HR Business Partners should become HR Analytics 'Translators' - interview with Luk Smeyers

Question: Luk, you have recently attended HR Tech World Congress in Paris. What are some of the things that stood out?

LS: I had two extremely busy and informative days at the event. One of the things that I can highlight are all the fantastic technological evolutions represented by an array of vendors. While I came across many exciting and interesting solutions and spoke to many representatives, I hardly heard anything from them about one of the biggest issues in my area of analytics: the role of the coordinator in an analytics project.

And this is important. The HR function often fills this position with an HR business partner, at least in my personal experience (see our article 'HR Analytics Learnings from 2014'), however such coordination does not come easy.

Question: Could you tell us more about the role of such a coordinator?

LS: Absolutely. I came across a study by McKinsey recently, which discusses the indispensable part of a analytical coordinator or a ‘translator’ as the report called it. This is someone who is able to bridge the gap between data, analysis and decision-making.

According to this study, the translator turns quants’ analytical outcomes into actionable insights which the management is able to work with. An über-difficult task, I can tell you. Of course companies can choose to outsource the analysis as such but never the translator’s role.

Question: So what do you think makes a “good HR analytics translator”? 

LS: Well, in ‘new-school’ organisations like Google, translators are often professionals with a thorough background in consultancy. The classic HR business partners I tend to encounter in projects on the other hand, are, with all due respect, not often ‘the Google type’.

These HR business partners are expected to have 4 important skills:

  1. Analytical Acumen: First, they should possess a strong analytical acumen, which is not the same as being able to analyse!
  2. Understanding of the business: Second, this person must have a thorough understanding of the business since the whole point of analytics is to add value to the business.
  3. Consulting skills: Next, the translator has to have strong consulting skills, meaning he or she is able to make a business case for analytics projects.
  4. Cross-functional project management skills: And finally, this person should be able to steer and coordinate analytics projects and collaborate cross-functionally.

Question: What is the biggest challenge these translators face? 

LS: First, they have to conquer HR’s inherent fear of analytics. Most HR people didn’t come to HR for the figures after all. In addition, the translator has to take on another, stubborn, phenomenon, which is the almost always politicised access to data in the organisation. Another thing we didn’t hear much about at the event.

Question: You mentioned HR’s fear of analytics. Could you elaborate?

LS: Of course. Harvard recently dedicated a whole article to the subject of the fear of data, with a call to action by its author Thomas Redman. He writes that more and more managers and their employees have the feeling that sooner or later, data will infiltrate every nook and cranny of their organisation or department, which will transform the work they do and ultimately change working relationships and power structures.

What that means is that they increasingly adopt a wait-and-see attitude and are extra careful not to give others the ownership over the data in their projects. This is a double-ditch for HR to cross in terms of both their almost natural aversion to analysis and many managers’ wait-and-see attitude when it comes to data. 

Question: So this is where the translator comes in?

LS: Exactly! Against the background of this dual issue (natural aversion to analysis & managers' wait-and-see attitude), we expect from the HR business partner that - as real translators - they display strong analytical leadership:

  • Embracing data-driven decision-making and
  • Inspiring everyone to do the same.

Fortunately I’ve encountered some real translators in Paris. Wonderfully inspiring!

Thank you for sharing, Luk!