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The Power of People Analytics is in the Questions we ask

What I find interesting is that much of the discussion around people analytics is focused almost exclusively on the technical side of the equation. It seems as if the general consensus is that the power of analytics is to be found solely in both the quality and amount of data that can be gathered. It is the belief that all problems can be solved if only the data were perfect and if we could have much more of it. Conference panel after conference panel and article after article ask the question "How to improve the quality of HR data"? I fully agree that we should always strive to get more and better data. But I believe it is a belief that is too focused on the data side of “data analytics” and not enough on the strategic side.

What I think is being overlooked is that gathering tons of really great data won’t tell you anything if you don’t know what to ask, or if you don’t have the courage to ask questions whose answers might disrupt institutionally held beliefs.

It is kind of like those cartoons where a wise person lives alone in a cave at the top of a mountain and has found enlightenment and the answers to life. A seeker climbs to the top of the mountain and ends up asking the wrong question, gets a confusing and probably meaningless answer and wanders back down the hill scratching his head in confusion. The mountain represents our struggle to gather data, the wise person at the top represents the potential of analytics, and the person wandering down the hill scratching his head in confusion represents most of us.

I have been thinking about this topic for awhile and when I was recently reading Laszlo Bock's book (Head of People Ops for Google) a few things struck me. To start off I love the book, but more importantly, I love that Bock is willing to share some of the insights that they discovered at Google. It has been a real catalyst for the “People Analytics” movement.

But what struck me was that many people have focused on Googles insight that it doesn’t matter what college you went to, or even in certain cases if you went to college at all. This has caught peoples interest because they now think “I can potentially work at Google even though I didn’t go to Harvard!”

But one of the things I find interesting about that insight is not that they discovered that it was true, which if you live and work in Silicon Valley you know that many successful people didn’t go to Harvard or even for that matter college, but that Bock, and by extension Google, even thought to ask the question. The idea that someone who graduates from Harvard is the best possible job candidate is so ingrained in our culture that our entire educational and corporate recruiting system is designed and built around that premise. And when Bock ventured to ask the question he took the institutional risk that the answer would disrupt the entire way that Google recruited, interviewed and hired.

What also is often overlooked about this case study is everything that had to come after. In other words, once Google discovered that it didn’t matter where one went to college, they then had to figure out what did matter. This was the tougher task because it required asking many more difficult questions and testing hypothesis. It required setting aside built in biases and institutional intuition. And once they discovered the answers they then had to completely redesign their recruiting process and re-train their employees.

I wasn’t involved but I am sure that if you talked to their data analysts they would have complained that they didn’t have enough data, or that it wasn’t perfect data, and that if they could just get more and better data everything would be easier. But what really mattered wasn’t the quality and amount of data, it was I am sure “good enough”, but it was that Bock took leadership and was willing to ask questions and challenge assumptions that others believed were truth. When he climbed to the top of the mountain he asked a question that nobody else had thought to ask and got an answer that wasn’t expected and Google had the institutional courage to re-design their entire recruiting process and will reap the rewards of that for years because they will find the best talent available.

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