Making Leaders Into Good Consumers of Data

November 17, 2017

Making Leaders Into Good Consumers of Data

I had a strange experience at an analytics workshop I ran last year. I’d set up an “open space” session where I had six or seven flip charts scattered around the room and participants could write down a topic they’d like to discuss. Normally, you end up with little groups at each flip chart with people occasionally gravitating to a new topic. In this case, it started with a group at each chart, but later when I looked up, I saw everyone had clustered around one topic: how to make leaders into good consumers of data.

We normally assume the problem with people analytics is that HR doesn’t have the capability to deliver it. It turns out that’s only half of the equation. The other problem is that many leaders don’t have the capability to receive data.  Leaders often don’t know what data to ask for and don’t know what to do when they get it. They are not good consumers of data.

What leaders get wrong about analytics

Ask HR analytics pros what leaders get wrong about data and you’ll be given quite an extensive list of shortcomings. The saddest shortcoming is that leaders have been misled by the press on analytics and now expect HR to produce miracles. One client was having problems presenting analysis around options for dealing with downsizing. There was nothing wrong with the analysis, there were a number of combinations of actions the company could take to achieve its cost reduction goals, none of which was pleasant. The HR analytics team was being blamed for not coming up with a painless answer; they’d delivered a sound analysis when leaders hoped they’d deliver a miracle.

Another weakness leaders have is that they don’t really want to make a decision or at least be held responsible for a judgement call. For example, if a business unit is underperforming the people analytics team may present an analysis revealing what the data shows about possible causes and solutions. The trouble is that the analysis never can say with absolute certainty what is causing the problem or what solution will work. There is always the chance that some not yet considered factor would yield a unique insight. Faced with this glimmer of uncertainty, leaders may send the team back to do yet more analysis, as much as a way of postponing the decision as accomplishing anything productive.

Analysis paralysis at least has the merit that leaders are grappling with a specific decision. Sometimes leaders send off the analytics team to get reams of data without a clear understanding of what they will do when they get the report. “Just give me everything” they’ll say, harboring a silent wish that maybe something will pop out of the data. Almost invariably on receiving the laboriously collected data the leader will look at the pages of reports; realize they don’t have a plan for sorting through it, and it ends up in the bin.

I’m not done with the things leaders do that makes them poor consumers of data. Another common problem is nitpicking the data “Are you sure we have 10,250 employees in Asia? I thought it was 10,260.” And even our best friends, the leaders who are truly keen about analytics, will waste the analytics team’s time chasing studies that are no more than idle curiosity. Worst of all are leaders who demand analytics, but then refuse to believe the data when it refutes their preferred course of action.

What HR can do to make leaders better consumers of data

This wasn’t meant to be a rant about what’s wrong with leaders. Leaders are human and humans generally are not great at dealing with data. Even when they are good at handling data in their own specialty, it’s unfair to expect them to be skilled at parsing data about talent.

There are two things the HR analytics team can be doing to help leaders get better at handing people analytics. One is to directly provide training to leaders. It wouldn’t be clever to pose this as “What leaders get wrong” however there is room for a short program on how to get value from people analytics that will help prevent some of the problems.

The other tactic is for the analytics team to spend more time developing their skills in how they interact with managers. One part of this is the familiar line of “telling a good story,” however that element should include specific tactics such as giving a range rather than a specific number to reduce nitpicking. More broadly the analytics team needs to pre-empt problems by getting managers asking the right questions at the beginning.  Analytics is as much about the process of being clear about what question you are trying to answer or what decision you are trying to make as it is about crunching numbers. In fact, getting to the right question can take just as much time and just as much intellectual effort as answering the question.

There is much to do in people analytics and we often assume the weakness lies within HR. We will have more success if we devote a good part of our efforts to helping leaders become good consumers of data. Figure that part out, and everything else gets easier.

The Authors: 

David Creelman, M.B.A., is CEO of Creelman Research. He helps HR leaders to identify, understand and address important new issues in human capital management. These days he is spending most of his time helping companies with Agile Analytics where the focus is on quick wins.

His most recent book, Lead the Work: Navigating a World Beyond Employment (coauthored with John Boudreau and Ravin Jesuthasan) is on the future of work and has received plaudits from business leaders at IBM, LinkedIn, and Starbucks. David can be reached on LinkedIn or by email at