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Big Data or Big Brother?

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Big Data or Big Brother?

We invited Simon Walker to share his thoughts on Big Data. As a specialist consultant, Simon advises on best practice across all aspects of people management.

“I recently asked a number of HR directors and professionals what Big Data meant to them and how much value they derive from gathering and analysing Big Data.

To be honest, I was surprised by the initial response. Many had an almost visceral reaction to the whole topic.

Digging a little deeper, I learnt that the key themes were a lack of familiarity with what is possible, what the opportunities are and a lack of data-analysis skills to actually benefit from it.”

Concerns surrounding Big Data

  • “You can’t reduce people to numbers.”
  • “It’s too much like Big BROTHER.”
  • “HR is more of an art than a science.”
  • “We’ve got some really big spreadsheets. Is that Big Data?”
  • “I can’t quite see how it could work for us.”
  • ”We don’t have anyone in our team who is good with this stuff.”

“It might be horribly stereotypical (forgive me), but HR tends to be drawn from those of us with people-focused backgrounds. We tend to be short on hard analytical skills. We probably need a few more engineers and mathematicians in our ranks.

I think that this is where HR is missing the real opportunity. Most marketeers and business analysts will tell you that beyond the data in their Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system, they rely increasingly on Big Data – social-media profiles and engagement, buying patterns and website interactions – to help them make the right decisions for their business. In most European businesses, people are the biggest asset and account for up to 85% of all costs. It makes sense to apply the same hunger for data insights to support our HR strategies.”

Others comments included:

  • “We’ve got some really big spreadsheets. Is that Big Data?”
  • “I can’t quite see how it could work for us.”
  • ”We don’t have anyone in our team who is good with this stuff.”

Four strategies to bring Big Data into your HR operations.

  1. Talk to your marketing department about how they use data to nurture leads and create value. Marketing departments have invested heavily in sophisticated technologies designed to understand exactly what a customer wants and when. As people leaders, you should be asking the same questions of your HR systems.
  2. Use available data to create personalised employee experiences from recruitment and onboarding through to retention and development programmes. Whom do they network with? What are their interests outside work? System access data doesn’t have to be just about security and control. It can be used to design flexible working patterns that benefit everyone.
  3. Create a culture of transparency. Talk to your teams about the sort of data you want to use – and why. The British Olympic cycling coaches monitor athletes’ social-media feeds (with consent!) to find signs that may indicate depression or low energy levels before symptoms start appearing. While this may be a step too far for some organisations, the rise of wearable tech could provide employee data to support an individual well-being programme. With transparency and trust, I believe this is a very real application for Big Data.
  4. Create the right culture. Big Data isn’t Big Brother if everyone understands what is being collected and agrees how it will be used.
    • Get scientific. Bring in your data scientists or business analysts and create hypotheses that you can test.
    • Encourage curiosity. Allow people to explore “what if…?”
    • Talk to your employees regularly and share your insights.
    • Set policies only when you have consent and engagement.
    • Apply the learnings through strong leadership delivered compassionately. Not every decision will mean change for your business, but it is important to know which ones will have most impact.


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