Human capital is among the most important factors of corporate success. It is, however, becoming increasingly hard to find, with the employment market growing more competitive in recent years. As skills fail to keep pace with evolving technology and processes, organizations are investing significant time and resources in attracting the best candidates while also retaining and optimizing the talent they already have. HR departments are having to work harder than ever to operate in this challenging climate, and many have turned to data in response to these challenges.
Martin Oest is an award-winning strategic workforce planning and transformation expert. He is also an accredited strategic workforce planner with experience from over 50 operations spanning nearly 20 years as a consultant, project manager and operational manager with strong UK and international experience in change projects, workforce planning, HR analytics and operational support. Martin’s focus is on HR analytics in interim roles, predominantly in larger organisations, with his most recent interim engagement running strategic workforce planning for the Met’s 50,000 FTE, designing and implementing an effective operating model - pivotal to the Met achieving the 5,000 recruitment target in under 2 years.
We sat down with him ahead of his presentation at the HR & Workforce Analytics Innovation Summit, which will take place this June 12–13 in London.
How did you first become interested in analytics, and how did you get started in your career?
For me it is innate, it has been with me for as long as I can remember and I have basically been developing my skills ever since. Balancing HR and Finance with Management and Statistics at university was a great foundation for my chosen career path. And joining the global market leader for Workforce Management over 20 years ago gave me the opportunity to work with both operational and people related data at a statistical and behavioural level. This was a great start to my career. We had a fantastic system and this was where my love for strategic and operational workforce planning (including forecasting and scenario planning) really took hold.
What benefits do you see greater focus on data analytics bring to HR departments?
I am not sure we should see it as analytics bringing benefits to HR, I think analytics is coming whatever we do in HR. Standing still is adopting analytics. If we don’t we will fall behind but if we do it really well we will gain a competitive advantage.
I believe the true benefits of analyzing the workforce is a gain for the organization, not for HR. Progressive HR departments can use this to their advantage. Undoubtedly one of the benefits is better decision making for the business which leads to a better organization (more profitable, increased productivity, better quality, increased service...).
In my experience, the benefits come when we can show different scenarios for how the organization may (predictive workforce planning) and can (prescriptive workforce planning) look and cost in the future – and yes, this is part of strategic workforce planning. These are the times when the leadership really listens to what is presented as it prepares for what is ahead. This allows for better decisions faster, and delivers better business results. If HR isn’t taking ownership to deliver this, someone else will. I think we are at a tipping point in HR. We still, just, have the chance to take ownership but we must act now.
How have you seen attitudes towards analytics in HR change? Do you think they have lagged behind other departments in terms of analytics adoption? If so, why, and what has been/needs to be done to rectify the situation?
I still find it amazing that organizations with 50-80% of the total budget spend on people costs have taken this long to realise the importance of using analytics for all (not just one process) of the business - as is the case in both strategic workforce planning and people analytics. But things are changing, even though it can feel a bit slow sometimes.
On average, HR is absolutely lagging behind other functions, marketing, for example, has been at this for about 20 years. There are a few companies who are fantastic exceptions, of course, delivering a competitive advantage from analysis, insights, and planning for the workforce.
Big differences in the demand for analyzed output placed upon the HR function by businesses (and the internal team/CHRO/HRD) exist across different organizations. This affects the adoption of analysis - either fueling or stifling improvements in this area. When HR doesn’t deliver the organization finds other ways to fulfil their need. There are also issues with how and from where we bring in people to our HR departments. I have heard of resistance from university courses (so even before professionals join the function) to provide serious analytical components to their degrees and it is only relatively recently we have seen a significant increase in analytical training from industry organizations. Still, for example, the official jobsite of the CIPD is lacking specialist areas for both analytics and strategic workforce planning. Without the new operating models, the job roles and the route into these roles – how can we expect to succeed? These roles need their own space, not to be part of traditional existing role profiles.
I see a new operating model which will have an evidence and numerical basis as a given across the organization, and specialisms and roles to hire to. As the cognitive support from machines or artificial intelligence develops (give it some time), individuals will be able to deliver more. This, I believe, will lead to the reduction and consolidation of support functions including both Finance and HR. HR has an opportunity now to really show the value it can bring to the core of the business.
HR needs to embrace, not avoid, analysis. They need to see it as absolutely integral to enabling the business (and also HR) to perform as effectively as it possibly can. I think we can see numbers and analysis over time becoming basic activities, leaving room for the more strategic and forward planning tasks.
If they don’t, it is not beyond the imagination to suppose that HR in some companies will be decimated with other functions taking a bigger share of their current remit.
In your work with the Met Police, you developed an award winning project. What were the major challenges in developing the project and what do you feel were the most important things you did to bring about its success?
The key challenge we had to overcome was the scale of the task, that it hadn’t succeeded before, and the culture change it required. The two most senior HR staff and I had a great belief that we could achieve our goals whilst many others doubted HR’s capability to deliver, including some within HR itself. When we were successful it was a huge accomplishment - reaching the goal of 32,000 police officers, hiring 5,000 in under 18 months and reducing the overall spend (I controlled the annual cost and how it changed every month). Add to this the need for increased diversity to reflect the London we serve, which we increased by 15%. All this was achieved through operational and strategic workforce planning and it helped a great deal that we had a very clear strategy and well-defined targets. Focusing on numbers and analytics was critical and building the operating models and governance to support the change so it became sustainable clearly played a vital part.
We then moved into the people analytics phase having proven that strategic workforce planning is very much about analytics and that we knew the numbers needed for a people analytics project. The biggest challenge was that I could see that we now needed to change up a gear in terms of our capabilities or we wouldn’t be able to deliver what was needed moving forward.
I also came to the realization though that there wasn’t an appetite to take on a new approach and that I needed to demonstrate the power and benefit of my solution otherwise I couldn’t get buy-in.
With this in mind, I worked in the shadows to complete the first analytical product fully before sharing, although I did do enough of a pre-wire to have key stakeholders on-board. I think taking the calculated risk to build something revolutionary without explicit sign-off was the biggest reason we managed to deliver such an impactful analytical solution. Sometimes the benefits have to be experienced by an organization, articulating them isn’t always quite enough. Unfortunately this is also one of the barriers for introducing strategic workforce planning and people analytics – some people only ‘get it’ once they’ve seen it.
How important is it to introduce a data-driven culture across the organization? How is it best achieved?
How important is it for the organization to survive? There is no end to the importance, it’s critical. If a data-driven culture is not currently embraced by an organization in its entirety, then I think it needs to be driven from the top. The board needs to demand robust, quantifiable evidence for the decisions they have to take. Similarly, those making the recommendations need to feel confident in the proposals they put forward. As W. Edwards Deming said ‘without data you’re just another person with an opinion’, and I for one couldn’t agree more. I’ve worked in enough businesses to know that often the availability, the comparability, and ‘cleanness’ of data can be an issue but I would urge professionals in this situation to just start – see the opportunities and start small if necessary and then improve – and it’s essential they begin to have a data driven culture across the organization. And if HR isn’t taking this seriously, there will be other departments that will take this space. HR, demand evidence based proposals.
What technologies do you see as having an impact in the analytics space in the near future?
Just now it seems to be a rush of technologies trying to profit from the growing realization that the people in organizations are their most valuable asset.
In the short term there are and will be startups in specialist areas, like in team or network analysis, engagement, performance, strategic workforce planning etc and the cloud based HR management systems (delivering most of the data). These two areas will in the near future see the consolidation into larger systems and service offerings.
Next is the centralization of the capability to understand the organization and view its possible futures. And it will include people as well as finance and productivity, becoming both holistic and business led.
The use of AI and machine learning will also become standard practice when looking at the future organization.
Finally, the costs of these technologies will reduce which will in itself help spread the use and demands for analytics as smaller organizations will be able to afford to deploy this.
What will you be discussing in your presentation?
My aim is to give both effective and practical advice whilst encouraging listeners that they can (and really should) start or enhance their organization’s strategic workforce planning. For me, this is linked closely with workforce analytics and the move towards an evidenced based HR function supporting the business.
I deliver low-cost high-output solutions that I can successfully transfer to any organization willing to improve and I will be sharing insights during my presentation.
You can hear more from Martin, as well as other leading industry figures, at the HR & Workforce Analytics Innovation Summit, which will take place this June 12–13 in London. You can view the full agenda here.
BONUS CONTENT: Tiffany Morris, VP, Talent Management & HR Business Partner, Sears Holdings discusses data-driven talent management at the HR & Workforce Analytics Innovation Summit in Chicago in November 2016.