Why it’s high time to launch your chief HR data scientist

HR will be the ‘rulemakers’ for augmented people-decision making in the world of analytics, algorithms and machine learning, and a chief HR data scientist can provide the leadership, guidance, governance and credibility to ensure HR practitioners don’t inadvertently play god with people’s lives, writes Rob Scott.

I recently met an aspirant extraterrestrial. A young theoretical physicist who’s been selected to blaze a trail to Mars as part of a team who will create the first human colony on the red planet. Besides obvious risks associated with space travel, such as crashing or running out of oxygen, they realise there will be many more complex and life-threatening risks which they simply can’t foresee. There is also the small issue of one-way only tickets.

This brave lady is unfazed, she likens her forthcoming voyage to the European colonisation of the Americas. Many left their homes knowing very little about challenges they would face, how they would overcome hurdles or if they would indeed survive – many didn’t. But they left in hope of a better life.

The inevitable HR data journey
HR’s own Mars mission is just blasting off. The rapid shift towards instant, personal, complex and predictive analytics, underpinned by algorithms and machine learning is an uncharted and dangerous journey – we can see some of the risks, but we are oblivious to most of the serious ones.

Is this an optional journey for HR? No, it’s inevitable. Most CXOs understand the need to digitally transform their business to stay relevant and competitive. Speed and agility underpin digital success, and fundamentally human decision-making will increasingly be augmented and directed by real-time data analytics, including decisions around people in the workforce.

As an HR leader, how prepared are you for your Mars journey? Have you assembled a team with skills to tackle the known analytic challenges, have the capability to spot new problems, analyse them quickly, build appropriate solutions and most importantly, deal effectively with the unknown?

To be clear, I’m not talking about creating a few trend-line graphics or regression tests which HR periodically sends out to line managers. We are talking about putting real-time data and machine learning recommendations into the hands of decision makers, which can very simply be life-changing for applicants, and anyone working in your extended workforce. They can also be unwittingly wrong decisions.

“The seriousness, potential risks and future importance of people analytics demands the highest level of professionalism and accountability”

Figuratively speaking, the HR profession is not moving to a neighbouring town where things will be ‘more or less’ the same. They are going somewhere completely different with analytics, a place which will challenge their professional effectiveness, ethics and ability to remain true custodians of people.

The role of the chief HR data scientist
Importantly we should resist being dismissive of this inevitable journey out of fear, preference or lack of understanding. Look outside HR and beyond the workplace, it’s not hard to see how our lives and decisions we make, are increasingly influenced by data and machine learning recommendations which we are not in full control of. Netflix, Uber, Google Maps, Google Mail, PayPal, Spotify, Siri and many more everyday systems analyse our data to make smart recommendations and decisions for us. HR will be the ‘rulemakers’ for augmented people-decision making.

The seriousness, potential risks and future importance of people analytics demands the highest level of professionalism and accountability. As HR professionals we know HR teams collectively juggle many different components which are highly interrelated. I can’t think of one area that won’t be impacted by data and analytics. A chief HR data scientist can provide the leadership, guidance, governance and credibility to ensure HR practitioners don’t inadvertently play god with people’s lives.

HR must land the right initial team on their Mars journey – arriving with the wrong team will put much more than data accuracy at risk. Design errors could have long-term consequences for people and business decision optimisation. This is a one-way journey for HR, but get it wrong and it could be fatal.

3 key HR data trends and predictions

  • HR data analytics will become the lifeblood of people decision making in a digitally transformed business environment. Speed and agility are critical success factors which will only really be achieved with superhuman decision-making capability.

  • HR’s social science leaning is still an important factor in effective people management, but its unlikely that these resources will be suitable for a chief HR data scientist role – the fundamentals underpinning each skill are very different.

  • HR software vendors are already providing a broad selection of analytic, AI and machine learning solutions, including the ability to introduce non-HR data sets. The simplistic and graphically pleasing front-ends should not distract from the critical need to apply stringent data management rules to the underlying data and algorithms.

This article was written by Presence of IT’s Rob Scott and appeared in InsideHR online.