Let’s first look at what big data is.
Big data is described as, according to Oxford Dictionaries, as: noun: data sets that are too large and complex to manipulate or interrogate with standard methods or tools.
Did you know that Webster’s Dictionaries doesn’t even have a definition for big data?
Doug Laney has described it using various categories like Volume, Velocity, and Variety but basically states, “Extending data management options enables greater returns on information assets”.
So far no one has used the word “predict” to describe big data, but that is precisely what companies and people are using it for, to help them predict the behaviors of human beings i.e. use software to help them understand the outcomes of the human condition.
That’s a pretty tall order and I’m not sure it has a place in Human Resources.
The Atlantic wrote a very telling and detailed article about big data and Human Resources. It’s what has made me give my two cents worth on the topic. I found the article to be a bit one sided as there was no counterpoint to the belief that ‘people analytics’ is a viable and effective tool in deciding who should be hired, fired and promoted.
When I read the article I kept hearing leaps of faith from people, as though people analytics was the answer to all of their questions about how to know who to hire, fire and promote. I read example after example of people and companies claiming success with using data analysis in increasing the success in their management of human beings and productivity.
But I never really read a direct correlation between using big data and the outcomes that they claim. Attrition rates dropped, promotions increased, but was that due to big data or better awareness and training of managers?
They also talk about the inherent inability of human beings to be objective. One investment bank hiring manager stated he was going to hire two people because they liked squash and lacrosse.
That’s not bias, that’s just being a very poor manager.
A vice president of recruiting at Xerox stated, “We’re getting to the point where some of our hiring managers don’t even want to interview anymore”—they just want to hire the people with the highest scores.”
Ah, now I think I’m seeing where the attraction is.
The attraction is people and their careers can be managed using data and that way you don’t have to spend time training managers on how to engage with their teams, how to teach them, motivate them, mentor them. You just have to hire the right people to begin with.
One of the problems is not the people we hire but the people we put in managerial roles. Being a manager is not getting the work done, it’s helping other people get the work done, and that’s not inherent in most people. As a matter of fact, managers became managers because they were successful at getting the work done. They did not become managers because they were great at building a team and mentoring that team into being successful. Which is unfortunate because that’s exactly what makes a person a great manager.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t promote great performers into managerial roles, what I am saying is we need to train them into being great managers.
I see the attraction of big data’s promise, data can take all the guesswork out of who to hire, who should be promoted and who should not. It also holds the promise because all of sudden the responsibility of deciding is now taken away from the manager and given to software.
How awesome is that, we no longer have to take responsibility for decisions because big data can do it for us. Yet we all know when it works it wasn’t big data, it was great managerial skills. When it doesn’t work, it was the data’s fault. Seems like an ideal situation to me!
My fear is this is the future of Human Resources and of managing. The fear is that suddenly software will eliminate people from ever being considered for any kind of promotion. It is software that permanently limits the chance of someone proving they can do something great. Wow, let’s limit the ability of people instead of enhancing their chances of doing great work.
I don’t ever want to create an environment where people are put into categories. I want to create an environment where everyone has the potential to be great.
Big data is not a predictor of the human condition, if it was it would rule the world. Unfortunately, right now, it looks like it is starting to rule Human Resources, and that’s really sad because there is a better way… the human way.