People Analytics: The Scientific Method to Improve Business Processes

By HR Club on 20 February 2019

Combined excerpts from Max Blumberg's articles: and

Scientific decision making in organisations

Because the social and health risks associated with the release of a new drug are significant, pharmaceutical companies are legally required to deploy a process – known as a clinical trial – to demonstrate, for example, that the proposed drug is fit for purpose and that it does not result in unmanageable side effects. But the scientific method is not confined only to manufacturing and R&D functions in business: marketing, procurement and finance functions have benefited from its use for at least the last 20 years.For example, prior to investing in a campaign, analytical marketers use A/B testing – a technique based on the scientific method – to demonstrate which marketing campaign will deliver the greatest return on investment.

Yet when it comes to people analytics, only a few companies use the scientific method to guide their investments in people programmes. This being despite the fact that they spend more on people than they do on marketing, procurement and R&D combined. Instead, these companies focus entirely on low-level people analytics techniques like HR reporting, visualisation and dashboards to deliver their people analytics results.

Why are these companies not using the scientific method?

There are at least two possible reasons. First, many lower level people analytics approaches can be learned at post-conference workshops or 1-week courses. In contrast, the scientific method requires a significantly higher educational investment, typically a postgraduate research qualification. It may be that some HR functions, unlike their marketing and R&D counterparts, are not willing to make this investment.

Second, the scientific method is not widely publicised because it is not in the interests of technology companies to promote it in their marketing messages. This is because the scientific method requires significantly less technology to be effective than lower-level analytic approaches, which rely on vast quantities of data and technology upon which to display it (rather than analyse it).

It is therefore not in the interests of technology companies to promote high-level analytics techniques as these would harm their sales. Instead, it is in the interest of technology companies to promote people analytics as a technology-led and technology-intensive discipline.

Low-level analytics vs. high-level analytics

There is, of course, a place for lower-level analytics approaches like dashboards, visualisation and HR reporting in people analytics; in fact, they are essential for statutory reporting and problem identification.
However, unlike the scientific method, they cannot establish causal links between people processes and desired business outcomes, they cannot be used to identify those people processes that require modification in order for the business to achieve its business objectives.

The result is that companies that focus purely on low-level people analytics are most likely wasting a significant proportion of their human capital investments. Yet these companies have no idea how much they are wasting nor how to address the issue.

Decision making regarding human capital

In order to understand how scientific people analysis can be used to guide and support management decision-making, it is necessary to look at why and how managers make human capital decisions.Organisations exist to achieve desired business outcomes. For example, commercial organisations must deliver adequate return to shareholders and public sector organisations must serve the needs of citizens. The primary role of managers is to help organisations achieve these desired outcomes by making two kinds of decisions:

1. Investment allocation

Senior general managers decide how to allocate funds between the competing assets and capitals (resources) required to achieve the desired business outcomes. For example, a company’s executive team with £100m available may decide to allocate £40m to its human capital investments.

2. Deployment

Operational managers – with guidance from support functions like HR, marketing and finance – must decide how to deploy these investments in order to achieve desired business outcomes. When it comes to human capital, for example, managers must decide how to deploy people processes such as career development, performance management, succession planning, recruitment and so on.

Quantitative vs. qualitative

In the past, most allocation and deployment decisions were based on the instincts and ‘gut feel’ of managers. While these factors are important, unconscious biases often result in poor managerial decisions. Today, quantitative methods – known collectively as business analytics – are available to managers to supplement (rather than replace) subjective decision making, leading to higher quality decisions.

The effect of human capital decisions on business outcomes

From a human capital perspective, making the right people process decisions delivers the workforce capabilities that an organisation needs to enable its Key Performance Drivers (KPDs), which drive the organisation’s desired Business Outcomes.Conversely, if managers make poor people process decisions, the organisation will not have the workforce capabilities and KPDs that it needs to achieve its desired business outcomes.

But what kind of people process decisions must managers make? Here are some examples of recruitment process decisions:

  • What knowledge, skills and abilities should we look for in candidates?
  • What channel(s) should we use to attract candidates?
  • How do we integrate new employees into the organisation?​

The quality of recruitment decisions will affect many of the workforce capabilities (see Figure 1) such as employee engagement and retention, workforce performance, talent management, and workforce adaptability to name just a few. If the people process decisions are successful, then these workforce capabilities will enable the KPDs and desired business outcomes. If not, the company will not achieve any of these.

Examples of workforce planning process decisions:

  • What are our short and long-term headcount and competency requirements for executing our strategy?
  • Which regions will have roles that are most difficult to fill?
  • Which roles could be more productively performed by technology automation?

Again, the quality of these decisions will affect many of the workforce capabilities shown, which will have knock-on effects to the KPDs and desired business outcomes shown in Figure 1.

Figur1 1: Human Capital Value Profiling Process (adapted from Accenture, 2006)

How value profiling can help

Given that successful people process decisions are so important for achieving desired business outcomes, how do managers know which people processes to target first? Or how do managers prioritise repairs to problematic people processes that are limiting organisational value? The answer lies in a people analytics technique called value profiling.

Value profiling identifies those people processes that are most important for achieving desired business outcomes in your organisation, but are least effectively implemented. This information is usually presented as a policy matrix such the one shown in Figure 2. This policy matrix suggests that at this particular organisation, recruitment is the most important people process for achieving desired business outcomes; unfortunately, however, it is also the least effectively implemented.

Figure 2: Using a policy matrix to select the next people process for improvement

Therefore the most important action this company could take to improve human capital contribution to business outcomes would be to improve the effectiveness of its recruitment process. The second most important action it could take, based on Figure 2, would be to improve its Competency management and then its learning management processes.

Policy matrixes like this one are generated by using a structured questionnaire to ask senior managers, selected HR personnel, and a cross-section of operational and functional employees to rate (1) the importance and (2) the effectiveness of each of its people processes. These results are then collated and correlated to produce the policy matrix.

Key takeaways

1. The objective of analytics is to address business outcomes rather than workforce capabilities.

This point is worth mentioning because the end goal of so many people analytics projects today is addressing problematic workforce capabilities such as retention or leadership issues. While these may appear to be be important, they are not always sufficient to justify the existence of people analytics investments and projects. This is because people analytics exists not to fix workforce capability issues; it exists to enable the company’s KPDs in order to deliver its desired business outcomes.

The message here is that the objective of any people analytics project should be to address a problematic business outcome or KPD. Value profiling will ensure that this is achieved.

2. All human capital decisions are really just people process decisions.

While managers can make decisions about people processes, they cannot make any direct decisions about workforce capabilities, KPDs or business outcomes. For example, they cannot decide that retention or leadership will improve by 30% tomorrow; but they can decide to improve relevant processes tomorrow, such as career development and compensation. With any luck, these process changes will result in higher retention and whatever business outcomes they were seeking.

But ‘luck’ is not the best that organisations can hope for when repairing people processes in order to achieve their desired business outcomes. They can rely on more than luck when they learn to use scientific people analysis.

Would you like to find out more on this topic? On March 27th, join the Master Class “A Fresh Perspective in People Analytics”, presented by Max Blumberg, founder of Blumberg Partnership – Top 50 consultancy firm – and one of the most respected names in people analytics worldwide. All details here.

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