HR is Moving from People Science to Data Science – About People

One of the things that I love about being in human resources is that the profession is constantly evolving. During this year’s HR Technology Conference, closing keynote speaker Dr. Peter Cappelli, professor of management at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, pointed out that HR used to be filled with industrial and organizational psychologists and today, HR jobs are requiring data science. His comment made me realize that one of the changes HR is experiencing is a move from being a “people science” to being “data science about people.”

That doesn’t necessarily mean that HR is giving up it’s “human” component. To the contrary, it means HR has the ability to create partnerships where it matters most. Cappelli shared a process that highlights the several partnerships that could exist.

My takeaway from Cappelli’s session is that using technology wisely is the key to successfully transitioning HR from a people science to a data science. The key word being wisely. Technology makes a lot of things possible. But let’s face it, sometimes we don’t use technology because it’s not always helpful. Or it’s too expensive. Simply because technology exists doesn’t mean it’s going to change behavior.

Cappelli used the videocassette recorder (aka VCR) as an example. The VCR didn’t disrupt technology because it was too hard to program our favorite television shows. It wasn’t able to disrupt technology because it was simply just good enough. People still wanted to see movies in theaters. The VCR picture quality was meh. The technology was helpful; just not helpful enough.

There are also other reasons that inhibit the use of technology, such as cost. We don’t use sophisticated artificial intelligence (AI) today because it’s still too expensive. We are also constantly dealing with “hacks” developed by regular people that make the current technology irrelevant.

If we want to create lasting change in our organizations, we must be prepared to create something that matters to users, make it intuitive, and give it time to be adopted organically. I thought the mention of a time component in Cappelli’s session was particularly interesting. HR has been criticized in the past for not adopting technology fast enough. I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Cappelli about it. “I think there are worse things than adopting tech quickly. It is better to adopt it carefully. I don’t know that there is a particular tech to adopt, I think it has more to do with the process we should use to choose, and that has more to do with thinking carefully about needs, trying pilots, and so forth.”

Which brings us back to building partnerships and the essential ingredients to creating them. Successful partnerships must:

  1. Be appealing to all parties
  2. Feel trusting, comfortable, and not forced
  3. Make people productive
  4. Be supported by business – either as a customer or an employee

When it comes to the role of human resources in the business, there’s great value in technology and data science. It can provide data that drives better solutions for candidates and employees. But just because technology exists doesn’t mean it’s right for the business. This is where developing successful partnerships is essential.

Businesses are successful when they achieve their goals. People use data to make business decisions and set goals.  It’s the technology partnership that gets people the data to create business success.

Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby at the 2016 HR Technology Conference in Chicago, IL