Big data has been an HR buzzword for a decade now. Yet despite the thousands of articles and conference workshops, there’s a lingering sense among human resources professionals that data analytics are the domain of only the largest companies.

There’s some truth in that, but it’s also not the whole story. Big data, or in the case of most employers, smaller data, can give HR leaders all sorts of valuable workforce insights — the kind of insights that can lead to better decision making, smarter hiring and improved retention and workforce planning.

Writing for the Academy to Innovate HR, its founder Erik van Vulpen, concedes that much of the data HR has is messy, often unreliable because of inconsistencies in maintaining it, and the volume is limited and doesn’t much change. Despite those limitations, he says, “When leveraged the right way it can be used to uncover workforce risks, make better people decisions and help in building a competitive advantage for the firm.”

For example, van Vulpen points to the “large piles of unanalyzed, written performance reviews” most companies just file away. Using natural language processing (NLP), these reviews can be turned into valuable data, creating scores not just for employees but for the managers who perform these reviews.

NLP can also be used to analyze employee emails and messages to glean insights into engagement and attitudes of groups and the workforce as a whole.

Building on van Vulpen’s insights, SmartBrief explains that even smaller data can improve hiring. Rather than rely solely on that elusive “chemistry” hiring managers talk about, HR can analyze the records of the best workers to identify the skills and backgrounds to look for in new hires.

More than a few companies that routinely recruited only at “name” colleges, broadened their approach when they found that many of their top performers came from smaller, less well known schools.

“When applied to recruiting, employers can utilize big data to better predict hiring needs, while improving their quality of hire and employee retention,” Insperity’s John Feldman tells Forbes.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to using data in human resources is changing the way HR people approach decision-making.

Says Dr. Jaclyn Lee, CHRO at the Singapore University of Technology and Design, “The HR profession has always relied on gut instincts using very descriptive data. The idea is to change your mindset from one that’s reactive to one that’s proactive.”

Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash


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