10 Steps to Becoming More Analytical
When it comes to increasing your HR organization's use of analytics, you don't need deep quantitative training to help leaders make more informed evidence-based decisions.
By Jeff Merrifield
Business leaders value analytics because they want to better understand how the business works, gain insights and assess the value of talent investments. They want to get help solving problems and to make better decisions. As an HR business partner, recruiter or specialist, you may find that exciting, intimidating or a bit of both. The good news is that you don't need deep quantitative training to help leaders make more informed evidence-based decisions.
The list below contains 10 simple, but powerful, actions for approaching your work more analytically. They're based on my 15 years of experience helping leaders at a top professional services firm find ways to attract, engage, develop and retain highly talented people, and on my time at other organizations as a manager and consultant.
1. Get to know your organization's strategy.
Do you know how your company makes money? The organization's strategic imperatives? Your source of competitive advantage? It's important to explore your company intranet, look at external media and find a mentor who can share insights with you on what leaders care about most. Chances are, most people in your organization only have a general knowledge of your strategy at best. A little time invested in understanding your organization's strategy will help you focus your conversations, priorities and day-to-day work on the things most important to the business.
2. Understand your organization's talent imperatives.
There's a difference between an organization's talent imperatives and its HR team priorities. Talent imperatives are the critical human capital decisions, investments or actions required to achieve your organization's strategic goals. HR team imperatives may be operationally important, but not critical to achieving strategic goals.
What has to happen talent-wise in your organization to meet your organization's strategic goals?
3. Ask good business questions.
Do you want to be taken seriously? To be a trusted advisor? You can, by asking powerful questions that get to the heart of the problem the leaders you are supporting are trying to solve. The following seven questions will serve you well:
What are you trying to accomplish?
What prompted this request?
What problem(s) are you trying to solve?
What do you hope to learn?
How will you use this information?
What audience will you share this with?
Is there a story you hope to tell?
4. Get to know your organization's structure and data.
You should know the types of data you have available to you and get to know the data itself. Understanding the basic calculations (turnover, retention, etc.) your organization uses and making connections with people in other parts of the business who may have access to data that could be useful to you are great ways to learn more.
Other suggestions include the following: learn how the business is organized, how it is managed day to day and how money is allocated among business units, and learn how leaders prefer to look at the organization and data.
5. Learn some very basic Excel functions.
You don't need to be an Excel wizard to be analytical, but you do need a basic familiarity with Excel. It is easy to learn, though; anything you need to know is an Internet search away. You should be able to do basic calculations and to use a pivot table to summarize data.
6. Make and test hypotheses.
Everyone has hypotheses (explanations) about how the world works at work. Sometimes hypotheses come out as stories, rumors or myths: "All the level 5 engineers are quitting!" You're fully capable of testing this hypothesis with the data in your reports and coming back with a response.
You can make and test a wide range of hypotheses. Maybe the engineers are being poached by a competitor; maybe they're only leaving in a particular location; or maybe it's a combination of things. Using the data you have to test hypotheses like these can help narrow the range of possible responses and increase the likelihood that any action taken will make a difference.
7. Develop and share a point of view.
Many requests are for a specific piece of data rather than a point of view: "Please send me the headcount report." It's important to give your perspective anyway: "Here's the headcount report you asked for. We currently have 5,417 employees; that's up 10 percent year to year."
Why give a point of view? Remember, a leader's goal is to gain insights that help him or her solve problems. Do you want to be the go-to person for reports, or the go-to person when a leader has a problem he or she is trying to solve? People will become accustomed to your offering a point of view and will soon come seeking it out.
8. Know when to call in the experts.
You don't need to know how to do a regression analysis. Decisions to pull in an expert should be based on the cost of the problem or size of the investment being made. If you're proposing a $2 million training program, it's probably worth spending $10,000 to test the impact of a pilot. When contemplating a survey, get help from someone who has done surveys many times before. If you don't have a person with these quantitative skills on your HR team, you may find someone in finance, strategy or marketing who is able to help.
9. Explain things simply and clearly.
Sometimes analysts are tempted to try to impress with big technical words, artistic charts or lots of data. One of most valuable things you can do is to share your conclusions in plain but precise, everyday language. Charts should be simple and clean, and they should only include elements needed to make your point.
10. Persuade others to act on what you've learned.
My team has a saying: "Now we know this. So what?" It turns out that 20 percent of analytic work is done in spreadsheets. Eighty percent is done by communicating what we've learned and encouraging people to act on it. Data by itself typically isn't enough to persuade people to act. It needs to be put into context, linked to the issues leaders care most about, presented simply and clearly demonstrate what action should be taken.
Jeff Merrifield is a leader in the Americas Organizational Development and HR Enablement function at EY, Ernst & Young LLP, a member of the EY global professional services organization. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of EY. Send questions or comments about this story to email@example.com.