Is people data really a force for good?

Written by
Jo Harley

23 Jun 2017

23 Jun 2017 • by Jo Harley

You can’t go a day now without someone mentioning people analytics, big data or employee tracking. Once the domain of the sales, marketing and finance functions, data has become a vital element of the HR remit. 

As a leader, thanks to people technology, you now have access to a wealth of valuable insight. Better measurement of individual and team performance, sophisticated succession planning literally at the touch of a button, easier reviewing of trend data on attitudes, the ability to calculate an accurate return on investment on engagement, track behaviour, feedback and innovation. All of this will lead to improved capability and business improvements. . 

Yet with this people analytics boom, questions have been raised around the ethics of obtaining and using this level of people data.

At a Purple Cubed breakfast event, our panel of senior HR professionals and academic thinkers – including Ralph Tribe (Sky UK & Ireland), Stephen Robson (Kingfisher), Colin Strong (Ipsos Mori) and Eugenio Pirri (Dorchester Collection) - debated this contentiously. Some argued that businesses which use employee data do so for less than positive reasons. That instead of analysing employees’ thoughts, feelings and behaviours for the benefit of the working environment, businesses are in danger of using these  insights to syphon the absolute maximum productivity from their workforces and boost profit for shareholders.

So, are businesses adopting people analytics for the right reasons? Is data a force for good? Or is it a dark power, slowly eating away at the integrity of the people leaders?

Are businesses using data correctly?

I believe that the vast majority of businesses use data in a virtuous way. Yes, there will be a minority who place too much focus on how much more they can achieve from pushing their people given the ‘data variables’; though ultimately the protectors of people data – the people leaders – are likely to recognise that engaged, fairly treated people lead to better productivity and profits and therefore put them at the heart of all they do. And so, creating the right working environments, where people are excited to work and happiness, engagement, satisfaction and success become the priorities.

Just as a marketer would collect customer data and align messages, promotions and products to present themselves as meeting that person’s need, HR can collate this information to improve the employee experience – communication, engagement, development. It would be foolish for them not to access it.

Using data to protect employees

There is one caveat, however. Businesses have an obligation to protect their employees and the data they hold on them; to ensure the systems they utilise are proven, professional and protected.

The news is full of awful cyber-attacks on business, and therefore the same robust approach to security must be in place for employee data as it would be for any other confidential and sensitive information. This also requires honest conversation about what data is being collected, how it’s being obtained, why it is being collected and then, most importantly, what the benefit is for that person. Start with the end in mind. What do you need to know to improve your business. This is very different from generating swathes of information no one has the time to consider. Keep things simple, joined up and clear. 

It’s these considerations that make the difference between people data being a force for good and something far more sinister.