Big Data Upending H.R. Conventional Wisdom

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For decades human resource management has been a field that relied on policies and procedures, leavened by healthy doses of intuition. But Big Data is standing H.R. on its head – many of the old assumptions are either being called into question or totally discarded.

Writing in The New York Times, Steve Lohr chronicles a number of these cherished beliefs that are being undermined by the results of recent research based on Big Data.

For example, a good supervisor – one who is an excellent communicator with a warm personality – may be more important to an organization’s success than the experience and attributes of the workers themselves.

And when it comes to hiring, data also shows that the tendency of H.R. departments to avoid candidates with a history of job-hopping or who have been unemployed for some time is the wrong tack to take. These factors are not good predictors of future results.

Even the idea that the ideal salesperson’s most important asset is an outgoing, optimistic personality fails to hold up.  Research by IBM’s Kenexa unit – a recruiting, hiring and training company acquired last year – reveals that successful salesmen exhibit “a kind of emotional courage, a persistence to keep going even after initially being told no.”

You would expect Google to be at the forefront of using Big Data to manage its H.R. activities.  And, indeed, this is the case.

Google, not surprisingly, is committed to applying data-driven decision-making to human resource management,” writes Lohr. “For years, candidates were screened according to SAT scores and college grade-point averages, metrics favored by its founders. But numbers and grades alone did not prove to spell success at Google and are no longer used as important hiring criteria, says Prasad Setty, vice president for people analytics. Since 2007, the company has conducted extensive surveys of its work force. Google has found that the most innovative workers — also the ‘happiest,’ by its definition — are those who have a strong sense of mission about their work and who also feel that they have much personal autonomy. ‘Our people decisions are no less important than our product decisions,’ Mr. Setty says. ‘And we’re trying to apply the same rigor to the people side as to the engineering side.’”

The impact of Big Data on H.R. is expected to be profound.  Lohr quotes Peter Capelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who says, “This is absolutely the way forward.  Most companies have been flying completely blind.”

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