Developing Data Pros

Universities respond to the growing demand for HR professionals with analytic skills who use data to tell a company's story or shed new light on the business.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017
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Shortly after earning a master's degree in human resource management in 2015 from the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, Louisa Bannister was hired by ExxonMobil Corp. in The Woodlands, Texas, serving as the company's North American compensation and benefits design adviser.

Her responsibilities would focus on designing salary programs for employees working throughout the U.S. and Canada. That involves synthesizing salary data from third-party vendors, conducting a series of market analyses, and recommending compensation packages. For example, data might reveal why recruiters are having difficulty attracting top talent -- i.e., compensation packages are no longer competitive with others in the industry.

"All of my [tasks] within compensation would have been very difficult without analytical skills," says Bannister, admitting that she was nervous about taking the graduate program's analytics course. "It's something I would have had to learn on the job and, without that kind of capability, I would have been playing more catch-up than being able to hit the ground running."

Some HR professionals dread working with numbers. But making data-driven decisions and using data to reveal a company's story about its workers, business operations, strategies or processes -- such as employee productivity and performance trends -- is becoming standard HR practice. While employers might not require a graduate degree in analytics, at the very least, they're seeking HR professionals with competencies in analytics. To better prepare them, higher-education institutions are offering HR-analytics courses, workshops or graduate programs designed to replace people's fear of math with the confidence and proficiency needed to leverage big data.

Before enrolling in the graduate program, Bannister asked a business-school representative to identify the program's most difficult course. Not surprisingly, it was analytics. Still, she says, she kept an open mind because she understood the value and importance such skills offer employers.

"Even outside of HR, analytics is a capability that the company highly values," she says, adding that the analytics course helped her develop many skills ranging from critical thinking to becoming proficient in using Excel software. "It helped me speak the same language -- business metrics -- with other [Exxon] business professionals . . . feel comfortable digging into data and seeing the stories that all of these numbers told."

The "bread and butter" course of the school's 16-month graduate program is HR analytics, says Kaitlyn Newman, director of both the master's HR resource management program and Center for HR Management at the university.

Although HR professionals can learn analytics on the job, that can present a steep learning curve, she says, adding that university programs tend to be easier to digest and more comprehensive; they can also help individuals climb the career ladder more quickly.

The Mays analytics course, which Newman refers to as a "game changer," was introduced roughly a decade ago. Students complete it early in the program so they can apply what they've learned -- what questions to ask and how to gather, export and analyze data -- throughout the program.

"If an HR professional can come in and add data and numbers to various programs or initiatives, then that's where [he or she] can impact the bottom line and become more of a strategic business partner," says Newman.

New Frontier

Analytics degrees will carry more significant weight with every passing year, says Joe McCabe, vice chairman of the HR practice at Korn Ferry, a global people and organizational advisory firm in Boston.

McCabe recently co-authored a report -- Measuring Up: HR's New Need for Leaders in Data Analytics -- published by Korn Ferry Institute, the company's research and analytics arm. The report reveals that only 15 percent of HR professionals at organizations are leveraging data to drive talent decisions despite their companies' growing "insatiable thirst" for hard data.

"What we find in organizations with great analytics is that the more they do, the more they're involved," he says. "They can't do enough. Organizations just love it."

Envisioning a world-class HR function, he sees data analytics as the fourth center of excellence, following talent acquisition, total rewards, and learning and organizational development. He says analytics offers HR the information needed to make credible decisions at the C-suite and board levels.

Korn Ferry's report cites a 2014 poll by the Harvard Business Review -- Analytics Services -- in which more than half of 200-plus companies that responded planned to advance their HR-data-analytics capacities significantly in the next few years. Another 2015 study by the organization found companies with talent-management reporting and analytics capacities achieved an increase of 11 percent or more in profits and a 6-percent improvement in per-employee revenue. Organizations more active with HR-data analytics are also twice as likely to improve their recruiting and leadership pipeline, three times as likely to realize cost or efficiency gains and three and one-half times as likely to get the right people in the right jobs.

Still, some HR departments face big hurdles.

"The challenge we hear across the board is getting accurate data," says McCabe, citing one large employer that would be "thrilled" with just an accurate employee head count.

Supply and Demand

The number of training opportunities in analytics is minimal and some graduate programs require up to two-year commitments, which clashes with the schedules of HR professionals who work full-time jobs.

But that's slowly changing. This fall, American University plans to launch an online HR Analytics graduate program, says Bobbe Baggio, associate dean of graduate programs and online learning at the Washington-based school.

The program consists of 12 deep-dive courses, and will take roughly two years to complete. While the program won't convert people into math nerds or wizards, she says, it will give students a strong foundation in understanding analytics, ranging from how to mine and extract data to drawing realistic conclusions based on data.

However, if some HR professionals prefer a program sampling, a four-course certificate program will also be available this fall. These courses will be the same ones offered in the graduate program so students won't have to repeat them if they opt to complete the graduate program.

"Our ability to look at things through the lens of analytics is much greater than it was five to 10 years ago and will continue to increase," says Baggio. "We have this plethora of data available to do things we've never been able to do before. It's important that we have [leaders] in place who understand the ramifications of their abilities to look at and analyze all of this information."

Another short analytics course will be offered by New York University's Stern School of Business. While no time frame is yet available, the two- or three-day course will target HR executives and will examine best practices for leveraging data and analytics to drive successful strategies, says Naomi Diamant, clinical assistant professor of management communication and assistant dean of global executive-education programs.

Likewise, Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., offers an online course, HR Analytics for Business Decisions, that takes six to eight hours to complete over a two-week period. Employers can also take advantage of customized, executive-education workshops that blend online and face-to-face learning.

Cornell, with a long tradition of human capital management programs, also offers an on-site master's degree program called Industrial Labor Relations (MILR), says John Hausknecht, Cornell's associate professor of HR studies. Analytics is woven throughout the program's courses that teach students how to frame talent problems from a quantitative or data standpoint, form a data-versus-opinion foundation by performing basic analysis of HR data, and tell a story involving HR data.

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"On the whole, the majority of HR [professionals] have not had formal training in analytics," says Hausknecht. "There was maybe a belief that this would come and go as a fad of technology but . . . it's only increased over time."

Moving Target

Matthew Stevenson, partner with the workforce analytics and strategy group at Mercer in Washington, says at least half of the employees he works with at the global HR consulting firm have graduated from the MILR program.

Overall, Stevenson says, analysts at Mercer offer mixed reviews of university programs, preferring "heavy-duty" ones that also focus on predictive analytics. One drawback, he says, is that the person performing analytics often lacks the authority to make changes impacting company policies or strategies. Stevenson mentions an old joke: "You can't argue with facts, but you still have to argue."

Since many employers rent people with analytics capability from his firm, he says, supply has not yet caught up with demand. The demand is so high, he adds, that employers are willing to hire almost anyone with such skills willing to work in HR instead of higher-paying jobs in the finance industry.

"It may be that HR analytics is moving faster than a lot of people realize," Stevenson says. "Things I do now and things being taught may be outdated in a few years."

Some on-site programs cater to working HR professionals. Last year, Pepperdine University in Los Angeles launched a graduate program that includes a course called HR Analytics and Insights. The program is offered two nights a week for roughly 20 months. Half of its courses address business disciplines such as financial accounting and managerial economics, says Mark Allen, practitioner faculty of organization and management, and academic director of the program.

Unfortunately, he says, the people who minimize the value of such degrees include HR professionals. He points to HR executives who successfully climbed the corporate ladder with limited education and question the worth of advanced college degrees.

"We are very slowly trying to change that perception, that you're certainly a much more valuable HR strategic business partner with both a combination of experience and graduate degree," Allen says. "Given the strategic focus of the program, we feel that HR professionals should be held accountable for contributing to the business just like every other function in the organization."

Like other professions, HR is moving toward a model of continuous professional development. No one can "coast" on skills learned 20 years ago, says Bill Pelster, a Seattle-based principal in the human capital consulting practice at Deloitte, a global consulting firm.

While the majority of his clients lack in-house talent with analytical skills, employees who are attracted to these graduate programs often serve in jobs one level below the chief HR officer, says Pelster. He believes the ability to harvest, interpret and use data across the enterprise will be a core skill among the next generation of CHROs.

Until then, Pelster says, employers seeking mid- and upper-level HR executives will focus less on their academic credentials and more on analytic competencies. He says some HR professionals are considering micro-certifications, or courses that offer tidbits of knowledge and capability that help them round out their skill set and fill in gaps in their portfolio.

While some HR trends come and go, others simply evolve, such as HR analytics.

"Right now, it's understanding data science," says Pelster, adding that the latest HR trend is learning how to combine HR data with broader enterprise data. "It will be a brand new topic tomorrow that will challenge all of us."


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