HR Departments Can Start Generating Revenue With Data Analytics

Interview with Gustavo Canton, Senior Director of Research at Walmart


Gustavo Canton is currently the Senior Director of Research in the Global People Analytics team for Walmart, Inc. His responsibilities entail all associate research activities across the globe. Prior to that, he worked for the multi-channel strategy analytics team for Customer Insights at the retail giant. He has extensive experience performing advanced analytics, has designed new measurement systems, traditional marketing analytics and strategic analytics support. Gustavo is a former Hispanic Latino Resource Group Chair and he also served as President of the Society of Hispanics Engineers – AR Student Chapter. 

We sat down with him ahead of his presentation. To listen to more speakers like Canton about the future of analytics, attend the Big Data Innovation Summit being held in San Francisco April 12-13.

How did you get started in your career and what first sparked your interest in analytics?

I earned my Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Industrial Engineering in Panama and came to the US to learn English and enter the Master’s in Industrial Engineering Program. In 2005, during the last year of the program, an opportunity for an internship opened in Sam’s Club which has one of the biggest membership data sets in the world. I started working with SQL, forecasting models and big data -at a time where it was not a mainstream term.

I fell in love playing with data! The ability to solve complex problems with big data and be able to make a positive impact in a company that affects millions of lives gave me a feeling of purpose and fulfillment.

Do you feel HR is behind other departments when it comes to implementing data initiatives? If so, why do you feel this is the case and what can HR leaders do to rectify the situation?

Based on my interactions in conferences or meetings with other analytics experts and colleagues in the industry, it appears that more and more organizations are starting their journey or investing more in HR Analytics. There are several factors that contribute to this, including disjointed HR data systems. Traditionally, HR has been seen as function which is tasked to recruit, retain, and develop talent. As a result, most of the analytics are built around basic reporting, ad-hoc requests and low complexity descriptive analytics.

HR has the potential to become a revenue generator for those organizations that are able to leverage data and analytics in order to make better decisions for the business and allocate the right talent to the right part of the business at the right time. Departments such as Marketing, Technology, and Market Research, among others, have been using sophisticated modeling techniques for decades and are more familiar with analytics so are able to digest it easier, plus it gives them an advantage on how they influence c-suite executives on how to make decisions. We are on the right path in HR and the faster we start our journey, the faster we will achieve the next maturity level.

What challenges have you faced putting together an analytics team at Walmart?

I had the opportunity to build an analytics team and a research team. In both occasions, I faced different challenges. For the analytics team, I was working on an area where I was the first trained analytics expert in the entire department which makes it difficult because I have to spend more time outlining the benefits of analytics to my team, my peers and the executives. Basically, I had to spend more time in change management.

For the research team, the main challenge was how do we process efficiently unstructured data, how to get access to some of the external sources and we make the case with executives to invest their budget in projects that might not have a return of investment in their immediate key priorities but that could make their programs more effective 6 months, 1 year or sometime down the road.

Can you give us any insights into how you use social media to improve the associate experience?

I think the key to social media is that it is personal and requires instant gratification. Walmart has invested in Social for many years. I think it has allowed us to break silos within the organization and create a more collaborative environment.

From the Research side, by having our own Walmart Associate Panel, we are able to get feedback from our associates and provide guidance faster. Just to give you an idea a research project that used to take 2 months in 2013 now could be completed in 2 days. So it not only allows us to be more nimble and deliver faster insights but it reduces the time that our associates are off the floor answering surveys, focus groups, etc and lets them spend more time taking care of our customers.

How important do you feel progress in how processing of unstructured data has been to gleaning insights from social media?

It’s very important given the level of effort it requires to process. Especially considering that some of the most actionable data that we are gathering is unstructured data. Several statistical software - such as SAS text miner, SAS sentiment studio, Python and R - have refined their capabilities in terms of processing unstructured data. We have come a long way from using high effort-manual processes but there is still an opportunity to keep improving the software capabilities.

What technologies do you see as having an impact in the analytics space in the near future, and will help you overcome challenges you have at Walmart?

Mobile has become the new canvas. Our associates and customers spend countless hours with their mobile devices so our team is putting more emphasis in developing self service apps to answer basic reporting questions. The rise of the artificial intelligence type software will become a big trend as well not only for their ability to answer questions in a timely manner but it will allow companies to create an insights, data repository system so that the knowledge is always readily available. Imagine having a Google-like search engine that will answer 90% of the business questions without the assistance of an analyst and where you get answers in a matter of minutes.

How important is it to introduce a data-driven culture across the organization? How is it best achieved?

I think we live in a very competitive world and those companies and leaders who adopt a data-driven culture will have an edge in the market. Analytics needs to start from the top, we need leaders that understand the IT challenges, talent and budget requirements that will get the organization

What will you be discussing in your presentation?

My presentation mainly focuses on how to build and manage a team of specialists and the infrastructure that needs to be in place in order to affect large-scale changes. The audience will also hear an overview of how Walmart uses analytics and social media to improve the associate experience.

Here are some of the Expected Key Takeaways:

- How to get started on the right foot with a clear mission and vision

- How to hire/retain the right talent and what to look for

- How to make the case for the resources needed

- Examples of our journey from traditional to next generation

To find out more about how you can best achieve ROI in a data-driven world from other industry-leading experts, attend this year's Big Data Innovation Summit in San Francisco, April 12–13.

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