What HR data can’t tell you

What HR Data cannot tell you

HR data and HR analytics is becoming increasingly popular – and with good reason.  Good data and clever use of the data can make HR better. Data mining, charts and data reports are used to guide innovation and process optimization.  All good things.

There is an argument among some people in HR that “you cannot measure people and convert people (and feelings) into hard facts”. They somehow see HR analytics as reducing people to something objective, deprived of feelings and being non-human. That is simply not correct. Objective facts and observation about human behavior has guided management and psychology for many years and has increased our understanding of human behavior. Our increasing technological powers will improve our insights in human behavior and hopefully assist us in making better HR decisions on the back of these insights.

BUT the advocates of HR analytics sometimes forget the limitations HR data. HR analytics face many challenges – many of which are psychological and rooted in the mindset of HR – and some misunderstandings about what HR data can do persist. Let me express three common ones;

  1. The data will speak for itself. The views expressed in statements such as “the data will speak for itself”, “HR data will make decision-making easy” and “numbers will express the law of causality so clearly that you will have to stupid not to understand that a will lead to b” are all naive if not dangerous. HR data will only get you so far but they cannot take away the fact that you will need to make subjective decisions, that all data requires subjective input to be meaningful and that HR data will only take you so far. The data will not speak for itself, the conclusions will continue to be in the eye of the beholder.
  2. More data will make it easier to interpret. This statement is not correct –  in fact the opposite is often the case; interpreting data is not getting easier. The more data you collect the harder it is to see the meaning of them. True, our capabilities to arrange them, visualize them and to publish them are getting better all the time. But interpreting data is not about arranging them, it is about finding out what they mean. Our obsession of collecting ever more data actually makes it even more difficult to find their meaning. And visualization techniques will not help us there.
  3. Data is objective. In one way HR data is objective but we should not be fooled that it is the same as getting a true representation of the world. The datasets are representations of the world gathered, generated, selected, put together, analyzed and adjusted for the particular purpose they are created for. Not only that, but in real life most HR Data is often incomplete, inaccurate or simply outdated.  So instead of treating data as objective and non-debatable understand that HR data is nota true representation of the world – it is a subjective representation of the world. But a good one nevertheless.

But perhaps the most important thing that HR Data cannot tell you is that they cannot tell you why people react as they do. Even the most predictive HR data can ‘only’ give you better information for your predictions and probabilities to forecast what will happen. That’s all. HR Data will not tell you why it will happen or how the people will fell about it. But it is frankly also quite enough.

HR Data will do a lot and hopefully it will make HR better. But it will not take the human element out of HR. And for that we shall be happy.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s