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HR departments invaded by data scientists

Stephanie Overby | Aug. 28, 2013
As leading HR departments turn to 'talent analytics' for a wide range of staffing issues, CIOs are at the center of this data-driven transformation

When General Motors was looking for someone to lead its global talent and organizational capability group, the $152 billion carmaker clearly wasn't looking for a paper-pushing administrator. Michael Arena, who took the position 18 months ago, is an engineer by training. He was a visiting scientist at MIT Media Lab. He's a Six Sigma black belt. He's got a Ph.D.

This is not your father's human resources executive.

But it is a sign of where the corporate HR function is headed. Arena is dedicated to the hot field of talent analytics—crunching data about employees to get "the right people with the right talent in the right place at the right time at the right cost," he says.

" Talent management is a soft space. Historically, we haven't been able to measure definitely the things that we intuitively believe to be true," says Arena. "But businesses are mandating it." The age of "trust me, this will work" is over, says Arena. "HR is being held accountable to deliver business results. And the language of the business is analytics."

The growing importance of sophisticated analytics to HR—not simply reporting what already exists in an organization but predicting what could or should be—is a result of "the recognition that the efficient use of labor and deployment of resources is critically important to the business results of the company," says Mark Endry, CIO of Arcadis U.S. He recently spent six months as interim senior vice president of HR at the $3.3 billion company.

In recent years, enterprises have developed more mature techniques for applying analytics to customer information. "They've been able to see—with relatively little data—how much they can do and how powerful the results can be," says Ben Waber, author of People Analytics: How Social Sensing Technology Will Transform Business and What It Tells Us about the Future of Work. "When you think about what's going on within companies, you have potentially billions of records generated every day about each person. They're starting to see how valuable and important that data is."

IT must be at the center of the unfolding data-driven transformation. Not everyone has an HR data scientist like GM. Arena emphasizes the importance of his partnership with Bill Houghton, GM's CIO for global corporate functions. "A big piece is integration—ensuring the right systems are connected so we know where to draw the data from," says Arena. "IT has to play a role in that."

Indeed, GM's CIO is counting on a new enterprise data warehouse—and hiring more IT professionals with a business intelligence background—to support HR's efforts. "Right now the analysis is being done by small group of smart people," says CIO Houghton. "The next step is how do we make the analytics more available to the everyday manager or the organizational leadership. We want to get this out of the hands of the rocket scientists and into the hands of managers."


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