When Mining Workforce Data, Drill Carefully

Data, data everywhere. It used to be that the consumer side of the business was data-obsessed, but now CHROs and their teams are aggressively focused on gathering and mining insights from workforce data. It’s rare that I attend an HR executive event without being drawn into a conversation on this emerging topic.

It’s not the data themselves that are of interest. It’s the intelligent patterns companies can glean from them. Using artificial intelligence and advanced analytics to generate new insights, companies can impact the balance sheet significantly. From using wearable technology to gauge employees’ workday stress levels to determining the informal worker networks that produce breakthrough innovation, workforce insights can become a competitive advantage–when used correctly. A recent study shows as much as 12.5 percent of a company’s future revenue growth is at stake.

But there is a caveat: Just because companies can access employee data, doesn’t mean they should.

New business models and the reality of continuous disruption require new frameworks and approaches to both consumer and employee data insights. Respecting privacy and security need to come above all else. As consumers, we are all very aware of the potential risks to our privacy. From unauthorized use of geolocation data to the security of DNA-testing data, most of us are in constant risk/reward mode when gaging our privacy options. Data in all forms is still the Wild West, in some respects, with much gray area that needs to be defined for appropriate use.

A few perspectives gained from my past experiences as a technology board director and C-suite executive: I am “all in” on responsible business. From sustainability to transparency, responsible business is good business. As a former CHRO, I over-index–and rightly so–on fostering employee trust as the cornerstone of corporate responsibility. That is because trust is the people component of responsible business–the one that too many times can be overlooked in talk about hard numbers.

Using employee insights can be done in a way that engenders employee trust. Only in an atmosphere of mutual trust can companies reap the kind of innovative growth that can leapfrog businesses to a market-leadership position. Employee trust is valued at $3 trillion in the U.S. alone–which makes the right thing to do also the profitable thing to do. Companies need to double-down in this area with a solid plan if they want to increase employee trust and profits simultaneously.

From the same study (recently presented at the World Economic Forum in Davos), we know that 62 percent of businesses are using new technologies and sources of workplace data to a large or significant extent. From the quality of a developer’s software code to the efficiency of a delivery driver’s route, employers have a window into their workforce that most of us never dreamed possible. When leadership partners with employees, they can use these insights to improve the workplace, improve profits and reap shared gain, for all.

For example, business leaders said they expect to use data insights mainly to place people in the right roles (70 percent), to increase productivity and workforce performance (69 percent), and to enhance organizational agility and speed (61 percent).

A majority (65 percent) of workers are open to their employer collecting data about them if it provides them with personal benefits like customized compensation, customized learning and development, or safety at work. So how do we work with employees for a double win? How do we tap into the trapped value employee data can provide, while elevating our workers and giving them an appropriate amount of control over what is collected and how it used? Make them partners in the process.

The partnership route helps ensure workforce insights become a goldmine not a minefield. Only 30 percent of companies say they are confident they’re using workforce data responsibly. That’s a frightening figure, given the implications.

My top-level suggestions as you forge ahead with workforce insights would be first to share control and gain trust. Allow employees input and control over their own data and offer benefits for sharing them. Second, share responsibility by involving employees in the design of new workforce data systems. They should help shape the data landscape within your company. And third, elevate your people by using data responsibly. That means anticipating unintended consequences and avoiding them–to protect your people and your corporate reputation.

In my day-to-day work advising companies on stewardship and best practices, I see that companies pioneering in workforce insights fare best when they work with their people. Instead of treating employees as depreciating assets or labor cost, let’s move toward positive models. Let’s be like the forward-thinking company that uses biometric data to assess employees’ productivity and wellness and generates a happiness index.

Creating a framework for the responsible use of workforce data makes sense ethically and–given the revenue growth at risk from loss of employee trust–financially. Engage your people, putting them first. Use design thinking to ensure a win/win for the company and its workers. We can and must move into a new world of work and innovation–but let’s make sure our people are partners in the process.

When we head in that direction–into the art of the possible–that’s where it gets exciting, for our companies, our people and, ultimately, for society.

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected]