The Voice of Evidence in Human Resources

There are some common, people-centered functions that small businesses, large corporations, government agencies, and all kinds of other organizations want to be good at. These include improving leadership, forming productive teams, and keeping workers happy and excited about their work. Getting these people functions right is big business. Most large organizations employ professionals to manage them (typically in the Human Resources, or “HR” department), and many organizations hire outside consultants or software providers to help.

It may be surprising to learn, then, that many of the people being paid to do these functions do not have much evidence that the services they sell actually work (e.g., Leroy et al. 2022; SHRM,).

Where’s the Evidence?

Fortunately, there is a substantial research literature on how to do these things well (e.g., Chamorro-Premuzic, 2019; Gibbons, 2019; Tannenbaum & Salas 2020; Sutton, 2020; Young et al., 2019). Responsible HR Professionals consult this literature when designing and carrying out their work.

This research shows that certain techniques and methods generally work in principle. It does not, however, provide direct evidence of efficacy in a particular organization. That requires the HR professional or consultant to collect their own new data on the programs they build and implement; in other words, to measure the results of their work.

There are many reasons some organizations do not collect data on these people-centered functions, and they differ between organizations. But two reasons are likely the most influential:

1. Data are difficult to collect. The results of some programs are difficult to measure. They can be abstract, like improved satisfaction with one’s boss or quality of team interactions. Those outcomes require carefully built and validated tools to measure. Or, for objective outcomes like improved productivity or less quitting, data may be in a software system or a format that makes it difficult for HR professionals to access and analyze.

Many HR professionals would love to spend more time measuring the results of the work they do. It would allow them to improve the work: They could drop or revise things that don’t work, and show the value of the things that do. But their budgets often do not allow for measurement; they are expected to deliver a certain amount of training and programs, and they are given the resources to do only that.

2. Executives don’t ask for it. Perhaps because of reason #1, executives who make final decisions about what to spend on people-centered programs may be conditioned not to ask for direct evidence of program effects. They may have given up on measuring the effects of HR programs and training.

Vendors of software and consulting are fully aware of this absence of demand for evidence. As long as they can tell a good story about their product and seem authoritative, they know they can persuade executives to hire them, even without evidence. Indeed, a big part of the industry selling these services is made up of gurus with dubious research methods, motivational speakers, and pseudo-scientists. These vendors might be helpful in some ways, and they can certainly make people feel good. But they may not be delivering the organizational changes their buyers expect.

People Analytics to the Rescue

The rise of people analytics (PA) teams could solve problem #1. People analytics is a data-driven approach to making people-related decisions in workplaces. People analytics teams source data from around the organization – HR related data, as well as other data that tracks productivity and processes around the business. PA teams bring the data together, and clean and format it to be ready to analyze.

Because of people analytics’ growth over the past 10 years or so, more organizations now have access to these valuable data. Now, the HR team can measure results of people-centered programs – for example, they can compare quitting rates for leaders who have been trained vs. not trained, or analyze team productivity and well-being data to measure the results of employee wellness programs. This kind of analysis has traditionally been very hard to do.

Then, if the first problem is solved, people analytics teams could help solve the second. If executives continually see their HR team providing evidence that their work is tangibly helping the organization, they might come to expect such evidence from everyone. Eventually, when a vendor proposes to sell their services, executives might say, “That really sounds good, but can you show me the evidence that it works?”

The discipline of people analytics holds the promise of making organizations more scientific. PA might finally deliver what many HR teams have been looking for: a way to show the value of what they do. Historically, HR teams and executives have had to rely on gurus’ self-professed expertise and vendors’ highly-produced marketing. Now, they can rely on their own data.

In turn, those data can then help HR teams get better at building fulfilling, supportive, inclusive places for workers. Such workplaces should also make for more stable and effective institutions in society.

Some have suggested that people analytics could even take over HR in organizations. Claiming the voice of evidence is one way to at least make HR, and the workers it serves, better.

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