Human Resources Tentatively Tries Predictive Analytics - InformationWeek

InformationWeek is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them.Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

IT Leadership // Team Building & Staffing
02:16 PM
Connect Directly

Human Resources Tentatively Tries Predictive Analytics

Knowing the probability of important employee events before they happen can have a big bottom-line impact.

5 Big Wishes For Big Data Deployments
5 Big Wishes For Big Data Deployments
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)

What's the probability that employee X will leave in two years? Could predictive analytics supply an answer?

Accurately forecasting what any individual employee will do in the future is at the bleeding edge of the market, say human resources experts. What's more common, and on the rise, is using analytics to better understand the patterns of large collections of employees, such as in a call center.

"Statistical techniques used for prediction tend to work with larger numbers," David Gartside told InformationWeek in a phone interview. Gartside is managing director responsible for HR offerings and capabilities within the Accenture Talent & Organization practice.

In call center operations involving thousands of people, such analyses are being used today, providing, for example, predictions about the percentage of workers likely to leave in a month.

[ Looking to beef up your analytics capabilities? Read How To Build An Analytics A-Team. ]

"If you have a good view of this, you can plan accordingly, ramping up or down recruiting," Gartside says.

Three things are driving the use of predictive analytics in HR, Gartside told us. First, HR departments are getting much better at using operational processes and technology with an eye toward collecting good-quality data to make better decision-making.

"The second piece is social data," he said, referring to the inclusion of both external and internal data. These rich data sources didn't exist even a few years ago. 

Finally, he notes, vendors of HR solutions are increasingly building analytics into their core platforms.

But predicting an individual's future actions -- think Minority Report-style "precrime" -- raises a number of largely unanswered legal and ethical questions, too, which explains why HR organizations have been pursuing this application of predictive analytics with a great deal of caution.

In the context of NSA spying revelations and other privacy concerns, "people have a heightened sensitivity" about surveillance, said Mark Berry, vice president of Human Capital Analytics and Reporting at ConAgra Foods, during his presentation at the Predictive Analytics Innovation Summit in Chicago earlier this month.

Nevertheless, ConAgra Foods, which has only just embarked on some HR analytic programs, hopes the work will help it plan better and improve business outcomes.

"We want to know our employees as well as we know our customers," Berry said, adding that the company has already developed a number of safeguards for what types of employee data it will and will not collect, as well as assess the impact, both positive and negative, of the project before proceeding.

Where to start
But how accurate is predictive analytics when it comes to forecasting individual employee events, such as a key vice president of sales quitting without notice?

"It is a very difficult science," Accenture's Gartside says. And like ConAgra's Berry, Gartside urges companies to think about how these systems will be regarded by employees and the marketplace. Make sure these programs aren't just cognizant of what's legally allowable, he cautions, and make sure they are aligned with the culture and company brand as well.

Asked for advice on how to get started with predictive analytics in the HR function, Gartside offered the following:

  • Start with a business problem, such as service quality, being impacted by employee attrition.
  • Do a pilot with existing data and capabilities. "See if these analytics have value, and don't wait for the data to be perfect."
  • Finally, put in a technical infrastructure that can make this kind of analysis repeatable and easy to do.

Will advanced, data-driven approaches to employee performance and outcomes become standard? Gartside thinks so.

"Look at how many people have a job title with 'talent analytics' in it. This title didn't exist two years ago," he said, adding that the Fortune 250 are carving out this executive role, "because people are finding value in it."

Emerging software tools now make analytics feasible -- and cost-effective -- for most companies. Also in the Brave The Big Data Wave issue of InformationWeek: Have doubts about NoSQL consistency? Meet Kyle Kingsbury's Call Me Maybe project. (Free registration required.)

We welcome your comments on this topic on our social media channels, or [contact us directly] with questions about the site.
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Michael S. Langston
Michael S. Langston,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/6/2013 | 9:30:38 PM
Re: Predictions On Individuals
I don't think the prediction software would watch that exactly - I think you could say, in a call center, measure changes in productivity over time and likely find common behaviors for those people who leave soon.  In sales, same thing - number of phone calls, number of sick days, etc, etc....

Of course, just like scoring high on an IQ test doesn't mean you'll necessarily be successful at IQ related tasks, just because a given person is exhibiting the same or similar behavior doesn't mean their end goal is the same.

Additionally - I don't see why the automate assumption is employers will use this data to fire people early - a more likely and useful utilization of this informatiom would be for a company to seek out those who appear to be on their way out and try to retain them if possible. 

Training and hiriing are costs after all, and not insignificant for even low level corporate jobs - aslo the knowledge lost from longer term employees can be enormous. 

Add to this if your company is of fair size, so your sales team are professionals and well paid, there is almost zero chance one of them will be stupid enough to bad mouth their current employer on social media while searching for a new job.

Move forward ten, twenty years with the prevelance of HR and others using social media will make using it worthless (much like evaluating job candidates only by a resume today would be worthless).

They will in effect be trained by the market place of hiring to limit what they say on all kinds of levels on all social media.

Just as successful professionals today are well trained on interviews and resumes.
Michael S. Langston
Michael S. Langston,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/6/2013 | 9:17:40 PM
Re: Predictions On Individuals
Interesting article - but I think the analogy comparing this to Minority report is incorrect.


Leaving aside for stake of this point whether or not such predictions are useful or ethical, I don't see HR departements using this data to pre-emptively fire people they believe are likely to leave soon.  

IE - the actions a given company might use in response to this data are highly unlikely to directly any individual employee based solely upon that data.  & this is likely true regardless of whether the individual were ranked as likely or not likely to leave soon.

Conversely I think arresting someone becuase in the future they are likely to kill or main or steal or whatever - has very different implications.

Additionally I think the same goes for putting the NSA info in here - though I do agree that it's tangentially relevant as it has increased privacy concerns and those feelings are likely to spill over to employers and such - but it still seems to conflate warrantless stealing of data we all thought was private with the monitoring and tracking of employees while on the job - something which has always been well within the purview of any employer.

But I digress - my point is that you put that together - and it seems to paint a much more negative picture than is likely to exist in a future reality where HR departments routinely use this software.

User Rank: Apprentice
11/25/2013 | 10:43:48 AM
This The Atlantic Story Picks Up the Intersection of HR and Analytics
Ellis Booker
Ellis Booker,
User Rank: Moderator
11/21/2013 | 10:51:45 AM
Re: Predictions On Individuals
Playing devil's advocate here, but clearly individual predictions have value too--if you get them right. Take the Amazon recommendation engine, for example. That said, both sources in this story agreed that the tactic is best used--given the state of the science and the available inputs--against large groups of workers, like those in a call center. 
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 10:47:14 AM
Good for large populations
Analytics is a numbers game; the more input, the better output. So HR analytics seem best used with large, global populations, as you'd find in call center firms. Getting information about the seasonality and flow of employee activity should help companies plan a bit better. I agree with Rob P., though, that divining management activity isn't a good use of the resource.
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 9:49:26 AM
Predictions On Individuals
Companies shouldn't waste their time trying to predict individual employee HR events using analytics. If the VP of sales is about to quit and you divine that fact by looking at his social media posts, you probably didn't need analytics software to draw the conclusion. Same if you're analyzing his/her company email to draw that conclusion.


Why 2021 May Turn Out to be a Great Year for Tech Startups
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author,  2/24/2021
How GIS Data Can Help Fix Vaccine Distribution
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor, Enterprise Apps,  2/17/2021
11 Ways DevOps Is Evolving
Lisa Morgan, Freelance Writer,  2/18/2021
White Papers
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
Current Issue
2021 Top Enterprise IT Trends
We've identified the key trends that are poised to impact the IT landscape in 2021. Find out why they're important and how they will affect you.
Flash Poll