The modern HR function is becoming increasingly data-driven. Access to comprehensive data relating to everything from employee performance and workforce diversity, to training, talent retention and absences allows HR to inform the wider business and give teams the information they need for decision-making, as well as making strategic improvements themselves.

To get their best learnings regarding HR data and advice for other HR leaders, we spoke with Nicola Kerbey, HR Shared Services Director at Wates Group, and Emily Lofting-Kisakye, HR Director (Europe) at Cognita Schools.

For more HR data insights, you can also read our Wates Group case study.

Why is data important when making decisions?

“For anyone working in modern HR, data isn’t just important – it’s critical,” says Emily. “The kind of data you get when you have great people systems allows you to make decisions that are forecasted. You know what the risks, the outputs and the support you need will be.”

Nicola agrees, adding: It’s about giving the business more information, which is vital for decision-making purposes. And it’s helpful to understand how your workforce is being managed and its impact on the bottom line. I’ve seen first-hand how powerful HR data can be in organisations, but there’s an education process to go through with the business so they can understand better about the data we can provide.”

How do you build a better understanding of the importance of data?

First the HR function has to deeply understand the business. “You need this in order to provide the relevant data and information,” says Nicola. This has the added benefit of building trust in the HR function. “Know what they want and demonstrate that through data provision,” Nicola advises. “Talk to people, build relationships, get that understanding and build confidence in what we’re able to provide.”

Once HR is prepared and the foundations have been laid, start building understanding from the top down, drawing on the organisation’s main priorities and hot button issues to get leadership on board. “If you don’t have senior executive support, then it won’t go anywhere anyway,” says Emily.

“Just try not to run at it,” Emily cautions. “Share the parts of the data that will be really impactful, and build on that over time. If you just head straight out with a complicated dashboard, nobody will look at it.”

If in doubt about how to sell the idea of data, look to the Finance department’s model. “Whether you’re making a budget or giving someone a pay rise, everything is modelled within an inch of its life,” Emily observes. “You wouldn’t make a decision in Finance unless the numbers stack. So why is the people function any different?”

What are the benefits?

With data, you can get information, craft strategy and then watch and track the impact of strategies in real-time. Capitalise on the fact that the benefits are actually measurable.

“Without data, decision-making is fairly arbitrary,” Emily explains. “It’s just a discussion of what people think and what they’ve seen might work. But if you bring data in, then it’s really supportive – it’s not just about what you think, it’s quantifiable and consistent.”

The list goes on. You can get the right people into the right roles, improving talent acquisition and retention, filling expertise gaps and building a fairer, more diverse workforce. You can check assumptions, discover problems and craft solutions. You can share and celebrate successes with the business. The employee experience can be measured and improved. Financial insights can be gained and learnings acted upon. Efficiency and productivity can be boosted across the board.

How do you get the most out of HR data?

You have to put data quality first, making sure your data is consistent and accurate, with processes in place to collect it. Emily explains that “you’re only as good as the quality of data you are inputting. Talk about data integrity openly, and make sure to have absolutely no work-arounds.”

Her top tip for ensuring data quality? Make people data an overrider for pay. “Do that and your data will suddenly become incredible. Everyone wants to be paid correctly.”

Data also has to be deeply embedded within HR and the business more generally. You have to use it, engage with it and interrogate it. “You have to get to the point where people are talking in data, rather than about their feelings,” Emily says.

You also have to really understand the data and what it means. “Doing that analysis and providing an interpretation about what it means, how it links back to business priorities and how the business can use it is key,” Nicola says. 

What skills do you need to be able to maximise the impact of HR data?

The modern HR team needs to hire for a broad range of skills. IT skills are needed to extract data from the systems, as well as analytical skills to be able to understand it and turn it into meaningful information. Great communication skills, both written and verbal, are also key, as findings must be articulately relayed to the wider business.

It’s not just specialised team members that need these skills anymore. “To an extent, we all need to be data interrogators now,” says Nicola. “We all need to make those skillsets part of our daily work, rather than periodically. And you can’t build that skillset up if you’re not using it day in, day out.”

What are some of the challenges of working with HR data?

Both interviewees agree that having multiple systems in place is a major hindrance, making the process of collecting and engaging with data extremely challenging. “We’re asked for data and we struggle to get it because we’re working across 10-15 systems, all of which store data differently,” says Nicola. “It shouldn’t be that hard.”

In a perfect world, you’d have one system, or at least link the systems together. “But most people still have multiples that work in isolation. We have a long way to go,” explains Emily.

It comes down to investment. “It’s costly to make changes,” says Nicola. “And it can take years. So what do we do in the meantime? The first steps are focusing on data quality, improving what we have, introducing some self-service elements and ensuring we have at least primary data in the system.”

Taking a more holistic view across HR and the business as a whole would also help. “Teams are often quite siloed. So if they have some money for a new tool, it’s made with one specific function in mind,” Nicola continues. “They need to think broader, and with an eye to the future. How will the data feed in? What does the HR function as a whole want to have moving forwards? What are HR’s pain points? What does the business want from us? What does the business need and how do we help them get there?

Best advice from our interviewees

  • Provide training: If you invest in tools, invest in training to make sure the team understands and, therefore, uses the systems to the best of their abilities.
  • Build understanding across the business: If people understand why data is important (and how it can impact them), they’ll take more care with it and data integrity will improve.
  • Build skillsets within the business: Ensure you have the capabilities to extract and utilise the data fully.
  • Reduce manual intervention with data as much as possible: People make mistakes, so try and use systems to their advantage instead.
  • Explore the use of self-service system elements: Share more responsibility for employee data with employees themselves, giving them more control and boosting transparency.
  • Make data easier to access: Build dashboards and get the data out there (within the limits of GDPR), so people can use it when they need to.
  • Engage with the data and make sure it’s fresh and alive: Don’t just present flat stats – they’re meaningless in a vacuum. Present the whole picture and give targeted insights. Keep your data up to the date so it feels responsive and useful.
  • Share the “why”: If you’re sharing data, tailor it and show an understanding of who you’re sharing it with and what they need. Include the trends, the focus and the forecast, as well as what you see and what you’re worried or optimistic about. Data is meaningless unless you do something with it

Ultimately, it’s about building skills and confidence, providing tools and getting information out there to enable people to help themselves and make the best business decisions possible – especially in the current business climate, with the emergence of Covid-19 and the subsequent disruptions. As Emily succinctly put it: “It’s so complicated. Why make it more complicated when you have data that can uncomplicate decisions for you?”

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