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In Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the world's greatest computer was asked for an answer to the ultimate question of “Life, the universe and everything."

After millions of years of number crunching, the computer majestically proclaimed the answer to be… 42. It was not the edifying conclusion the audience had been waiting millennia for, but, as the great computer pointed out, that was because they had asked the wrong question: “Life, the Universe and Everything" just wasn't specific enough.

It's a fitting lesson for HR people beginning their workforce analytics journey: ask the right questions. The accuracy of the data, the quality of the analytics, the figures you come up with — everything is irrelevant if you're not asking the right questions.

Think About the Bigger Picture

One of the problems with the type of questions HR professionals typically ask is the narrow focus — the question will address an HR concern, without considering how it impacts the business as a whole.

So, while it may be useful to keep an eye on absence, diversity or engagement metrics, this transactional information will likely not get your CEO's pulse racing.

What executives want to know is how these metrics affect productivity or profitability; they want to know whether there are particular areas of the business where these rates are higher, and why. Above all, they want information and insight into what changes they need to make to change future outcomes, not data about what happened in the past.

But Get Specific

While you need the put your questions in the context of larger business goals, you also need to be detailed about the question itself. If your analytics questions are as vague as “Life, the universe and everything," then the answers will be vague too. It will simply be a fishing trip – you might be lucky and catch something tasty or you might come up with nothing.

So what is the right question? Clearly, that will vary between companies, but the key is for the question to be plugged directly into the matrix of the business. HR can't work in a vacuum, it needs to understand where the business pain points are, to appreciate both the outside market pressures and the inside forces impacting its line managers and leaders.

HR is not short on data — though some areas may fall short on quality — so, you should be able to dig up some interesting revelations with this sweeping approach.

Make a Group Effort

HR doesn't need to work alone on developing the right questions. By working directly with other business leaders, you can work out the answers together in order to make a real difference in business performance.

For example, if you have an issue with high staff turnover, then look beyond the figures to find out why people are leaving. Is there a particular division or location where churn rates are higher? Can you talk to those managers? Or perhaps churn rates are higher among women than men? Look through the exit interview data, and take stock of the gender ratio in management. Is there a high churn rate in an area of business that requires highly prized, in-depth knowledge of the business? It's possible that the people in this department don't understand how much they are valued at the company.

Asking the right question is a great start on the quest for business insight. But whatever the outcome of the analysis, it's also vital that HR maintains and presents the information in a business-friendly and business-relevant manner.

Photo: Creative Commons