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Talking HR Data and Analytics with Matt Burns

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Founder of the Global HR Collective, Matt Burns, set himself a lofty goal when he launched the social enterprise in October 2018. He committed to raising $1 million for charities supporting mental health advocacy and women entrepreneurs.

To get there, he’ll be using his passion and expertise to help organizations transform their strategy and culture through HR data, analytics and technology.

We caught up with Matt to talk about the importance and value of HR data, and the opportunity it offers the HR profession to become the driver of transformational change in the workplace.

Tell us a bit about your background

I spent 20 years in the corporate world, 15 in HR and the last five as an HR executive. I’ve worked with global organizations across multiple industries and, along the way, discovered a method of blending culture, technology and analytics that’s truly transformative.

In my last role, I joined an organization without an established HR function that was looking for an HR leader to do two things simultaneously; transform and scale their HR department’s mandate, while enabling a 1,500 person company grow revenue by nearly 50% in three years.

To achieve this, I architected an HR strategy predicated on technology and analytics. We procured five different HR technologies over the course of a one year period, and in doing so, won the award that Xref sponsored in 2017, for most innovative use of HR technology. We followed that up with an analytics initiative to better leverage the data we suddenly had at our fingertips. We wanted to enable and empower our line managers and HR team with more robust dashboarding and scorecards, to positively influence the employee experience.

Explain where your interest in HR analytics comes from

It’s largely experiential. I’ve seen how technology and analytics are foundational to an organization’s success. They can empower and enable culture. Analytics is critical as a means of giving HR legitimacy in that it also allows HR to more effectively and efficiently use its finite resources. In that context, my interest in analytics is twofold:

One, in most organizations, HR remains a cost center, which means they're under constant scrutiny to justify their own existence. Data helps quantify the opportunities, issues and risks in an organization – all using the language of business (numbers).

Two, it allows organizations and their HR functions to report on impact. In this context, the ROI of HR’s activities and initiatives, whether that be training, staffing and recruitment, employee relations, engagement, or technology - if you capture baseline data and then reassess the same cohort after the change, you can more accurately measure & quantify the impact your actions are having; graduating from subjective, qualitative debates, to business-focused, quantitative discussions. That’s where HR needs to position itself.

What advice would you give HR professionals trying to identify the data they need?

That’s a great question and it came up recently while leading an HR Analytics panel discussion in Copenhagen. The question (in the context of analytics) was: “Where do you start?

My answer was simple - you start with a problem. Rather than focusing on the data sets that you need, start with the problem that you're trying to solve and then look for the data that best illustrates the opportunity. Getting clear on the measurements and metrics ensures alignment with all relevant stakeholders. And as you introduce programs, processes and policies, you're going to go back to that data to show the impact of your efforts.

The next question I usually get is, “what if you don't have those measures and metrics?” The simple answer - you create them. As an example, we noticed that during the first 90 days of employment, we had high attrition, but had no way to quantify ‘why?’. So we created a series of very simple (3-5 question) surveys, and distributed them at predetermined intervals (days 7, 14, 28, etc.) to better assess when new hire engagement dropped. Once we had that data, we were able to more clearly target our process improvement efforts on that particular section of the on-boarding experience, rather than audit the entire end-to-end process which could/would have taken months.

What are the biggest data-handling mistakes HR professionals are making?

One is that we try and do too much. HR professionals would be best served to tune out the ‘noise’ and start small. Focus on a single problem and use data to quantify the opportunity and the impact of your intervention(s). Experiment, iterate and learn. After a few attempts, you’ll have built the muscle (and the process) to replicate it over and over again. Then you can take things to the next level and look at predictive analytics as a means of forecasting future problems. That’s when things get really exciting. You graduate from a reactive, compliance function to true business partners.

The other mistake I would say HR professionals make is that they don't reach out cross-functionally or externally (enough) for advice. We struggle with confidentiality given the sensitivity of our data sets. I think we can overcome that by being thoughtful about data privacy. You can scrub data of all unique identifiers prior to sharing it with other departments. If you're working with third-party vendors, you can have them sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). We’re sitting on a mountain of valuable data that can enhance the employee experience and drive true business results.

What do you think HR can learn from other industries?

I’ve said this a few times publicly, and it always incites a response - I see a future where traditional HR and Marketing functions are blended into one. They’re very similar in a number of ways. First, both functions are tasked with achieving business results without any real authority. Marketing can’t compel a customer to buy, in the same way HR can’t compel an employee to be engaged. Both functions have to use influence, education and communication to achieve their goals.

Both functions, though admittedly Marketing is much further ahead here, segment populations to analyze their engagement. Where Marketing stands out here is their use of curated messages and multiple mediums to support messaging. It’s in this arena where HR has the furthest to come. We’ve known for ages that employees prefer to consume content in different mediums, just like customers. Yet, in some organizations, we use the same tired approaches to cascading company communications. Sending an email and posting memos on a bulletin board or employee newsletter just don’t cut it anymore.

How can we prepare future HR professionals for analytics and data management?

I think it starts early and it’s a shared responsibility between post-secondary educational institutions, HR professional associations and the organizations themselves. As a student, I expect an HR program where analytics and technology are part of the curriculum.

I believe HR professional associations need to shift focus from compliance to technology and analytics to better prepare the next generation of HR professionals for the realities of organizations.

And finally, I believe organizations, and their HR leaders, need to create experiential learning opportunities for team members to reinforce the application of principles and build the skills organizations are increasingly asking of us.

Do you think the perception challenge for HR is just a branding issue?

No, I think runs deeper. It’s partly created by organizations and partly by our profession.

I believe HR is best positioned to lead transformational change. I think we best understand the collective organization, its pulse, and the implications of change. However, I also think we need to broaden our perspective to take into account business impacts, use the language of the business and marry those two things together to provide a full picture.

To effectively solve the problem of HR’s brand, I think we need to address it in two ways simultaneously: demand and supply. Demand being what organizations expect from HR. Though this shift is dependent on supply – the HR profession itself, and the people who work in it. We must be willing to objectively assess our profession, our teams and ourselves and ask – are we truly supporting the organization’s strategic mandate?

I spend a lot of my time supporting CHROs and CEOs as they transform their HR strategies. They almost always include some element of HR technology and analytics. Though whatever the project, the most rewarding part for me is knowing we’ve made a meaningful impact on the employees in that organization. I never get tired of that feeling.

About Matt

Matt is a passionate, innovative Global HR Executive who sits at the intersection of technology and culture.

On October 1 2018, he announced the launch of the Global HR Collective, a social enterprise to raise $1M for grassroots charities that support mental health advocacy & women entrepreneurs.

Prior to the launch of the Global HR Collective, Matt led a group of professionals recognized as the 2018 Canadian HR Team of the Year - Retail / Hospitality, having already been awarded the 2017 award for Canada’s “Most Innovative Use of HR Technology”.

Today, Matt helps organizations undertake similar transformations. Blending strategy, technology, data and culture, he architects and implements solutions that make organizations more profitable, efficient & human-centric.

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