As we all know, ever since Taylorism was a wee boy in short trousers and traditional organisations grew bigger and bigger, we’ve been collecting mountains of employee data as a consequence of our place in the workplace food chain. Rooms of carefully indexed grey filing cabinets, obsessively overseen by the women of HR (because that’s typically how it was), gave way recently to a first generation of clumsy, ill-fitting, un-user-friendly HR Information Systems that allowed records to be stored in a small whirring data centre in a small industrial estate residing in a small regional town of little importance. The User Interface, according to my learned little friend Cee Lo Green, was less xbox and more Atari but, like him, recent incarnations have been so glammed up you could easily explain it to your mother as enterprise and personal technology begin to converge.
Applicants (but never candidates), employees, non-employees, ex-employees, training attendees, grievance raisers, disciplinary trailblazers, accident proners, whistleblowers, maternity leavers, career breakers, Arabs, Sheikhs, Hindu, Sikhs, …it was heaven, it was hell, who wanted it, who could tell ? Anyone for an annual data cleanse? Ooooohhh…You get the point. It’s all in there, stored posthumously forever and gathering dust.
‘Record-keeping HR’ shouting ‘brilliant basics’ like it was always the end game kept organisations ticking along, compliant and frankly brought some order to the world of work. And for the HR Operations folk responsible for that down the years I doff my cap and thank you enormously.
If this was the avalanche of hard data, then its more complicated twin sister, soft data became increasingly important as we dialled up HRM and began to take seriously what our people were thinking. That journey had taken us from post-war equilibrium of trade unions representing the voice of the employee brought to an abrupt end in the 1980s with a structural change in the country’s economy. A wave of employer-friendly legislation and the replacement of one elite for a new one in the boardroom and the City. Gauging the sentiment of the workforce was now the equivalent of a HR department with a large clipboard and a series of pertinent questions that sought opinion as a process / activity / showpiece every couple of years. ‘Nosey HR’ soon found that the process was often gamed and bastardised as an inclusive part of another ill-fitting HR intervention elsewhere such as annual objectives or reward outcomes. Those breakthrough organisations in the engagement space have now at least understood that the answer to ambiguity lies in continuous, authentic conversations in the workplace. Sentiment analysis, social listening, pulse surveys, focus groups and a genuine use of mobile-first technology to drive meaningful engaging dialogue are all part of the armoury. Extra brownie points for those who have attached this qualitative input with a range of other data points (turnover, hiring, even weather, local talent market, etc,) inside and outside the organisation, to drive more informed understanding of the causes of people problems and support decisions with more science than offered by a HR Manager’s ever growing gut.
As the opportunities afforded to us by the relentless drive of Technology and Science in the world of work, we have a bit of a curate’s egg in front of us. On the plus side, the cognitive era we are entering will allow machines to more intuitively support our decisions at work by churning out a greater analysis of the problem faster and more accurately than us Human Resourcers could dream of. The risk we run is that cleverness of data gathering will become increasingly frictionless. A messy, emotional humans are we going to be comfortable with our employers (even if that is a thing in the future) knowing we’re becoming a churn risk, are in danger of being deviant at work, gaming our skills tests or tapping into our private space by knowing about our mental and physical wellbeing before we do? What exactly is the name of the interview being called by the HR function of the future with the following invite letter saying :
“Our analysis suggests that you are 98.56% likely to be joining a direct competitor in the next 6 months and therefore must take the following remedial action”.
Whatever the answer, ‘Creepy HR’ is a warning that our ongoing pursuit of technology and science at work should continue to be governed by a desire to create more Human workplaces and not less.
Until the next time. Remember we’ve all seen that movie – Embrace the power of analytics but beware of the darkside.