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James Berry

The UCL MBA at University College London


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How to use data to successfully plan for the future

Agile businesses know that data is what gives them the resilience to face a crisis.

HR leaders are used to dealing with data, from salary and benefit figures and start dates, to qualifications and role assignments. Most of the data you have is historical and from this accumulation of information you can extrapolate future needs and plans. With the unprecedented challenge of the Covid-19 pandemic, an even greater emphasis has been placed on the necessity for businesses to be able to adapt processes, people and modes of working. Alongside this, forecasting and scenario planning are an essential part of a HR managers role, to help mitigate against potential risks and challenges.

Data is a great tool to help HR teams plan for the future and manage people, but the real value comes when it is matched with contextual knowledge of the people it is about. 

Data is a key tool for HR teams to plan for the uncertain future ahead. It provides teams with an overview of their resources and skill sets available within their workforce. It is crucial, however, to understand exactly how to utilise this data to align priorities without applying a ‘one size fits all’ approach around an average, which could alienate your employees. The ‘human’ element of human resources must not be lost as we increasingly move into a digital world.

When and how to use your data

When there is a significant shift in business needs, the first step is to identify what data you have access to within your company. Most HR teams will have a skill set database with information on your employees current and past experience. This data will be extremely helpful when trying to restructure or organise your company to meet new market conditions. It is important, however, that before diving in to personnel data that HR teams work with the wider management team to put a strategy in place and to identify what is of value and what needs to be re-prioritised.

HR teams need to use the existing data to search for different skills relevant to this new strategy such as a degree, advanced education, qualifications or experience that could be useful and applied to the current (and future planned) scenarios. A team member who may have been crucial to you before, such as a tradeshow salesperson may not be as valuable for their presentation skills but rather for their established network, and somebody such as your IT manager may now be more central to your organisational needs to ensure your systems are set up for your workforce to work remotely. By identifying the skills needed to successfully execute your new vision, you can re-prioritise your staff and roles.

Additionally, there is an opportunity to use broader skills data to identify areas where people may be able to transition to more valuable job roles in executing the new strategy. Can you provide training to a member of staff on the priority tasks that are needed in challenging scenarios? One example of this is within the airline industry, which has been heavily impacted by the pandemic. This particular scenario provides HR teams with an opportunity to look at whether employees such as flight attendants can be re-trained in areas where more manpower is needed, such as customer service. Flight attendants are customer service professionals and know the customer base, but they may need additional training in the computer systems to handle refunds or rebooking.

Of course, many companies including airlines did not scenario plan for something as unprecedented as this pandemic, but this should be used as a lesson to future HR teams on how to train staff across different areas of a business. I always believe it is best to try to train the staff you have, if you can, as they know your company culture well and the way the business works, something that is much harder and slower to teach.  

The mistake to avoid

Data is a great tool to help HR teams plan for the future and manage people, but the real value comes when it is matched with contextual knowledge of the people it is about. When it comes to future planning, data can provide the overall picture teams need to predict patterns or trends that may affect their business, enabling solutions to be put in place to mitigate against them. Data can often only provide you with the information for these trends based on averages though – you do not have a company staffed with hundreds or thousands of ‘average employees’, so a one size fits all solution may not work for everyone. People have different needs and motivations that need to be taken into account.

Using average data to put forward one solution for employees is not using data to its fullest extent. You may need to gather even more data under these new circumstances, and you can do this in action by engaging your employees around potential options. This will not only show your employees that you have considered their individual needs, but it will also assure management that you are looking at the wider and best picture for the business as a whole.

The human element of human resources must not be forgotten. If the last few months have taught businesses any lessons beyond the importance of future planning, it is the importance of creating a strong culture where your employees are motivated and feel valued during challenging times. As we start to see businesses opening up again around the world, now is the time for HR teams to utilise current and incoming data to develop solutions that can help bring the team together on our path to recovery.

Interested in this topic? Read Infographic: HR suffers people data gap during coronavirus crisis.

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James Berry


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