR data". Workday states that Workday Big Data Analytics collects data from multiple sources (within and outside of the Workday system) to provide insights to finance and HR managers and executives. Similarly, SumTotal points out that its system is able to analyze big HR data collected via various sources. And industry analysts like Josh Bersin includes it in his list of two of the nine hottest trends in HR technology today.

There seems to be a bit of confusion with respect to what the HR software community means by "big" data. It’s difficult to know the scale of "big" being referred to, i.e. terabytes, petabytes, or exabytes, and when exactly a company’s data can qualify as "big." According to Gartner, "big data is high-volume, high-velocity, and high-variety information assets." Gartner does not explain what "high" signifies in this context, but one can infer that a good example of big data based on this definition could be found easily in the electronics manufacturing space, where a typical manufacturer has thousands of products, each having dozens if not hundreds of components produced in many different locations or bought from multiple suppliers. After assembly, the products are stored in warehouses or distribution centers and from there delivered either to retailers or directly to clients. Moreover, all these products include post-sales services such as warranty, repairs, returns, etc. Each of these operations generate big amounts of data with recurring changes, and big data technology is required in order to make sense of it.

Thus, when considering big data in HR and whether it indeed requires more than just BI tools, a company should measure the total amount of data generated as a result of activities that concern HR as well as the variety of the data and the speed with which the data accumulates. This includes data from social platforms, learning management systems, operations, field service, and so on. Additionally, a company may collect data from Web sites like Glassdoor (which offers an inside look at jobs and companies) to better understand data’s relationship with employees and its place within the overall work market.

Furthermore, a company may want to assess the complexity of its HR data in order to determine appropriate data analysis tools. For example, if a company has tens of thousands of seasonal employees for which, due to the ephemeral nature of the relationship with its employees, the company only manages payroll and personal details, then its HR system is likely generating a lot of data, but that data is not very complex and therefore not very difficult to analyze. If, in contrast, an organization has fewer employees but it manages the entire lifecycle of the employee, from recruiting through succession planning and exit interviews, the organization in turn produces complex data which may require more than basic BI tools for analysis.

HR managers need to see the fine line between drowning in data to find the necessary information for decision making and seeing the big picture thanks to big data. For example, HR professionals do not really need big data to realize that a great employee is considering leaving a company. Personal observations or gut feelings, combined with very specific employee information—such as performance, manager feedback, interests, etc.—are the right "data sources" to act on in this context. In other words, no amount of data analysis can replace your natural observation and evaluation qualities.

Conversely, your gut feeling will definitely not tell you what steps need to be taken to reorganize when the industry your company is involved in is shrinking and consequently its workforce and productivity rate are shrinking too. Big HR data analysis as well as ongoing consultations with industry experts and government agencies are a better set of tools to rely on in this scenario.

When understanding big HR data, HR professionals need to recognize complexity as being perhaps more important than size. Furthermore, when taking advantage of big data’s many benefits, HR professionals may want to remember that while this type of data can provide a strong aid for certain types of decision-making, they are still working with employees (versus 3D printers or robotic arms), and introspection, empathy, and continuous exchanges with peers across industries and across the world are vital to the HR process, and cannot be found through data analysis alone.

TEC is currently writing a report on trends in big data. Help us out by filling out our short survey on your company's big data initiatives.
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