Miscellaneous 4 min. read

People Analytics: Ways Big Data is Changing Human Resource Practices

Is your new boss a computer? On the surface, this question may seem absurd. Although we are living in an age of pervasive computing, the electronic box has yet to supplant humans in decision-making capacities.

Or has it? Modern companies are increasingly turning to deep data metrics, often known by the colloquial term “Big Data,” to fuel decisions about hiring and firing. These days, the bit of information you didn’t know they knew may be your biggest vulnerability.

The End of Interviews?

In old movies, hiring is the result of long interview processes and often comes down to the hiring manager’s evaluation of ephemeral qualities like “moxie.” This reflects an older way of doing things, in which the personal interview was king.

The instincts of a good hiring manager were once thought to trump all other measures for finding the most qualified applicants. Today, a hiring manager’s “instincts” may come from data gathered from computers.

Computers have no real instincts. Computers never generate ideas based on “gut feelings.” A computer receives a set of data and processes it, predicting likely outcomes based on statistical models. These statistical models are only as good as the quantity of data fed into them. This was the problem with the first attempts to automate the process of evaluation: older methods of data collection lacked depth.

The Very Model of a Modern Major Job Candidate

The new science of employee metrics is called people analytics, and it is surprisingly effective. With access to such data-rich sources as psychological test batteries and the online info-trail, companies are able to make sophisticated prognostications about your suitability for a job. Of course, employers have always sought to use data about their applicants’ past to inform the process; after all, that’s what resumes are for. However, the massive quantity of data now available, and the ability to reasonably digest the info through computational systems, is new.

Gaming (for) the System

One specific, and very odd, example of this trend is the Silicon Valley startup Knack. At first glance, Knack seems like a hundred other small companies, a boutique firm creating app-based games for the Apple i-platform. There is a twist, though — Knack claims that its video games hide a careful examination of the player’s aptitudes. By running dungeons in Dungeon Scrawl or slinging hot sauce in Wasabi Waiter, the job candidate is telling the company vital facts about what they can (and can’t) accomplish in a modern work environment.

Does that sound pie-in-the-sky to you? It doesn’t sound that way to Shell Oil, which has started using the company to inform their processes.

Retaining Walls

On the positive side, people analytics promises to help find the best place for the best worker, and could lead to your employer finding you the opportunity of a lifetime. Google, which is well known for harvesting data from its users, has found that this HR process significantly increases the strength of its promoting decisions.

It’s hard to argue with the results that Google has seen. According to an article published on tnlt.com, “[the company’s data-driven HR function] has resulted in Google producing amazing workforce productivity results that few can match (on average, each employee generates nearly $1 million in revenue and $200,000 in profit each year.”

Having the perfect job fall into your lap is certainly a dream of many modern workers, and with analytics on your side, the potential for being discovered enters the equation. Of course, hard work and the right skill set is the actual prompt that may cause such offers to flood in.

Fired by the Machine

Then there’s the ultimate downside – termination. Data metrics that can predict where you fit in the company could also decide a fit doesn’t exist. Here is where automated HR becomes dystopian: human firing via computer fiat. Of course, the next stop on the slippery slope is a series of systems that decide your fate before you’ve even been hired.

It is easy to imagine a dystopian scenario in which an algorithm has already calculated an entire future for you, not unlike the movie “Minority Report,” before you’ve punched your first timecard, or that assigns you to your “best fit” without bothering to get your input.

Batting Cleanup

Sci-fi visions aside, the fact is that people analytics is here to stay, or at least until the trend wears thin. So what is the hapless citizen to do? A good start is to engage in some basic online history cleanup. Check your social media account privacy settings and purge any damaging images.

Google yourself; if unflattering info pops up, convince the source to take down the item. As far as the work environment goes, watch where you point your computer; remember, your employer reserves the right to sort through your use of their network.

The temptations of machine-based analytic HR approaches are obvious — they ostensibly weed out human error and bias. This is a false perception, however; computers, as designed systems, will always reflect the intellectual conceits and biases of their coders and manufacturers. However, the trend of Big Data HR shows no sign of slowing. Therefore, savvy employees will take the time to learn how it works and stay at least one step ahead of the firing line.

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