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Today, it's hard to talk about HR without talking about analytics. From the first recruiting email to the exit interview, big data is changing the way we both approach and practice talent management. While the foundation for success in human resources — great people skills and strong intuition — is certainly still relevant, a modern career in HR increasingly requires a "moneyball" mindset.

This shift from a largely right-brain driven career path to a left-brain one has, unsurprisingly, created a skills gap in the industry. There's no lack of big data tools or products available to help HR pros — but actual knowledge of how to navigate the growing workforce analytics landscape is limited. The solution? According to Michael Arena, Chief Talent Officer at General Motors, HR is in need of a partner in crime: the IT department.

Arena, who spoke at last year's Wharton People Analytics Conference, has made a name for himself as an early adopter and strong proponent of HR analytics. His analytics-heavy résumé is an anomaly among HR executives — trained as an engineer, former visiting scientist at MIT Media Lab, a PhD in Organizational Dynamics — which makes him acutely aware of the need for more big data skills in the industry.

We talked with Arena to learn more about his own partnership with GM's IT team, why he thinks it's crucial for HR and IT to join forces and what he's looking forward to in the future of workforce analytics.

Why should HR focus on building a relationship with IT to implement workforce analytics?

IT is a critical partner because they know how to secure data, mine data sets and integrate solutions across various systems. IT is also really important because [HR] needs them to help simplify systems into web interfaces or dashboards that others can use day-to-day. It's one thing to get a bunch of data scientists together, but then you have to take those findings and make it useful for the business.

For example, we have a leadership dashboard to see routine demographics within individual groups. That was an IT design solution that lets us measure a multitude of different things.

Describe your collaboration process — how do the two departments work together on analytics?

It's dynamic. It's not just us pulling or them pushing. Usually, we partner actively once we have determined a specific need that we want to go after.

But there are frequent times when [IT] may have new functionality and we have discussions about how we can apply that to our analytics.

What are you looking forward to as workforce analytics matures?

Social network analysis—looking at how people are connected to other people, and how [networks] help people be better together. There's a lot of academic research that says up to 40 percent of performance has to do with people's placement in a network.

We can use simple surveys to run these studies, and then IT helps us build the models afterwards. The hard part is how to visualize it. We look at things like career advice networks or innovation networks — sometimes just knowing who the brokers are or what the informal networks look like can make a huge difference.

What are the biggest challenges you and other HR execs face in workforce analytics?

Incomplete data. I know things are missing, but it's hard to say what. We measure people, and that makes this field uniquely challenging because people don't behave predictably.

Also, I always want to analyze more things. So that's where pragmatism comes into play. We have to be able to recognize when there's enough good quality data available to make a decision. And sometimes we have to figure out how to make decisions based on what we have.

Photo: Shutterstock