The Golden Rule of HR Analytics: The Why and How for Beginners

Lots of companies now have a fully fledged HR analytics team and fairly mature reporting processes that help organizations make better people decisions. But what if you who don’t have any of that? What if you aren’t even sure how to start? If this sounds like you, then just remember the GOLDEN RULE OF HR ANALYTICS:

Focus on Problems, not Tools

The Why

The purpose of an HR analytics program is to solve people problems, not to throw obscure or complicated techniques at data.

But it’s easy to forget this core purpose when you bury yourself with tech and terminology questions like

  • What’s a regression?
  • What’s python?
  • What’s data cleaning?
  • What’s a model?
  • What’s machine learning?

Focusing your personal endless list of unknowns leads to massive intimidation.

And this intimidation is hands-down, absolutely the single biggest barrier to getting started in HR Analytics.

It shouldn’t be. So…

Reason #1

Focusing on problems and not tools gives you permission to put your ignorance and inexperience to the side.

Not forever mind you, but at least long enough to find a few problems worth solving.  

This leads directly to…

Reason #2

Just-in-time learning

When you have clarity, true clarity, on the problem you’re trying to solve, you’ll end up figuring out the tools you need very quickly and you start learning.

This means you won’t waste time learning (and forgetting) abstract knowledge for a problem you might or might not have in the future. It also eliminates a major source of procrastination.

By letting the problem guide your learning, you’ll know exactly why you are learning something and you’ll have the supporting context you need to learn and retain that new knowledge.

You’ll also be WAY more motivated and focused because you have a concrete outcome at the end.

The How

We’ve covered the “Why?” of the the Golden Rule for HR Analytics…time for the all important “How”.

1. Talk to people in your company

Yes. Talk. To. People.

Start with the people you know and find out where they have people problems. Then talk to the people they know and ask if they have people problems. Talk to finance, talk to marketing, talk to sales, talk to product development.

Listen carefully. Ask lots of questions. Figure out what data they have, learn everything you can, and identify problems.

2. Ask “So what?” and “Who cares?”

You found a problem! Hooray!!….But wait!?! Is this is real a problem, a problem worth solving?

We’ll never know unless we ask, so let’s ask:

  • “If you solved this problem, what different would it make?”
  • “What happens if you don’t solve this problem?”

If there is not a clear “So what?” here, it’s not worth anyone’s time trying to solve it. Move on to another issue or another person in your organization that has a people problem that they think is definitely worth solving.

3. Identify the smallest problem you think you can understand and solve

Some of the problems uncovered will seem daunting, even impossible. Yet others will pop out as possibly manageable.

And by “manageable”, I just mean manageable to you.

Focus on the smallest ones that you think you can get your head and your hands around.

Simple is best.

The bigger problems can come later as you build your skill set and your understanding. Eventually you’ll find that some seemingly impossible problems aren’t so hard after all.

Having trouble deciding where to start? Just flip a coin, pick a problem, and move on to…

4. Get YOUR hands dirty with data

You’ve picked your problem. Now go get that data and get to work!

If you have some rudimentary knowledge of Excel that’s great, but if you don’t it’s totally fine too.

Start with this:

  • Get the data in an Excel or csv file
  • Visually scan the data, figure out what the columns mean, and which ones you care about
  • Learn to do pivot tables in Excel
  • Learn to make scatterplots, bar graphs, and line graphs in Excel

That’s all you really need to get started for HR Analytics: Excel, plots, pivot tables.

You can learn the absolute essentials start in an afternoon or two.

Go to YouTube, Coursera, Udemy, Skillsoft or best of all, a colleague.

Calculate means, group your data (demographics, titles, tenure, etc.), plot your data every which way, plot your data over time, then do some more plots. Get a feel for what your data says (and what it doesn’t say) about the questions you are asking to solve the problem in front of you.

Make something, share, iterate. Go for basic, ugly, and fast. You learn by doing, not pondering and procrastinating. Refinement comes later.

If the data turn out to be irretrievably messy or plain useless just go to the next problem on your list. Remember “Garbage in, garbage out” and you’ll save yourself time.

Final Thoughts

Analytics is a huge domain and hugely intimidating for many HR professionals, especially those just getting started. It doesn’t need to be.

Focus on problems and what you know, not tools and what you don’t know.

Be humble, go to the source, ask questions, and find ways that you can use data to understand and solve other people’s problems.

Start small, be of service, and generate insights, even small ones. Then do it again, then again, and then again…

If you run into a knowledge gap, then address it directly and with focus. Then take that new tool (mental or technical) and then get back to work.


Just starting out and want to learn more? Check out the 3 Simple Steps for Avoiding Common HR Analytics Pitfalls

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