Big Data Employee Style: The 4 Kinds of Workforce Data You Really Need

In my experience, HR is usually a year and a half behind the curve for many business trends. From TQM in the 1980's, balanced scorecard in the 1990's -- we're usually behind the curve.When I was in HR for a F500 company in 2007 and first started talking about using social media in HR, people thought I was nuts. It took a two years to bring it to life.

Enter Big Data. Sure, HR prognosticators like John Sumser get it. He's been writing about Big Data for awhile and was the only HR representation on a Forbes list of the top 20 influencers in Big Data last year. But in true HR fashion, the idea of using Big Data to look at workforce data is only picking up steam as of late with conferences, skeptics, and predictions that Big Data will be, well, a predictive tool for HR.

But while The New York Times focused earlier this year on the power of all of this collective data, I care more about what this means for you, for your startup or your high-growth company. Whether you have five employees or 500, what kind of workforce data do you need on your employees and why?

1) Demographics

There's no doubt you need to know plenty about your workforce, including the range of ages, percentage of each gender, time in position and tenure with the company. But this data is so simple to collect we often forget we have it or what we can do with it.

Gender and age data can help manage recruiting and discrimination risks (especially if you have federal contracts). Age data can also help you better manage the workforce. If you're a Gen X founder, its helpful to get a sense of where the Gen Y pockets are and where challenges exist.

Tenure demographics help you pinpoint where turnover is happening and where progression is happening. You may think you know (especially if your team has fewer than 30 people), but are you tracking these trends over time? They can have huge implications on your workforce.

2) Performance

Even if you're a team of five, hopefully you have some sort of performance management system in place. You don't have to use a stodgy, corporate form, but you do need to set goals for employees and measure performance against those goals.

What you can do with that data is powerful. As you grow, correlate that data with demographics. Again, it will help you avoid risk and also isolate where there are management issues on your team and with certain pockets of employees.

3) Climate

I know, the employee opinion survey is dead. In its traditional form, sure. But it is important to get a pulse on how your employees feel at any given moment. What's working for them? What isn't? How are they reacting to a recent pivot, news, departure of a key leader?

Don't rely on the grapevine or what you think you hear. Gather more formal data on a regular basis and compare over time how employees really feel. Then use the data to help better your communications and your decision-making.

4) Culture

Finally, the holy grail of  internal workforce data is doing a deep dive on culture. The qualitative perspective is hugely important -- especially if you can bring in an unbiased partner to get the real skinny from employees.

How leaders define the culture and describe its existence is never exactly how employees describe it. And it's important for leaders to understand who their employees are -- what they are passionate about, what their lives are like and how work fits in.

This kind of data helps to evolve your workforce and your business to be the place you want it to be. Culture data is anthropological -- marketers go to a great extent to learn who their customers are. Imagine the value of doing this for your employees.

Big Data and Your Workforce Data

Sure, the trend of the collective data is compelling -- and you shouldn't ignore the implications for your business. For example, if you're in marketing, you can't ignore Leslie Bradshaw's presentation on engagement through Big Data. If you're an HR Technology companay collecting data, you can't ignore John Sumser's primer on Big Data as you explore the future of your product.

But for you, for your company, for your people, your workforce look inward first. The value of Big Data to your workforce is how you can use data on your own people to drive culture, engagement and productivity.

Note: there are a ton of technologies to help you here. Check out our weekly roundup highlighting a few.

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