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Ron Thomas

Buck Consultants

Director of Talent And HR Solutions

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Blog: The future of HR – Statistics, analytics and marketing


“It is important for communities to educate our children for their future, not our past.”

In a recent interview, Romain Dallemand, the superintendent of schools in Bibb County, Georgia,  talked about how he came into the job last year with a bag of changes he calls “The Macon Miracle.”

One of the tools in that tool kit was adding Chinese as a language requirement in his school district.

“This is HR’s future”

This school year, Superintendent Dallemand is rolling out Mandarin in stages, a few sessions a week, with the youngest kids starting first. In three years, it will be at every grade level. He is looking into the future, and with the changing dynamics of the global marketplace, he feels that Chinese will be the global language of the future.

When I was in high school, the language of my generation was French. My kids were taught Spanish.

This thought brought me back to a conversation that I had with a young man that was just accepted into the masters program at Fordham University. He was working toward a Masters in HR with a focus in finance.

In years past, that pairing would not have been available — that is, this major and focus would have been there for someone wanting it.

One of our recent interns send me a note the other day and mentioned one of the undergrad classes that he was taking: HR Analytics.

I conducted a Strategic Workforce Planning seminar a while back, and I met someone who works in HR in New York’s financial district and was hired out of NYU’s masters program. She had a master’s degree in Statistics. I also met some folks in another session in Pittsburgh who had marketing degrees.

If you have not been paying attention, this is HR’s future. Analytics, Marketing, Math, and Statistics will all be desired skills.

In their book Beyond HR, authors John Boudreau and Peter Ramstad have asserted that human resources is at a critical inflection point, poised between the administrative focus of support services and its potential role as a true decision science.

This is the future of human resources, and not our past HR. The roadblock for this new era is, in a lot of cases, ourselves. That is, we are blocked by people who came up in a different era and felt more comfortable on the other side.

Making decisions based on data

This past style of HR was not a competitive advantage, but instead, a roadblock. This style totally enveloped HR and has caused much angst within both organizations and throughout our profession. Because of that, it will be years (in a lot of cases) before the new HR will be born. Our profession is in its gestation period.

The future of our field is to become more focused on the use of sophisticated measurement techniques and statistical processes to access talent and link organizational goals.

In other words, it is about making human capital decisions based on data and not gut instincts. This transition is almost like the transition to social media; it is not going away, so you might as well get on board. There is no turning back.

With the number of calamities that are buffeting organizations today, the focus has to be on solving them — and not by simply using anecdotal evidence.

Anecdotal evidence” is simply evidence based on anecdotes. Because of the small sample most people use when judging anecdotal evidence, there is a big chance that it may be unreliable — so unreliable that nobody will take you seriously if you have nothing beyond anecdotes to back it up.

IT’s another reminder that the past techniques of problem solving are obsolete. Imagine marketing or finance sitting in a planning meeting, or making a presentation, where their findings were based on anecdotes or gut instinct. It could happen, but very rarely.

In most cases, their presentation and thought processes would be based on data. To change the relationship, HR needs to understand the finance and marketing mindset.

Basically, finance people are risk averse. Finance is focused on revenue, expenses, profit and shareholder value. Marketing is responsible for helping the organization acquire and keep profitable customers and therefore relate its functions directly to cash flow.

In the same way, human capital measurement can enhance how well organizations understand the logic that connects organization success to decisions about their own talent, and the talent of those whom they lead or work with.

Towards an HR Decision Science

For HR to become a true decision science, we must do more than just incorporate facts and numbers. More specifically, a decision science for talent should draw from the vast array of research about human behavior at work, labor markets, and how organizations can better compete with (and for) talent, and how it is organized.

This is why we must use every opportunity to read white papers, Labor Department pronouncements or any other workplace research that is available.

Every day I take a few minutes to compile my reading material for my commute home. There are articles from a cross section of disciplines: Psychology TodayAdvertising AgePR Week, Harvard Business Review, etc.

They all contain articles that can educate and link human behavior, customer behavior and organizational behavior to talent. I am always on the lookout for that nugget of information that expands my insight into this new framework of HR.

A scientific approach reveals how decisions and decision-based measures can bring the insights from these fields to bear on the practical issues confronting organization leaders and employees in the workplace. We are headed into HR’s future, and not its past. May old-style HR rest in peace.

Ron Thomas is director of talent and HR solutions at HR consultancy, Buck Consultants.

We welcome any and all contributions from the community, so please feel free to share your views and opinions with us, your colleagues and peers via our blogs section.

7 Responses

  1. Communication, communication, communication

    JShenton  we would like to second you on your views.  Communication skills at personal level is one arena we have been trying to teach our students here and your valuable view point can be an added benefit to us. 

  2. Communication, communication, communication

    Chris – at last a fantastic to the point argument about the real world.

    The only point I would add is the one that has prevented HR and Management and Staff and Clients and Suppliers….(Have I missed anyone?) getting to the nub of what makes things work well.. and that is really teaching people how to communicate.


    To my knowledge and I would love someone to prove me wrong, over the last thirty years or more we have still not improved our level of personal communication skills, one to one and one to many.

    If we cannot solve this problem then HR will not change and neither will anything else – this is the primary key to work with.

    Can it be done – of course it can – you just need to get the right people to listen and open their minds.

  3. You can’t put an organization in a test tube

     Facts never ‘speak for themselves’. They always require interpretation. And this interpretation happens in the specific local circumstances in which people find themselves, at that time, in that place, and with those people.

    Chris, first of all let me thank you for so eloquently laying out your thoughts.  You skillfully laid out a terrific argument.  But one line in your rebuttal caught my eye.

    Facts, never speak for themselves.

    What I am suggesting is that HR which is data rich just from the nature of what it does has a treasure trove of information that is never tapped into.  By bringing on board people with the skill set to interpet this information and make that a part of the decision making process is the future.

    Marketing departmenents have been doiing this since its inception.  Every company today knows more about their consumers than consumers know about themselves.  Do they get it wrong sometime, yes they do.  But they still rely of the process to make decision based on trend analysis along with other information.  Data is just providing more information to add to the equation for better decision making.  It is not a panecea in just relying on data.  

    As you said it has to be interepeted in the context of the environment.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.




  4. I hope the future is not John Boudreau

     Paul, thanks so much for sending over that link. I must say that it was kind of an eye opener.

    My reference was based on the statement about HR being at the intersection of an administrative focus and moving towards a strategy based department.  The future of HR is going to be based on using data in the decision making process.  

    Our HR departments are data rich and having people that are able to extract, examine and link the trends will make for a more rigor based solution.  Marketing does it every day.

    Thanks again



  5. Future of HR

    To your reading list, you might want to add a management accounting journal (e.g., CMA Magazine, in Canada). Though it’s for management accountants, it gives a good, on-the-ground view of all sorts of management risks that HR should know, to help with workforce planning.

  6. You can’t put an organization in a test tube


    I am not an HR practitioner. However, like you, I have despaired over the years at many of the assumptions underlying people management and organizational dynamics that has governed much HR practice. At the same time, I don’t agree with your prescription that “the future of our field is to become more focused on the use of sophisticated measurement techniques and statistical processes to access talent and link organizational goals” – although I fear that that is indeed the way that things might go, as HR managers strive to be seen as relevant and ‘business-like’.

    I think you make the mistake of equating the dynamics of organization with those that govern the natural sciences – as do many commentators on the business world. However, as University of Hertfordshire’s Ralph Stacey insightfully observes, the world’s major financial institutions, commercial organisations and public policy bodies are peopled by scores of MBA graduates, advised by the world’s foremost consultancies, and informed by millions of research papers, books and journals on business and organisational performance. Despite this, the global economy plunged into a crisis that nobody planned, few predicted and none of these ‘highly tuned’ organisations was able to control.

    People management is strategic management (at whatever level of the organization it occurs). So HR managers do need to be seen as being capable of addressing ‘hard’, strategic issues and to command the respect of other departments. In reality, of course, it is often the so-called "soft" side of management and organizational performance that many line managers find hardest to get to grips with. And perhaps this is why these more challenging aspects of the leadership role are often shied away from or spoken about in disparaging terms – as a sort of defence mechanism.

    In some instances, HR managers help to perpetuate this view themselves, by avoiding or ignoring altogether the hidden, messy and informal aspects of organizational life; limiting their attention to the ‘safer’, seemingly less contentious territory that is bounded by the conventional HR agenda. It seems to me that it would be valuable if they recognized instead that organizations are complex social processes. And that this unavoidable complexity arises from the very fact that organizations are made up of people in interaction. They would then be much better placed to advocate effectively for the revised leadership and organizational agenda that these in-built dynamics of organizations imply. In many (most?) cases, this would require a redefinition of the scope and philosophy of HR; but not, I would suggest, in the pseudo-scientific ways that you advocate. Amongst other shifts in perspective, it would be helpful if HR managers (as the self-styled people experts) were to embrace the following points:

    • Organizations are unavoidably political processes, in which in-built and emerging tensions between diverse individuals, organizational units and competing interest groups are both the source of potential conflict and of organizational vitality.
    • Power relations are critical in determining what, when and how things happen.
    • Effective working of the organization depends on informal, get-the-job-done processes and social relationships as well as – if not more than – those shown on the formal organization chart.
    • Much of what happens in organizations is paradoxical and cannot be reduced to simple either-or choices (e.g. between continuity and change; team working and individuality; centralization and decentralization; and so on).
    • Facts never ‘speak for themselves’. They always require interpretation. And this interpretation happens in the specific local circumstances in which people find themselves, at that time, in that place, and with those people.
    • The focus of leadership communication needs to move beyond ‘getting management’s message across’ to one of influencing the local sense-making process.
    • Managers can act with intention but can have no certainty as to what outcomes will emerge – or, post-event, which factors were most significant.

    All of these observations, and others, arise because organizations are dynamic networks of people interacting with each other. So it seems to me that an understanding of these dynamics, and how they impact upon business performance, should be at the heart of HR practice.

    Regards, Chris Rodgers, Author of Informal Coalitions

  7. I hope the future is not John Boudreau

    Is that the same John Boudreau who describes the Royal Bank of Scotland as one of his 'great companies'?

    Bringing more statistics into HR is fine as long as we can distinguish them from the damn lies

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Ron Thomas

Director of Talent And HR Solutions

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