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I wasn’t sure what to expect as my wife and I logged into Zoom for the ‘lock-down edition’ of my family games night a few months back. Each household had the assignment to come up with a game that could be played across the screen – this had the potential to become the most painful family reunion ever. However, my mind often goes back to a game my brother came up with: he shared an extreme Google Earth close-up of a famous world site, a pixelated view of some seemingly random patch of earth, and then, frame by frame, zoomed out to the point where someone would start screaming the name of the place to claim the point. The Eiffel Tower! Pyramids of Giza! The Grand Canyon! You can always count on the competitiveness of my family to make a games night work.
As I contemplate how to continue to capture the value of People Analytics, I sometimes feel I’m back in that game, at maximum zoom, staring at the giant pixels that represent the tools, insights and initiatives at play. It’s easy to stay there, looking at everything close up, absorbed by the complexity and critical nature of the deliverables. But that’s a dangerous game for both leader and business – context is everything. As we all know, ‘zooming out’ to understand the whys and the wherefores is critical for decision making, setting direction and defining purpose.
It’s within this frame that I approach the relationship between People Analytics and Workforce Management, which includes disciplines such as Workforce Planning. I’ve noticed that these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, or at least conflated to the point of being indistinguishable. Which comes first? Are they the same thing? Why do these disciplines often seem to ‘grow up’ together in HR departments? Let’s zoom out to take in a wider vista.
First off we need to align on terminology. And a disclaimer at this point that I recognise the upcoming terms can mean many different things to different people, which is half the challenge. But here’s one way of thinking about them…
Workforce Management: a set of disciplines that enable an organisation to optimally manage the resources that make up its workforce. Fundamentally, this is an organisation and process-level concern, not an employee-level one.
The activities can range in nature, from operational – the processes, tools and frameworks that guide workforce movements in, out and around the organisation – to the strategic – planning workforce capacity and capability based on a future view business strategy, or designing organisation structures that optimise activity and define accountability. In this way, the disciplines that can make up Workforce Management and the resulting outcomes provide a stable launch pad for other, more employee-centric, perhaps traditional, HR activities.
For example, Talent Sourcing can be more informed on where and how to proactively pool candidates; Talent and Development teams can start to cater to current and future capability gaps; Mobility and Succession efforts can be directed toward target-state organisation structures. In this sense, a strong Workforce Management offering, characterised by the capability to govern, provide foresight and advise accordingly, can play the stabilising core to the arms and legs of HR outreach to the organisation and its people.
So where does People Analytics fit in?
It’s worth recognising that analytics is not reporting. Reporting reflects back data and summary level information to an audience and can, these days, largely be designed, automated and released within modern digital HR platforms. Analytics is concerned with describing what happened to the extent it can be understood why those things happened, predicting how these trends might extend into the future and prescribing actions through scenario modelling to understand how to influence certain outcomes. Descriptive, predictive, prescriptive.
"The disciplines that can make up workforce management and the resulting outcomes provide a stable launchpad for other, more employee-centric, perhaps traditional, HR activities"
This is exciting stuff (yes, I would say that), but also extremely distracting. It’s easy to get caught up in an analytics arms race. But the value of good analytics lies in the enablement of decision making, strategy setting and staging interventions. Beyond this, even the coolest analytics could kindly be termed an exercise in futility.
To illustrate: would you agree that an insight is impotent until acted upon? Using your eyes to look down the road while driving is no use if your cognitive and fine motor skills aren’t engaged to make the necessary adjustments. Do you drive because you can see? Not in general – unless the Pacific Coast route or French Riviera are involved – but take away your sight and now your objective, the destination, is unreachable. And forget about making any small adjustments or critical interventions that keep you and everyone else safe along the way.
Analytics are the eyes to Workforce Management’s cognitive and fine motor skills. In order to optimally manage the workforce, leveraging evidence-based decisions makes perfect sense. The macro-level nature of, for example, Strategic Workforce Planning, or Org Optimisation, lends itself to data-led, analytical enablement. However, the more employee-centric the analytics use case becomes, the more difficult it becomes to apply analytics to affect a specific outcome. So, the two areas have a natural affinity, and this affinity is born out in the way many organisations choose to set them up as organisational bed-fellows, not because they are the same thing, but because it’s a very good place to start applying evidence-based decision making.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that data or evidence-based decision making should be constrained to Workforce Management disciplines within HR. There is far too much value in being a data-led HR function to be ignored. However, I would suggest making the link between analytics and Workforce Management first enables the onward application of analytics across HR as analytical capability matures.
Every HR function should be embracing People Analytics as an enabler to delivering value – through decisions, through HR strategy, through interventions. Just remember to zoom out – as The Handmaid’s Tale hero, Margaret Atwood, would have it: “Perspective is necessary. Otherwise there are only two dimensions”. My brother would completely agree.