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Big Data: how to get HR value out of chaos

The term Big Data is probably one of the great misnomers of the 21st century. By the time you've got to grips with the term it's already become huge data, giant data, massive data super-colossal data and eventually, if not infinite, then immeasurable data.

For HR in particular, it's an overwhelming concept. Not only do you have to find ways through technology to gather it, but add to that ways of storing it, analysing it, presenting it and ultimately acting on it.

The biggest challenge to that progression is analysing it. Experts often say HR have lots of big data but they don't know what to do with it. Maybe because HR are people-focused and statistics just don't do it for them. Understandably, the word data can sound cold and calculated but if you look behind it, it's telling you a story about a person or people. It calls for  a shift in perspective from 'what have we here?' to 'who have we here?'

To take a simple example, a marketer who has learned through social media that X has brought a surfboard will only be interested in how to sell that person the newest model or some items connected to surfing. That's their focus. They don't care why X likes to surf. Is it because they want to feel close to nature, they're loners or just lazy beach bums?  After qualifications and skills or a combination of both, the main question for HR must always be what makes someone tick. Big data is the book and HR the storyteller.

Using data properly leads to better insights to almost all aspects of HR: hiring, training, retention and attrition, employee satisfaction, talent management, culture shifts, diversity and employer branding. The word 'why' is HR's best friend. The data can tell you that your organisation has a large attrition rate but only HR can ask why that is. Without knowing the why, the problem can't be rectified. Data analytics, can reduce time to hire, cost per hire, source to close, conversion rates, source quality and quality of hire and pinpoint what an organisation is doing wrong, or right, in all those areas.

One of the tricky aspects to embracing big data is deciding what systems are needed for the progression flow from gathering the data through to acting on it, and while this is being written, things will have changed already and new systems will already be in the pipeline. No sooner might you have installed a system, then another one will already have come along.

This can be worrying and that is why planning for needs and at the same time looking ahead to what technologies are coming down the line is important. It's easy to predict that AI will have a massive role in recruiting, so planning for that is an imperative. The good thing with AI is that it learns and evolves so unlike hardware, once the basics are in place it's a matter of software upgrades, and not having to replace entire systems.

Beyond sophisticated AI, it's hard to imagine what's coming next without entering the realms of science fiction, which is fast becoming science fact, so just assume something new will always be coming and be prepared for change. We're still really at the start of the great unknown, and that is how far will technology go and where will it end?

Just weeks ago, SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk said he wants to merge people with computers. According to Wired, his aim is to turn cloud-based AI into an extension of the human brain that within the next four years will eventually lead humans to be able to communicate by "consensual telepathy". What that would mean for mankind, let alone recruitment is beyond imagining. People being able to download skills from the cloud, having instant access to information input straight into the brain, analysing and processing this in an instant... the death of thinking and learning.

In the meantime, we continue to use our brains in the old-fashioned way and slog it out with the big data phenomenon, which will continue to grow and more tools will be found to help analyse it quickly and efficiently. It's up to each organisation to choose wisely according to its business needs and goals.

More companies will need to hire data analysts - a shortage is predicted - or retrain HR in data analytics. AI may be able to go so far in narrowing down certain data and even use predictive analytics but it may have its own limitations in connecting the dots or telling the story, for some time to come.

If HR is unable to get ahead of the game, it should at the very least be trying to keep up, not catch up. Here's five things you can do:

  1. It needs to redefine its mandate and more importantly, it's thinking. Big data is not something you obtain a system for and say 'job done'. Digital is a mindset not a method. Understand what it is, what it means and what it's going to mean as far down the line as transhumanism if that's the endgame
  2. Update and upgrade systems to the best of your current knowledge with an eye on future developments
  3. If possible create a digital team of 'wunderkind' that can work across the organisation
  4. Keep employees up to speed, or take their ideas on board when it comes to what apps or tools are out there that HR might not be aware of. Millennials are the ones most clued into to technology 
  5. Look at what big companies are doing in terms of reshaping their recruitment methods or what innovations they're bringing to the sector. Some may be implementable on a small scale or with little expense

It's easy to obsess about the amount of data out there and perhaps not making full use of it but honestly, it would be bordering on the impossible to navigate and analyse the entire extent of it. It could even be counterproductive in terms time, money and resources.

A couple of years ago I was confronted with a last-minute trip abroad on Christmas Eve. Not having shopped at all, I was forced to buy gifts for eight people during a three-hour window at Heathrow. Though I had a limited range of options I had to shop smarter and quicker. So sometimes it's easier, faster and cheaper to go catch a delicious salmon in a river than it is to take a trawler out to the ocean, and you can also find some really good gifts in an airport.

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