Big Data is suddenly hot, winning Harvard Business Review’s recent “sexiest job of the 21st century” sweepstakes. It’s been slow to penetrate the world of human resources, however – but all that is changing fast, says Beth Axelrod, Senior Vice President of Human Resources for e-commerce giant eBay Inc., and co-author of The War for Talent. “There’s a lot of value to be created and added through data analytics,” she says, “whether it’s doing a better job spotting talent outside to attract to the company, or doing predictive analysis of who is likely to leave and what are the factors, so you can intervene before that point is reached to try to change the trajectory. There’s a ton of opportunity there.”
She praises startups like Gild, which she says is “really reinventing the whole front end of recruiting” by analyzing open source code, evaluating its quality, and then enabling companies to reach out to top-ranked engineers. “What we’ll find is a reinvention of some very traditional processes in companies and a rethinking of how HR gets done,” she says. “It’ll be underpinned by a fact base that will inform where the highest value is to be added.”
Her own company has used analytics to fight attrition. “You can literally drill down to where it’s happening,” says Axelrod. In addition to seeing departmental or managerial hotspots for leaving, eBay can identify other, less obvious factors. “If somebody has been in a role for three years, hasn’t been promoted, and hasn’t changed roles, there’s a far higher probability of attrition than someone who doesn’t have those circumstances,” she says.
“When you say it out loud, it may sound obvious. But until you look at the data, it doesn’t necessarily compel you to find the people who have that situation and go have a career conversation with them:tell me your career aspirations; tell me what you’d like to be doing. It’s helping them imagine what their next career adventure could be, and it creates opportunities to be far more proactive in helping people chart their next career move inside the company, so they don’t naturally presume their next job move should be outside the company.”
The company has also used analytics to reduce employee attrition following maternity leave by identifying policies to adjust, and has tweaked their customer support recruiting process to ensure candidates have a clearer sense of expectations (which turned out to be a key metric of job satisfaction).
In many ways, the biggest obstacle to leveraging Big Data in the search for talent may be HR practitioners themselves. Analytics, says Axelrod, “is not a natural skill set for HR organizations. On the contrary, it’s quite a foreign skill set.” Indeed, if one is drawn to the field by a passion for psychology and enhancing interpersonal relationships, analytics may sound both intimidating and soul-deadening.
But Axelrod believes the benefits outweigh the challenges. Even if many HR professionals don’t have a data background, “there are other places in their company this talent exists,” she says, and the department should start tapping them. “There are wonderfully talented statisticians who have enough of an organizational lens that they can step into an HR organization and do highly relevant analysis. It’s just a matter of getting beyond the sphere where HR people are generally comfortable and hiring people with a different skill set.”
The effort is worth it, she says, because “it’s a tremendous way for HR to have an impact on the performance of a business.” How do you see Big Data impacting the quest for talent? How is your organization leveraging it – or not?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on March 8, 2013.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.