Big data analytics for Human Resources

Can big data solve government's HR challenges?

First of two parts. Read part two: Buy or build workforce apps? It depends.

The use of analytics to fine-tune workforce performance is not new. But the recent availability of inexpensive cloud data storage, coupled with the development of big data tools to analyze those data sets, have transformed what was a niche application into a powerful organization planning tool. 

Workforce analytics addresses several issues that are critical to any organization, including federal agencies: recruitment of new employees, the retention of employees and planning for replacing retiring employees including their knowledge and expertise.  More recently, data analysts have also begun to apply the tools to security-related goals, such as managing insider threats. 

While old-school workplace analytics was simply an effort of the human resources department to track a relatively small set employee statistics, the new generation of workplace applications now use big data tools to bring in outside data.

"It has been pretty straightforward for HR organizations to report on things like turnover, recruiting and so on," said Lisa Rowan, research vice president at IDC.  "The challenge is when you try to get some meaning out of those particular measures.  Turnover is only interesting if you can compare it to others in similar industries.  So if I have 10 percent turnover in Alabama, I might want to know what the typical turnover rate in Alabama is.  So you need a benchmark.  And if you are looking outside of your organization to get benchmarks you are in fact trying to tackle big data."

In pursuing meaningful reference points, workforce applications are now increasingly incorporating data from a wide array of external data sources, including those from government sources such as the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as well as private sources including social media, such as Facebook and LinkedIn.

"If the city of Chicago wants to know whether or not they're doing a good job recruiting Hispanic engineers, they can canvass the Bureau of Labor Statistics to look at the talent pool availability of Hispanic engineers in any part of the country," said Carl Bennett, a workforce analytics expert with the Deloitte consulting firm. 

We can determine if the engineers are out there and city simply can't recruit them, or if Hispanic engineers simply don't exist around Chicago, he explained.

Slow adoption

Still, federal agencies and departments have been relatively slow to adopt the new tools. "The practice itself is still somewhat pioneering for federal agencies," Bennett said.

Mick Collins, a principal consultant with SuccessFactors, an SAP workforce analytics subsidiary, agrees.  "It has been a slow process, even though the Government Accountability Office has been talking about the importance of workforce planning," Collins said. "At least over the last 11 or so years, we've seen relatively few organizations in the government sector purchase technology for this."

A big reason the federal sector has been slow to move into the analytics field, according to analysts and vendors, is the current era of tight budgets. "Everybody says, 'This is great. We need to have it,'" said Kouros Behzad, a product marketing manager for SAP. "But then it tends to fall under the knife in the end."

IDC's Rowan said she believes that another obstacle has been bureaucratic tradition. "By and large HR folks don't think analytically," she explained.  "That's not really their core competency.  It has been quite a difficult, uphill battle."

Yet another stumbling block is that the HR process  cuts across many departments.  "I can't really get beyond straight HR measures unless I have access to other data, including sales data, financial data, customer-relationship data," Rowan said.  "Frequently that data is not under the ownership of the HR management, so you need agreement and buy-in from the rest of the organization."

HR experts say the advent of cloud computing may open up channels for the use big data in HR. "When we see a sea change to more cloud-based technology, they will have a lot more capabilities in this space," said Breck Marshall, managing director in Accenture’s talent and organization practice. 

Despite these challenges, analysts say, federal agencies have a leg up on industry when it comes to taking up workforce analytics.  "By law, every agency needs to submit a pretty lengthy set of data about current workforce population in terms of age, ethnicity, gender," Bennett noted.  "The fact that these are government agencies with legislative reporting requirements has made them wrestle with this reporting and analysis topic a bit sooner than our commercial clients."

And the need for federal agencies to get more sophisticated about workforce analytics is clear. Agencies will need hiring and retention strategies when the baby-boomer retirement wave really starts to kick in, especially at agencies with a mandatory retirement age, such as at the FBI Marshall said. 

“That fact has always created a need for strategic agility in talent planning, Marshall added. “Other agencies are also losing talent.  Because of that you need to have a tremendous understanding of who actually works at the agency, what types of talent and capabilities they have, what types of needs you will have in the future."

First of two parts. Read part two: Buy or build workforce apps? It depends.

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